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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

Strategic Commons with Central Asia

My three years stint of service for much needed military diplomacy in Central Asia (2007 to 2010) gave me the most cherished memories besides the understanding of strategic importance and commonalities with Pakistan; “stan” (meaning "land of") being the first common in names of all the republics. Based on my experience and some research for updated statistics, let me first briefly introduce the region to the readers who are not familiar with our near neighbours. Central Asia is a region in Asia, which stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to China and Mongolia in the east and from Afghanistan and Iran in the south to Russia in the north. The region consists of the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Central Asia has historically been closely tied to its nomadic peoples and the Silk Road. It has acted as a crossroads for the movement of people, goods, and ideas between Europe, East Asia, West Asia, and South Asia. This crossroads position has intensified the conflict between tribalism and traditionalism and modernization. From the mid-19th century until almost the end of the 20th century, Central Asia was colonised by the Russians, and incorporated into the Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union, which led to the Russians and other Slavs immigrating into the area. Central Asia (2019) has a population of about 72 million in five republics: Kazakhstan (18 million), Kyrgyzstan (6 million), Tajikistan (9 million), Turkmenistan (6 million), and Uzbekistan (33 million). Islam is the religion most common in the Central Asian Republics; majority of the Central Asian Muslims are Sunni, although there are sizable Shia minorities in Tajikistan.

Central Asia is an extremely large region of varied geography, including high passes and mountains (Tian Shan), vast deserts (Kyzyl Kum, Taklamakan), and especially treeless, grassy steppes. The vast steppe areas of Central Asia are considered together with the steppes of Eastern Europe as a homogeneous geographical zone known as the Eurasian Steppe. Much of the land of Central Asia is too dry or too rugged for farming. A majority of the people earn a living by herding livestock. Industrial activity centers in the region's cities.

Major rivers of the region include the Amu Darya, the Syr Darya, Irtysh, the Hari River and the Murghab River. Major bodies of water include the Aral Sea and Lake Balkhash, both of which are part of the huge west-central Asian endorheic basin that also includes the Caspian Sea. Both of these bodies of water have shrunk significantly in recent decades due to diversion of water from rivers that feed them for irrigation and industrial purposes. Water is an extremely valuable resource in arid Central Asia and can lead to rather significant international disputes.

Now coming to the strategic commons with our near neighbours unfortunately ignored for a long time. Central Asia is rich in oil and gas. Kazakhstan has the world's largest reserves of zinc, lead and chromite, and it is in the top ten for supplies of copper, iron ore, gold and manganese. Turkmenistan, another Central Asian country is rich in natural gas with almost 5% of the world's natural gas with it. The militaries of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are the strongest in Central Asia, according to the Global Firepower Index 2017. The Central Asian economies are open but not fully integrated with the global economy in many ways. Kazakhstan is the richest and most economically developed one among the five Central Asian countries and has multifaceted relations to globalization. Despite high rates of economic growth in recent years, GDP per capita in Central Asia was higher than the average for developing countries; only in Kazakhstan in 2013 (PPP$23,206) and Turkmenistan (PPP$14201). It dropped to PPP$5,167 for Uzbekistan, home to 45% of the region's population, and was even lower for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Kazakhstan leads the Central Asian region in terms of foreign direct investments. The Kazakh economy accounts for more than 70% of all the investment attracted in Central Asia.

Central Asia has long been a strategic location merely because of its proximity to several great powers on the Eurasian landmass. The region itself never held a dominant stationary population nor was able to make use of natural resources. Thus, it has rarely throughout history become the seat of power for an empire or influential state. The region, along with Russia, is also part of "the great pivot" as per the Heartland Theory of Halford Mackinder, which says that the power which controls Central Asia—richly endowed with natural resources—shall ultimately be the "empire of the world". Central Asia has been divided, re-divided, conquered out of existence, and fragmented time and time again. Central Asia has served more as the battleground for outside powers than as a power in its own right. The region had both the advantage and disadvantage of a central location between four historical seats of power. From its central location, it has access to trade routes to and from all the regional powers. On the other hand, it has been continuously vulnerable to attack from all sides throughout its history, resulting in political fragmentation or outright power vacuum, as it is successively dominated. The former Soviet bloc would reinforce dominance from the North and attempt to project power as far south as Afghanistan in a search for warm water ports. From the East, China would project its soft power into Central Asia, most notably in the case of Afghanistan, to counter Russian dominance of the region. From the Southeast, the British Empire competed with the Russian Empire for influence in the region in the 19th and 20th centuries and its repeat we just witnessed with USA and allies’ war in Afghanistan, contesting both Russian and Chinese influence in the region with India playing as a hyena. And from the Southwest, Western Asian powers have expanded into the southern areas of Central Asia (usually Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan). Several Persian empires would conquer and re-conquer parts of Central Asia; Alexander's Hellenic empire would extend into Central Asia; two Islamic empires would exert substantial influence throughout the region; and the modern state of Iran has projected influence throughout the region as well. Turkey, through a common Turkic nation identity, has gradually increased its ties and influence as well in the region. Furthermore, since Uzbekistan announced their intention to join in April 2018, Turkey and all of the Central Asian Turkic-speaking states except Turkmenistan are together part of the Turkic Council.

