On September 29, the Hollings Center organized a policy round table at the College of International Security Affairs of the National Defense University. It featured policy practitioners, academics, and government representatives. Speakers included Sumona Guha from the Office of the Secretary of State of the U.S. Department of State; George Gavrilis, a Visiting Research Scholar, Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life at Columbia University; Paul Fishstein, an independent consultant and former Director, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit; and Roger Kangas, Academic Dean and a Professor of Central Asian Studies at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University. Erica Marat, Assistant Professor in the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University, moderated the conversation.
The panel discussed the future of U.S. policy in Central and South Asia as the U.S.’s military presence in Afghanistan is reducing. The speakers contrasted perceptions of the U.S. policy in the region from Washington and from the countries of Central and South Asia. While U.S. goals in the region include supporting political reform, democratization, energy security, and long-term stability, U.S. counterparts in the region find Washington’s policy unpredictable. Despite the fact that the U.S. government strives for continuity of its policy, there is an ongoing expectation that the United States will withdraw from Afghanistan prematurely and allow the security situation in the region to deteriorate.
Also debated was the New Silk Road Initiative, which envisions Afghanistan as a transit country for cross-regional economic collaboration. The panel noted that it has both strengths and weaknesses. The initiative supports the construction of large infrastructure projects such as CASA-1000 electricity transmission network that would connect hydropower producers in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with markets in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well the TAPI pipeline that would transport Caspian Sea gas to South Asian countries. Yet, lack of economic and political cooperation in Central Asian countries undermines regional initiatives with Afghanistan. Authoritarian political regimes in the region maintain strict border regimes that suppress free market activity.
Another common criticism of the initiative is its geopolitical nature that excludes some of the region’s key players such as China and Iran. In response to this criticism, it was mentioned that the U.S. government is gradually opening to including China into economic cooperation with the Central Asian countries and Afghanistan. The countries surrounding Afghanistan are among the least integrated economically and therefore can only loosely be referred to as a region. Thinking less regionally, but defining “frontier” areas in Central and South Asia where major political and economic activities occur was one of the recommendations generated during the discussion. These areas can be defined along the region’s security threats or major trade routes.
Furthermore, engaging Central Asian countries to cooperate with the United States and their neighbors in border areas can open up opportunities for cooperation on other issues as well. U.S. assistance in border management in general produced some diffused positive consequences. Among them, it spurred local trade and improved working conditions for border guards in remote areas.
Finally, the panel discussed opportunities of engagement with the Central and South Asian countries through education programs. Recommendations were made to expand assistance in the education sector to support human development and economic growth.
The forum was attended by active duty U.S. military personnel with experience in serving in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the general D.C. public. Questions raised by the audience included a discussion of whether Afghan warlords need to be integrated into the government and how will drugs economy influence future state-building efforts in Afghanistan. Some members of the audience expressed concern with high levels of corruption in the region and its effects on any development aid provided by external donors.
The event arose as a follow-on to Ms. Marat’s small grant project, funded by the Hollings Center, which conducted podcast interviews with U.S. and Central Asian experts on the New Silk Road strategy. You can listen to the podcasts by clicking here.