Disengaging from Central Asia is a bad idea

Sept. 12 (UPI) — In the aftermath of John Bolton‘s dismissal, President Donald Trump‘s cancellation of negotiations with the Taliban, including secretly planned meetings at Camp David, underscores why Washington must not disengage from Central Asia.

The administration was evidently ready to sign an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw 5,400 U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan and wind down America’s 18-year presence there.

This is a wrong move strategically. The impending accord has led observers to highlight the risks of Washington’s disengagement from Central Asia. There is legitimate reason for concerns about the ensuing power vacuum — and the actors who will fill it. Therefore Trump’s decision to break off the talks, whatever hiss motives, is the correct one for several reasons.

First, the Taliban has demonstrated its incapacity to pacify Afghanistan or even to establish a functioning government there. Its attack on Afghan and U.S. targets that precipitated Trump’s decision demonstrates that there is no a priori reason to believe that the rag-tag coalition of Jihadi extremists supported by Pakistan’s intelligence service ISI, can or will uphold any agreements. The Taliban would not refrain from terrorism, or stop others from practicing it, let alone govern the country in a just and competent way. Neither does its track record from 1996 to 2001 inspire confidence.

Disengagement under these circumstances amounts to leaving our supporters to face the Taliban and breaks prior commitments to help Central Asian governments provide for their own security.

Second, given the Taliban’s unreliability, disengagement evokes Washington’s failed policy of the 1990s when, after helping to eject Soviet forces, we abandoned Afghanistan. The results, as shown by the events of 9/11, were neither slow in coming nor benign.

Third, disengaging from Central Asia also entails leaving the region to the tender mercies of Moscow and Beijing and spurns a region whose national governments avidly seek more U.S. engagement, trade, investment and security assistance. We would thus undercut our own interests and squander an opportunity to enhance our influence in a key strategic region that is increasingly poised to grow. The nations of Central Asia seek our help and are gravitating toward the kind of open cooperation that we have long championed.

This is an age of great power competition, where Moscow and Beijing are “bad actors” hostile to our interests and values — or thus the Trump administration believes. In this case, abandoning Central Asia would deprive the United States of a critical vantage point to monitor Russo-Chinese activities. U.S. withdrawal also would offer China and Russia ample opportunities to subordinate national governments in the region to their own interests.

Business and investment play a key role. Kazakhstan, the largest Central Asian republic, is negotiating $27 billion of investment projects with China, while its neighbor Uzbekistan is similarly discussing large-scale Chinese investments. We gain nothing by allowing these two states — both starved for investment — to depend exclusively on Beijing. Disengagement from the region on the cusp of substantial progress actually contradicts the administration’s positive, albeit modest engagement in 2017-18, as well as its stated intention of countering China’s Belt and Road mega-project — a vehicle for subordinating Eurasia to Chinese power.

Abandoning Central Asia undermines every Central Asian government’s unceasing efforts to conduct what they call multi-vector foreign policies, balancing Russia, China, the United States, the European Union and other actors to preserve and expand their own independence.

For example, President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, who possesses enormous diplomatic experience, is, like his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, responsible, for Kazakhstan’s impressive multilateral foreign policy. He will likely reinforce it at his upcoming United Nations General Assembly speech. Indeed, Kazakhstan’s multi-vector policy has led over 700 U.S. businesses to operate in the country, making the benefits of international engagement clear to Washington and U.S. businesses.

Tokayev’s fellow leaders throughout Eurasia will also lobby for a continued U.S. presence in the region as a guarantor of a geopolitically balanced region that enjoys security and growth.

We must stay engaged. While we seek peace in Afghanistan, we must remember that U.S. Central Asian policy must start from the region’s intrinsic dynamics, not its connection to Afghanistan, China or Russia. Given the signs of reform in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and increased regional cooperation, the United States should stay involved. After all, Washington has a vital interest in maintaining the region’s autonomy to thwart aspiring great powers’ imperial dreams.

The administration should more overtly support American investment in infrastructure, energy and technological innovation to help Central Asian republics on their road to development. Our allies including the EU, South Korea, and Japan in their Central Asian strategies have also expressed similar policy goals.

It may well be time to end the war in Afghanistan. But doing so should allow us to see that Central Asia is not a region from which to flee but rather a promising field of opportunity for Western involvement. Given those circumstances, to repudiate this opportunity would be worse than a crime. It would be a mistake, and a serious one at that.

Stephen Blank is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C. From 1989-2013, he was a professor of Russian national security studies and national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

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