An Ambivalent Legacy: U.S. Foreign Policy in Central Asia in the Bush Years

The Bush era witnessed a parabolic evolution in the relationship between the United States and the post-Soviet republics of Central

Asia. The eruption of the War on Terror and the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom allowed U.S. foreign policy in Central Asia to overcome the strategic impasse of the Clinton years1 and helped shift the regional geopolitical balance in Washington’s favor. The U.S. reentry in the regional geopolitical arena was sealed by a series of marriages of convenience between the White House and the Central Asian elites,2 as the Bush administration viewed strategic partnerships with local regimes as indispensable tools to facilitate the achievement of military objectives in Afghanistan.

The U.S. involvement in Central Asia was not based on a deliberate reorientation of U.S. foreign policy away from Russia. Instead, engagement with Central Asia was a necessity of the “war on terror.” The absence of a clear policy, barring the security imperatives, made U.S.-Central Asian relations fraught with contradictions. The lack of a comprehensive conception of the U.S. role in Central Asia proved too costly for Washington. The inherent tension between the normative and pragmatic facets of U.S. foreign policy disrupted relations between the United States and the region.3 As a result, the late Bush years witnessed a slow yet inexorable decline in Washington’s influence in Central Asia. Such policy contradictions—to be explored later—made G. W. Bush’s foreign policy legacy in Central Asia ambivalent. On the one hand, the Obama administration, at its very onset, seemed to enjoy a more stable position of regional influence than its predecessor did in 2001. On the other, a series of fundamental ambiguities—which the Bush administration failed to tackle because of short-term security objectives—has continued to impact on the relationship between the United States and the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia.

The underlying tension between good governance promotion and the pursuit of strategic interests represents perhaps the defining feature of U.S. policies in Central Asia during the Bush years. In 2003 A. Elizabeth Jones, then the U.S. assistant secretary of state, listed the U.S. interests in the region as follows:

  • Security, including our fights against terrorism, proliferation, and narcotics trafficking;
  • Energy, involving reliable and economically sound transit of Caspian oil and gas to global markets and the use of energy revenues to foster sustained and balanced economic growth;
  • Internal reform, encompassing democratic and market economic transformations in these countries that can support human rights and expand freedom, tolerance, and prosperity in these countries.4

Virtually identical lists can be drawn from the remarks made by other high-ranking U.S. officials during successive congressional hearings5 to indicate that no policy revision as regards U.S. involvement in Central Asia had been carried out by the White House or any other branch of the administration in the latter part of the Bush years. It might be suggested, therefore, that a rather static policy framework did oversee the interaction between the United States and the Central Asian regimes under G. W. Bush. Declaratory emphasis on good governance represented a potentially destabilizing factor in Washington’s relationships with the regimes, as the Central Asian leaderships—to very similar extents—understood impermeability from external pressures for political liberalization as an essential component of their regimes’ survival mechanisms. Operational foreign policy had to adapt to this scenario, and, in the Bush years, the negotiation of the tension between normative policies and strategic interests became a crucial dynamics for U.S. foreign policy in Central Asia. The G. W. Bush administration negotiated this tension with different degrees of success at different junctures.

In the first phase of the post-September 11 era (late 2001-early 2005), an increasingly pragmatic disposition characterized the U.S. initiative in Central Asia. As the backing of the regional states was deemed “critical”6 to the success of the Afghan campaign, top U.S. officials toned down rhetorical emphasis on good governance promotion in their dealings with the Central Asian elites. This strategy was received positively by the regional leaders, who decided to support Operation Enduring Freedom. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan signed strategic partnerships with the White House and granted the concession of military bases located respectively in Manas (north Kyrgyzstan) and Karshi-Khanabad (southeastern Uzbekistan), while the governments of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan opened their airspaces to U.S. humanitarian operations in Afghanistan.

The Central Asian regimes—and particularly those that adopted unambiguously pro-U.S. policy postures—benefited from the strengthening of their partnerships with Washington in three main areas. To begin with, substantial financial benefits were extended in exchange for support to U.S. military operations in Afghanistan: between 2001 and 2002, total U.S. assistance to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan doubled in size, while the volume of U.S. aid targeting Uzbekistan—Washington’s most crucial ally in the region—increased by approximately 463 percent.7 Secondly, the U.S. government offered logistical support to the Central Asian states in the formulation of responses to transnational security threats,8 particularly those connected with the alleged resurgence of Islamic militancy in the region. The local elites soon used the emergence of a common front against international terrorism9 as a pretext to intensify their repression of internal dissent.10 Thirdly, the reentry of Washington in the regional arena indirectly presented the local elites with an unprecedented chance to achieve policy ends closely connected with the diversification of their respective foreign policy courses and the consequent dilution of the hegemonic influence then exerted by the Russian Federation on Central Asia.