In the post–Cold War era, Central Asia is an ethnic cauldron, prone to instability and conflicts; a mess of historical cultural influences, tribal and clan loyalties, and religious fervor. Projecting influence into the area is no longer just Russia, but also Turkey, Iran, China, Pakistan, India and the United States. In terms of the economic influence of big powers, China is viewed as one of the key economic players in Central Asia; especially after Beijing launched its grand development strategy known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. China has security ties with Central Asian states through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and conducts energy trade bilaterally. The five Central Asian republics belong to several international bodies, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). They are also members of the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Programme, which also includes Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, Mongolia and Pakistan. In November 2011, the 10 member countries adopted the CAREC 2020 Strategy, a blueprint for furthering regional co-operation. Over the decade to 2020, US$50 billion is being invested in priority projects in transport, trade and energy to improve members' competitiveness. The landlocked Central Asian republics are conscious of the need to co-operate in order to maintain and develop their transport networks and energy, communication and irrigation systems. Only Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan border the Caspian Sea and none of the republics has direct access to an ocean, complicating the transportation of hydrocarbons, in particular, to world markets.

Russia continues to dominate political decision-making throughout the former sphere of influence; although, as other countries move into the area, Russia's influence has begun to decline though Russia still maintains military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The United States, with its military involvement in the region and oil diplomacy, is also significantly involved in the region's politics. The United States and other NATO members have been the main contributors to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and also exert considerable influence in other Central Asian nations. India has been trying hard to gain strong foothold in Afghanistan and in the Central Asian Republics while USA and allies were fighting in Afghanistan since 2001. In the garb of establishing a military hospital to support Afghanistan Northern alliance during Soviet invasion, India with support of former Soviet Union, managed to establish a small military base at Farkhor, Tajikistan, with the plan to deploy a MIG Squadron in Pakistan’s backyard, which was protested by Pakistan and got it stalled. India continues to make efforts to establish military relations with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Turkey also exerts considerable influence in the region on account of its ethnic and linguistic ties with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia and its involvement in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. Political and economic relations are growing rapidly (e.g., Turkey recently eliminated visa requirements for citizens of the Central Asian Turkic republics). Iran has historical and cultural links to the region and is vying to construct an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf.

Pakistanhas a history of political relations with neighboring Afghanistan and with Central Asian Republics (CARs). For Central Asian nations, the shortest route to the ocean is through Pakistan, which gets very significant boost with Chinese BRI and its flagship project called CPEC cementing regional connectivity for greater economic and security dividends. Pakistan seeks natural gas from Central Asia and supports the development of pipelines from its countries. According to an independent study, Turkmenistan is supposed to be the fifth largest natural gas field in the world. The mountain ranges and areas in northern Pakistan lie on the fringes of greater Central Asia; the Gilgit–Baltistan region of Pakistan lies adjacent to Tajikistan, separated only by the narrow Wakhan Corridor (350 km long and 13–65 kilometers wide). Being located on the northwest of South Asia, the area forming modern-day Pakistan has maintained extensive historical and cultural links with the central Asian region.

In the context of the United States' War on Terror, Central Asia once again became the center of geostrategic calculations. Pakistan's status was upgraded by the U.S. government to Major non-NATO ally because of its central role in serving as a staging point for the invasion of Afghanistan and for logistic, intelligence and military cooperation against terrorism. Afghanistan, which had served as a haven and source of support for Al-Qaeda under the protection of Mullah Omar and the Taliban, was the target of a U.S. invasion in 2001. U.S. military bases were established in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, causing both Russia and the People's Republic of China to voice their concern over a permanent U.S. military presence in the region, which is finally being abandoned now leaving the regional countries wondering for filling in the power vacuum and mayhem created in the invaded and destroyed Afghanistan. U.S. President Joe Biden has promised there will be no U.S. troops left in Afghanistan by the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack this year. But Washington is determined to keep supporting the Afghan government in its fight against the Taliban, and this is unlikely to be achievable without the establishment of U.S. military bases in Afghanistan’s neighboring countries. The U.S. military command’s preferred option reportedly would be Central Asia; with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan being three options in that order. However, in all likelihood, none of them will agree to house a US/NATO military base after respective cost benefit analysis. Pakistan has also already refuted rumours of entertaining any such request. This reflects both the United States’ declining role in the region, and the intensifying rivalry between the global powers. It appears that Washington will have to look for other solutions, such as moving some of its troops to the Middle East and using an aircraft carrier for patrols.

