Despite near-constant warnings of imminent chaos, Afghanistan has come a long way since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Security has improved markedly, and the economy has stabilized. A national assembly has ratified an impressive constitution, and presidential elections were held. If progress continues, the reconstruction of Afghanistan will mark a significant victory in the war on terrorism. If it flags, the recent gains will start to erode.

Central Asia as a whole is also at a turning point. Following September 11, 2001, Washington entered into new understandings with every government in the region; all saw Afghanistan as a security threat and thus were eager to help. But whether Washington's present interest in the region will turn into a sustained commitment to Afghanistan and its neighbors is still unclear. Already, members of Congress are pushing to reduce U.S. assistance to Afghanistan, arguing that the principal U.S. objective there -- the destruction of the Taliban -- has been achieved. Many Central Asian leaders are beginning to hedge their bets, assuming that U.S. attention will soon shift elsewhere.

What few U.S. policymakers have recognized is that recent progress in Afghanistan has created a remarkable opportunity -- not only for Afghanistan but for the rest of Central Asia as well. The United States now has the chance to help transform Afghanistan and the entire region into a zone of secure sovereignties sharing viable market economies, enjoying secular and open systems of government, and maintaining positive relations with the United States. The means to achieve this goal will be the establishment of a Greater Central Asia Partnership for Cooperation and Development (GCAP), a regionwide forum for the planning, coordination, and implementation of an array of U.S. programs.

The GCAP would signal the United States' recognition of its long-term interests in Central Asia. It would also reflect the fact that peace and development are best advanced by recognizing greater Central Asia as a single region linked by common interests and common needs. The emergence of this zone would have important benefits for both the region itself and the United States, rolling back the forces of extremism and serving as an attractive model for developing Muslim societies elsewhere.

The key to development in the region is trade, which in turn requires improvements in transport. The economies of Afghanistan and its neighbors will never flourish in isolation; many are still dominated by subsistence agriculture, and none has much industry. But their geographical position -- at the crossroads of the Middle East and eastern Asia, of Europe and southern Asia -- would enable them to reap great benefits from increases in trade.

In fact, trade flourished here for 2,500 years, until the Soviet Union's southern border sliced the region in two. U.S. action has now made it possible to reopen these trade channels. Regionwide trade would enable Afghan farmers to get their legal produce to world markets, create jobs, and provide revenue to the central government; for other Central Asian countries, it would lead to expanded relations with countries to the south, providing an alternative to Russia's monopoly over their export of hydrocarbons, electricity, and cotton, and expanded relations with China. In short, trade would help Afghanistan and its neighbors move from economic marginality to the very center of a new economic region -- that of greater Central Asia.


In spite of recent gains, Afghanistan continues to face dangers, many of which originate beyond its borders. Forces operating illegally from Pakistan still make raids into the country's south, and mounting instability in Pakistan's Baluchistan province could disrupt Afghanistan's access (as well as that of its Central Asian neighbors) to the important new regional port at Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea. Iran's threats to repatriate 500,000 Afghan refugees could destabilize the country's northwest.

If Afghanistan faces dangers from its neighbors, its neighbors face dangers from Afghanistan as well -- stemming especially from the drug trade. This source of instability is compounded by unresolved internal tensions in Central Asian states, from the ongoing crisis in Kyrgyzstan and complaints over the elections in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to one-man rule in Turkmenistan and the recent violence in Uzbekistan.

Although U.S. programs have brought significant gains to Central Asia in recent years, poor coordination among military and civilian initiatives outside of Afghanistan -- as well as poor interstate cooperation -- has limited the benefits. Lacking a regional vision and coordinating structures based on such a vision, Washington has allocated its resources mechanically and often ineffectively. Inadequate coordination among programs has also tempted regional leaders to play on perceived inconsistencies in U.S. policy to gain advantages over their neighbors.

The geographical delineations used by the U.S. government prevent policymakers from recognizing Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as comprising a single region -- which has impeded the development of a coherent Central Asia policy. The State Department groups the five former Soviet states of Central Asia with Russia and considers Afghanistan part of South Asia, while the Defense Department's Central Command treats the six countries together. Such uncoordinated arrangements have reduced the United States' ability to build regional success on the national success in Afghanistan. With the exception of the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement it entered into with the five former Soviet states of Central Asia, virtually everything the United States has done in the region has been on a bilateral basis.