A marked increase in local authoritarian stability represented, therefore, a key unintended consequence of the policies the United States implemented in Central Asia between late 2001 and early 2005. In addition to the evident benefits of increasing U.S. aid, rapprochement with Washington supported the regimes in their drives to (a) increase their international legitimacy—through participation in the War on Terror, (b) reinforce their control over internal politics—through the obliteration of residual forms of dissent, and (c) reduce their dependence on Russia without incurring a “corresponding increase in their international isolation.”11

The pragmatic inclination of U.S. policy not only resulted in the progressive abandonment of the attachment of conditionality to cooperation initiatives extended to different republics, but it also led to a substantial moderation of rhetorical pressures for political liberalization in Central Asia. Further weight to the latter proposition can be added by analyzing the speeches that top U.S. officials delivered to regional audiences between late 2001 and 2005. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in stark contrast with the practice established by his predecessors, failed to raise the issue of human rights while visiting Uzbekistan in November 2001.12 Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in late 2005, went as far as praising the efforts of the “committed leaders” of Kazakhstan for breaking with the “undemocratic” past.13

The Andijon events (May 2005), during which the Uzbek security forces opened fire on protestors and killed at least 300 people, had a profound effect on U.S. relations with Central Asia and shaped most decisively G. W. Bush’s policy legacy in the region. Issues that had characterized the U.S.-Central Asian interactive framework since 9/11 were overtaken by the Andijon experience. To some extent, Washington’s official reaction to the brutal response orchestrated by the Karimov regime to the unrest in eastern Uzbekistan restored the promotion of good governance as a key pillar for U.S. policy in the region. To be fully understood, U.S. criticism14 of the Andijon events must be related to a wider policy context: systematic tolerance for the actions of an increasingly unpresentable ally—the Karimov regime—had become an unsustainable attitude for an administration that identified democracy promotion in the greater Middle East as one of the cornerstones of its foreign policy. After its marginalization in the early post-9/11 era, the tension between strategic interests and good governance promotion in Central Asia had therefore reemerged as a central force in U.S. decision making vis-a-vis Central Asia, to ultimately unmask the “intrinsically illusory nature”15 of the relationships that the Bush administration had established with the region’s authoritarian governments.

The Uzbek government’s decision to withdraw the lease of the Karshi-Khanabad airbase (June 2005) came at the zenith of U.S.- Central Asian relationship and set in motion a process of quantitative decline in U.S. engagement in Central Asia while provoking a comprehensive reshuffle of regional geopolitics. With the expulsion of U.S. troops from Uzbekistan, Washington’s options in Central Asia had decreased drastically. Turkmenistan’s foreign policy— both prior and subsequent to the death of Saparmurat A. Niyazov (in December 2006)—had remained firmly situated within Russia’s sphere of influence, and the government of Kazakhstan did not adopt a more pro-Western posture. As Tajikistan did not (and perhaps was never in a position to) strengthen its ties with Washington, the role of Kyrgyzstan became crucial for post-Andijon U.S. foreign policy in Central Asia, especially as evolutions in the U.S.-Kyrgyzstani relationship impacted directly on the status of the Manas airbase— Washington’s only military facility in the region. With the termination of the lease agreement of the Karshi-Khanabad airbase, Manas became virtually irreplaceable in the conduct of operations against the Taliban, as it constituted the “premier point of access to and from Afghanistan for most U.S. military and contract personnel.”16 As widespread instability had continued to characterize the Kyrgyzstani political landscape in the late Bush years, the concession of the military facilities underwent repeated negotiations, which generally resulted in an increase in the rent paid by the U.S. government.

By the end of the Bush years, the U.S.-Central Asian relationship was experiencing a steady decline. Direct U.S. presence in the region was limited to Kyrgyzstan, while Washington’s indirect influence over the other regional capitals was rapidly shrinking. This was despite the fact that the Central Asian states, especially Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, remained weary of Russia’s hegemonic drive. This complex policy scenario offered opportunities and constraints to the incoming Obama administration.

A comprehensive evaluation of G. W. Bush’s foreign policy legacy in Central Asia cannot fail to take into consideration the Great Powers’ interaction in the region. In the Bush years, clashing interests and competitive postures became the most defining features of the deteriorating relationships between the United States, Russia, and the People’s Republic of China. Washington’s systematic reluctance to define the chronological boundaries of its military commitment in the region was at the basis of worsening Great Powers’ relationships in Central Asia. Moscow and Beijing—in spite of their reiterated support for the War on Terror—appeared increasingly uncomfortable with U.S. open-ended military presence in the region.17 The post- Andijon scenario—in which U.S. direct presence on the Central Asian territory substantially decreased—did not witness any substantial modification of Russian and Chinese diffidence toward U.S. policies in Central Asia. Great Power relationships in the region continued to deteriorate steadily in the late Bush years, presenting the Obama administration with a clear challenge: the urgent need for a relaxation in Great Power interaction in post-Soviet Central Asia.

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