The situation in Afghanistan from 2001 onward has kept the CARs worried about the spillover effects coming to their fragile states due very low population density and smaller armed forces to deal with the ever evolving terrorism threat from their own radicalized masses especially those falling back to their homes in Central Asia. The smuggling of drugs from Afghanistan through CARs and bigger power rivalry especially with respect to the military bases keeps the CARs government subject to push and pull by various means. Nevertheless, ever since the erosion of the post-Cold War order in the strategic theatres across the globe, the authoritarian governments in CARs rightly assessed that the economic and political power was shifting East and the rules of the game were being re-written. Amid those tectonic shifts, Central Asian leaders found themselves better placed to pursue multi-vector foreign policies, balancing neighboring powers and creating a wider array of strategic partnerships than the region has seen since independence. Therefore, CARs are consistently embedding their defense sectors with new networks of arms suppliers, instructors, and partners across Europe, Asia, and North America.

In recent decades, defense diplomacy has emerged as one of the key tools of statecraft as governments seek to maximize their influence at minimal cost. Defense diplomacy refers to the state’s pursuit of foreign policy objectives through the peaceful use of its military and security apparatus. The concept is now used as a catch-all term encompassing the full gamut of activities from officer exchanges, training missions, arms transfers, and strategic aid, to joint military exercises designed to enhance interoperability between national units. China’s growing role in Central Asia’s security sector is clear. Beijing has provided 13 percent of the region’s arms over the past five years, a significant increase from the 1.5 percent of Central Asian arms imports that it provided between 2010 and 2014. Russia remains the main external security partner for Central Asia, with military facilities in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and the lion’s share of the regional arms market, at 52 percent. But in recent years Central Asian states like Uzbekistan have shown an unprecedented degree of leadership in initiating new channels for nascent regionalism, allowing the countries to take advantage of an emerging multi-polar system and signal to external powers that they can address regional issues without outside help.

As per the above graph, Russia and Russian-led organizations, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), account for the bulk of exercises, with some 110 conducted under Moscow’s auspices since 1991. The U.S. and NATO collectively account for 85, but with numbers dropping from a peak of seven in 2003 to an average of two since 2018. While China’s share has grown from 11 percent in the first half of the 2010s to 14 percent in the second half—both bilaterally and under the umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)—it lags behind Russia and the U.S. in absolute terms, with just 32 exercises. Overall, the trends point to the declining role of the U.S, which has cut its exercises by half over the past 20 years. China’s share in exercises has remained relatively steady, while Russia’s has increased, from 39 percent in the first decade of the 21st century to 49 percent in the second. A similar picture emerges with regards to scale, with Russian exercises being the largest, followed by those of China and the U.S as follows:

Country Average Size of Exercise (Number of Troops)

Russia (including CIS & CSTO) 4,467

China (including SCO) 1,844

United States 1,295

The active promotion of political, economic, and security ties among countries to address collective interests reflects a growing regionalism. Pakistan took a good start in making use of Defence diplomacy in the backdrop of USA/ NATO’s invasion of Afghanistan to solidify security relations with CARs. The establishment of Pakistan Study Centers in national and military libraries in CARs, exchange of military study delegations, senior leadership’s visits, gratis military education and training of dozens of cadets and officers in Pakistan military academies and training institutions, provision of much needed Pakistan made weapons and equipment to CARs, intelligence sharing cooperation, a number of joint exercises in bilateral and multilateral modes both in CARs and in Pakistan also paved the way for better diplomacy and enhanced economic cooperation that had otherwise remained too sluggish and visionless. Nevertheless, sky is the limit for further improvement of diplomatic, economic and security cooperation with CARs as just witnessed by visit of Tajik president to Pakistan. There is need to zoom out from Afghanistan and instead zoom in on CARs to develop and implement a comprehensive regional strategic approach that ensure win-win situation for all countries including Pakistan, China, Russia, CARs, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan. The available platforms of CAREC, CIS, CSTO and SCO must be used extensively for further expanding economic and security collaboration for common dividends and to fend off undue exploitation by extra regional countries.

16 June 2021

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