Nor are there effective regionwide structures promoting security and development across all of greater Central Asia. Russia's Commonwealth of Independent States is functionally dead; the Central Asian common market was stillborn, and its fledgling successor, the Organization of Central Asian Cooperation, excludes Afghanistan; and the Eurasian Economic Union has stalled. Japan's impressive "Six Plus One" program takes a regionwide approach to development but not to security, and it excludes Afghanistan. The Asian Development Bank's framework for economic development embraces the region as a whole but does not touch on issues of security and political development. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization combines security and economic concerns but ignores political development and excludes Afghanistan. The Economic Cooperation Organization includes all the greater Central Asian countries plus Turkey and Iran, but it is ineffective. Meanwhile, NATO is active through the Partnership for Peace in the five former Soviet states and through its International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, but it has no strategy or overarching structure of engagement with the region.

The United States' strategic objectives in greater Central Asia are several: It must advance the war on terrorism, building U.S.-linked security infrastructures. It must enable Afghanistan and its neighbors to protect themselves against radical Islamists and drug traffickers. It must work to strengthen the region's economies and relevant government institutions to the point where the region can serve as an economic and political bridge between the Middle East and southern and eastern Asia. It must work to develop vigorous regional trade and adequate transport. It must foster participatory political systems that can serve as models for other countries with large Muslim populations. All these ends are best advanced on a regional basis.

Promoting these goals does not require dismantling existing bilateral agreements. What is needed, rather, is a higher-level body that can play a deliberative role in planning U.S. initiatives in the region and a coordinating role in their execution. The key to U.S. success in Afghanistan has been Washington's willingness to provide support for the Afghan government's own programs rather than crudely imposing its own agenda. The GCAP should function with the same spirit of partnership. It should also be an à la carte project, like NATO, with each member free to participate only in programs that are relevant to its needs. The only obligatory programs should be those aimed at promoting regional and continental trade and promoting democracy.

U.S. efforts to promote democratic institutions and practices must be designed and sold so that participating states see them as opportunities rather than threats. Nowhere in the region, Afghanistan included, have democratic institutions taken deep root, and it is too early to expect otherwise. Recent events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan have understandably generated anxieties among Central Asian leaders who have secured power by focusing on the sovereignty and security of their countries rather than on the legitimacy of their governments. If Washington imposes inflexible threshold requirements in the area of democratization on states seeking to participate in the GCAP, it will generate more hostility than change. There is no fast track to democracy in Central Asia; democracy cannot be built in the absence of other key reforms, especially at the local level, and those can only come from working patiently with other governments, however frustrating this may be at times.

Still, the United States can expect each GCAP government to show steady progress toward holding free and fair elections. It should also require that each government participate in at least one bilateral project on judicial reform or civil rights. Beyond this, it should strongly emphasize the reform of ministries of internal affairs, the personnel of which dominate most Central Asian citizens' interactions with government and which now account for a large percentage of all violations of citizens' rights in the region.

At the outset, there will be criticism of the human rights records of some Central Asian governments, beginning with Uzbekistan's. Such concerns cannot be ignored, but they must be addressed in the context of positive developments that have gone largely unreported. Uzbekistan has invited international experts to review charges of the mistreatment of prisoners and has cooperated on recent U.S. initiatives to improve local governance and electoral procedures. Rather than dwell on the negative, the GCAP should identify these and other successful bilateral programs and build on them. Washington should also reaffirm its commitment to the July 2002 Declaration of Strategic Partnership and Cooperation with Uzbekistan, which, at the Uzbeks' own insistence, includes support for democracy. The United States must indicate that it means business, but it must also provide convincing evidence that the payoff in regional security and prosperity will be real.


The GCAP would mainly be a tool for more effectively delivering and coordinating aid and assistance programs, and so the additional costs stemming from it would be limited to whatever is required for better coordination and integration. A small GCAP office should be established within the region itself, initially in Kabul and then moving every two years to another regional capital.

