John Herbst: US and Russia must cooperate in Central Asia and Afghanistan

John Herbst: US and Russia must cooperate in Central Asia and Afghanistan

Washington has a strong interest in maintaining security in Central Asia and not leaving the area to the influence of Beijing and Moscow, Director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and formerly U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, John Herbst writes in the article for National Interest. The future and the past clashed at a fascinating conference that Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev convened in Tashkent July 15-16: The Central and South Asia Summit on Interconnectivity. The event brought together heads of state and governments, ministers, and other senior officials from the two regions, as well as from major outside powers including China, the EU, Russia, and the United States.

A bold vision for Central Asia, and South Asia

The summit played off perhaps the most significant development in Central Asia in recent years: the initiative of Mirziyoyev to establish cordial relations with his neighbors and to actively pursue closer economic relations and even integration in the region. The purpose of the Central-South Asian Summit was to take this concept one step further: to promote economic cooperation with the nations of South Asia and to build a transportation system through Afghanistan to take Central Asian goods to ports on the Indian Ocean. Central Asia may be the center of the great Eurasian landmass, but it is fully landlocked and far from the sea, which is an economic disadvantage. Building highways and railroads to the closest blue water ports will jump-start the economy of the region.

Obstacles in Afghanistan?

The other was the specter of the past nearly half-century of turmoil in Afghanistan. To realize the vision of a great transportation corridor connecting Central and South Asia, Afghanistan must be a stable country living in peace with its neighbors. But with the United States and NATO departing the country, the Taliban is gaining ground quickly.

While Afghan president Ashraf Ghani retains a larger and better-equipped military than his Taliban foes, the Taliban's gains are coming steadily and in areas like Badakhshan, where they had no control when last in power. Indeed, the various groupings of the old Northern Alliance, which effectively kept the Taliban out of most of northern Afghanistan a generation ago, were heading to Doha to negotiate with the Taliban after the conference. U.S. Envoy for Afghanistan, Zal Khalilzad, also took off for Doha after attending the conference.

Flying in from Kabul, Ghani spoke right after Mirziyoyev and gave a sober, but not pessimistic description of his efforts to stave off the Taliban. He noted that this task would be much easier if Pakistan stopped supporting Afghanistan's enemies. This provided the main drama of the Summit, as Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan followed Ghani to the podium. Free of Pinocchio’s peculiar medical condition, Khan without embarrassment assured Ghani and the audience that Pakistan was not supporting the Taliban or interfering in Afghanistan.

Chinese and Russian shadows

The possible threat from a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan may also provide opportunities for Russia and China. Moscow shares the concerns of the Central Asians in stopping the spread of Islamic extremism into the region. But it would like to use this to expand its security presence in Central Asia. China talks the same game as Moscow, but its play is more complicated.  Weakening the Central Asian states only makes them more susceptible to eventual Chinese influence. China has not hidden its territorial claims on some of its Central Asian neighbors. Senior officials from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have come to Washington in recent weeks to discuss this. The U.S. delegation to the Summit led by White House Homeland Security adviser Liz Sherwood also took this up in Tashkent.

U.S.-Russia-Central Asia cooperation?

What the U.S. contribution will be is still to be determined. But Washington does have a strong interest in maintaining security in Central Asia and not leaving the area to the influence of Beijing and Moscow. It is also true that American and Russian interests at least partly overlap. Both want to stop the spread of extremist Islam in the region and to contain the influence of a rising China. The Central Asian states would be reassured if the United States and Russia were to work together in helping them manage their security concerns. But we need to do this carefully. Helping secure the borders of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with Afghanistan is key. The same is true, if Ashgabat is interested, regarding the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border. Appropriate measures might include intelligence sharing, electronic monitors, and drone overflights.