Since 2001, Central Asia has received increased attention from American policy makers, but strategy toward that region has largely ignored the shifting realities on the ground. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Martha Brill Olcott explains that as the war in Afghanistan begins to enter a new and hopefully final phase, the time is ripe for a “systematic reexamination of U.S. policies in Central Asia.”

Changes in Central Asia since 2001:

  • While the role of China has grown dramatically—as evidenced by a major gas pipeline to China that opened this week—Russia seems to have reached the limit of its economic and security power in the region. The Kremlin itself may have difficulty accepting this.
  • Despite years of U.S. and EU efforts to isolate Iran, the Islamic Republic and the Arab world are playing an increasingly visible role in economic and religious life throughout Central Asia.
  • For the last eight years, Washington has argued that U.S. and Central Asian security interests in Afghanistan overlapped. With an American transition date set, Central Asian states are focused on protecting their interests after Washington departs.

U.S. Policy Recommendations:

  • Expand military assistance to the Central Asian nations, especially that geared toward maintaining effective border controls. Such a step would go a long way toward helping alleviate the threat of possible incursions by armed groups; illegal trade in drugs and arms; and refugee flows.
  • It is time to revisit the U.S. multiple pipeline strategy. The newly opened Chinese pipeline has already introduced an alternative to exporting Central Asia’s energy supplies through Russia. Rather than continuing to increase pipeline capacity, Europe’s vulnerability to trade disruptions from Russia can instead be reduced by adding more liquefied natural gas into their energy mix, creating more interlinkages within the EU, and supporting an EU-wide strategic reserve.
  • U.S. policy makers must look more creatively at the challenge of democracy building in a region where the quality of life in rural areas is deteriorating. In concrete terms, more attention should be given to projects that improve the physical conditions of education—a building block for secular democracies—so that children will be more likely to go to school. Access to the internet is also critical, as are projects that deliver energy to areas where it is currently in short supply.
  • The United States should leverage its influence in the region to enhance coordination among the international financial institutions and other bilateral assistance providers working in Central Asia.