As 2011 drew to a close, so did US military involvement in Iraq. Amid domestic pressure, Iraqi opposition to an American military presence, and a breakdown in negotiations between the US and Iraqi governments, the Obama administration withdrew all of its military forces from Iraq, and will soon face a similar decision in Afghanistan.
Though Afghanistan has requested a long-term security commitment, President Obama will likely encounter opposition from his political base as well as thorny issues like how to handle night raids and Afghan prisoners held by US troops. But as his administration continues its negotiations with the Afghan government, it must recognize that a total withdrawal would have effects beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Simply put, it would devastate US interests – both geopolitical and commercial – throughout Central Asia.
Central Asia is a hugely significant region for the United States. It sits at the crossroads of important rivals and rising powers, like China, Russia, and India, and next to threats like Pakistan and Iran. The region also boasts significant oil and gas reserves, as well as large quantities of lithium, copper, rare earth minerals, gold, and many other natural resources that are critical drivers to global commerce.
Yet most of Central Asia has very little US presence. Few US companies operate in the region, largely because the Russian and Chinese governments successfully use threats – both explicit and implicit – to prevent Central Asian republics from opening their doors to Western firms.
In the Middle East, the US has troops and security relationships with a variety of countries (Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, among others) and can thus absorb the Iraq pullout without sustaining too much of a strategic blow to our regional interests. In Central Asia, however, America’s footprint is very light. It no longer has an air base in Uzbekistan and has only a few hundred troops at an air base Kyrgyzstan.
That leaves Afghanistan as America’s only beachhead – and a willing participant at that – altering the power dynamics in the region. The US certainly derives valuable intelligence and counter-terrorism benefits from having troops stationed in a country that borders Iran, Pakistan, and China. Even more important, however, a US presence in Afghanistan signals that the US is serious about Central Asia and that it will be a player there for the foreseeable future.
Having an American presence in Afghanistan breaks the China-Russia duopoly by providing an alternative power broker for the region. It thereby emboldens other countries in the area, giving them the confidence they need to stand up to their neighborhood bullies. An ongoing presence of around 20,000 to 30,000 US troops – similar in size to the number of troops in South Korea or in Japan – would be sufficient to accomplish these goals.
One anecdote helps to powerfully illustrate the effect of the US troop presence in Afghanistan: Throughout the 1990s, Russia insisted on having Russian troops guard Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan, telling the Tajiks point blank that they did not trust them to guard this volatile border. Tajikistan had no choice but to accept.
But following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Tajiks told the Russians the jig was up: The border guards had to leave. With the US next door, the Tajiks felt emboldened. And the Russians obliged, pulling their troops out. It seemed to be the dawn of a new era.
Well, for a while at least. A few months ago, Russia informed Tajikistan that the border guards would be moving back in, and so far the Tajiks have not indicated that they will put up a fight. Their leverage has vanished now that there is a creeping sense throughout Central Asia that the US is heading for the exits. Similar realignments are occurring in other countries in the region.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for one, seems to understand the stakes. Last month, she visited several Central Asian republics to discuss the US commitment to the region. This visit came around the same time as Ms. Clinton’s major speech on economic statecraft, in which she announced that the US will become more aggressive in promoting its economic interests and that it will do a better job of countering Chinese state-owned companies that are gaining a stranglehold on strategically vital natural resources around the world.
But what Clinton did not acknowledge in her speech, or mention during her visit to Central Asia, is that in some regions, the projection of US military power is a necessary precursor to economic statecraft, and to political leverage in general.
Nowhere is this truer than in Central Asia. With no US presence, the region, with its strategically valuable location and its important natural resources, will be virtually closed to the United States. Central Asia does not want this outcome, and neither should the United States.
Alexander Benard is managing director of Gryphon Partners, an advisory and investment firm focused on the Middle East and Central Asia. He has worked at the Department of Defense and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.