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The new Great Game

As the US withdraws from Afghanistan,it may be drawn into regional rivalries in Central Asia

Written by New York Times | Published: August 24, 2012 3:24:05 am

SINCE 9/11,America’s priority in Central Asia has been to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. But as the US and NATO pull out,there is a new danger: that the West could become entangled in regional rivalries,local strongman politics and competition with Russia and China.

Central Asian governments have sought for years to manipulate foreign powers’ interest in the region for their own benefit. In the summer of 2005,the US military was evicted from its facility at Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan after American officials criticised the Uzbek government’s slaughter of hundreds of anti-government demonstrators in Andijon; Russia and China,which have both been expanding their footprints in the region,publicly backed the crackdown. In 2009 Kyrgyzstan’s kleptocratic president,Kurmanbek S. Bakiyev,drummed up a bidding war between Washington and Moscow over the fate of the Manas air base,the main staging facility for American troops in Afghanistan.

As America begins withdrawing from Afghanistan,the Central Asian states are likely to increase their demands for tacit payoffs for cooperation. Currently,the US pays the Kyrgyz government $60 million a year to lease Manas and funnels hundreds of millions of dollars in fuel contracts to local suppliers and intermediaries. The US also pays roughly $500 million annually in transit fees to ship equipment and material via the Northern Distribution Network,a set of road,sea,railway and air routes that traverse the Central Asian states,which was opened to provide an alternative to Pakistani supply routes. In June,NATO reached agreements with Uzbekistan,Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan for taking equipment out of Afghanistan. Uzbekistan,which effectively controls rail shipments out of northern Afghanistan,has already announced that it will charge up to 150 per cent of the distribution network’s prevailing transit rates,and American officials expect to be further squeezed as neighbouring states bargain hard during the West’s rush to the exits. Most controversially of all,NATO and the Central Asian states are still negotiating over the potential transfer of military equipment,used by coalition forces in Afghanistan,to Central Asian governments’ security services,which have a bloody human rights record.

Withdrawal from Afghanistan also elevates the risk that the US,together with other external powers,will be drawn into a number of local disputes and escalating regional rivalries. Over the last decade,Central Asian leaders have consistently invoked the spectre of insurgents’ spilling over from Afghanistan to justify their own counterterrorism efforts and the need for security cooperation with Russia,China and the US. Russia seems keen to reinforce this narrative to justify extending its military basing rights throughout the country,which,in all likelihood,Tajik officials will then use as leverage to demand more Western assistance.

After 11 years of pressing the Afghan government to improve its governance and create democratic institutions,Washington has failed to effectively promote these same goals in neighbouring countries. Now withdrawal from Afghanistan risks dragging the West even further into a hotbed of domestic power struggles and regional rivalries.

Alexander Cooley is the author of ‘Great Games,Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia’

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