The present cost of U.S activity includes military expenditures in Afghanistan, as well as aid to Afghanistan and its neighbors. The price tag for the U.S. "Accelerating Success" program in Afghanistan for 2004-5 is about $2.4 billion, with a further $10 billion per year devoted to the U.S. military presence. The latter figure will decline sharply as the Afghan National Army improves. Meanwhile, the five former Soviet states of Central Asia receive an average of only $53 million each from the United States, a total of $2.67 billion in nonmilitary assistance to all the states of greater Central Asia combined. Over time, new initiatives will doubtless be undertaken. But assuming the eventual reduction of U.S. military assistance to Afghanistan by a third and the maintenance of present levels of nonmilitary support to Kabul, Washington could double its nonmilitary assistance to all the other countries of the region and still reduce its total expenditure on the region by 25 percent.

To put this cost in perspective, consider that at its peak in 1955, U.S. aid to Taiwan was $2.6 billion in 2005 dollars, or $333 for each Taiwanese, whereas U.S. aid to Afghanistan today is only $147 for each Afghan, and aid to the rest of Central Asia comes out to a miserly 50 cents per capita.

The GCAP would require a number of organizational changes on the U.S. side. These would include expanding the writ of the presidential envoy in Kabul to involve the coordination of GCAP-related activities of the regional embassies; the appointment of an assistant secretary of state for greater Central Asia, modifying existing administrative boundaries accordingly; expanding the responsibility of the Department of Defense's top official in Afghanistan to include the coordination of all regionwide Defense Department activities under the GCAP; and the establishment of a senior law enforcement and counternarcotics coordinator in Kabul with interagency responsibility for programs throughout the GCAP region. With these changes in place, GCAP projects could be launched focusing on the following areas: security, governance, democracy and rights, economics, transport and trade, agriculture, antinarcotics, and culture and education.

In the realm of security, existing commitments related to the war on terrorism should continue until post-Operation Enduring Freedom structures are securely in place. These include developing the Afghan National Army as well as securing basing rights in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Follow-on efforts throughout the GCAP region should focus on fragile border areas and border security, with the State Department's Export Control and Related Border Security Assistance program working in cooperation with the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Such efforts should also include officer training and utilization of the Joint Combined Exchange Training program. Regional programs should focus on strengthening counterterrorist capabilities, force interoperability, the training of noncommissioned officers, and multiagency and multilateral emergency response capabilities.

It would also be appropriate to carry out security assistance through "mobile training teams" and emergency response exercises under the auspices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. National Guard. Once these programs are under way, the United States must negotiate new arrangements for access, including maintaining a rotating military presence in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan that can sustain long- or short-term deployments as needed and smaller forward-operating sites with quick strike capabilities elsewhere. Such arrangements should be enshrined in "strategic partnership" agreements, beginning with Afghanistan. These might fall short of ironclad defense commitments, but in their extent and duration they would address some of the local states' main concerns. Washington should also work with other NATO members to establish a more comprehensive NATO presence in the GCAP states.

In its efforts to improve governance in the former Soviet states, the United States has focused one-sidedly on civil-society organizations, neglecting the unreformed ministries of internal affairs, which are responsible for most of the worst election fraud and abuses of civil rights. This all but guarantees that the same malign practices that have corrupted post-1991 regimes will continue under any possible successors, producing an endless cycle of frustration and conflict. In Afghanistan, by contrast, Washington has worked to strengthen and modernize government institutions in all of the country's 34 provinces and 360 districts, creating an environment hospitable to civil society and citizens' rights. GCAP governance programs should replicate such successful civil-service and police-reform programs now in place in Afghanistan. It should also extend anticorruption efforts now under way in Tajikistan to other GCAP participants and work with regional governments -- beginning with that of Afghanistan -- to increase bureaucratic salaries, which is essential to these efforts.

The GCAP should make the development of parliamentary institutions and political parties, as well as the rule of law and free speech, a high priority. The challenge is to spread the understanding that democracy enhances stability and security rather than undermines them. This can be achieved only by treating democratization as a complex process with numerous prerequisites. Because progress will come from working with -- rather than on -- member states, participants should be expected to identify and help design programs. Initiatives to further democratization should focus on the work of electoral commissions, parliamentary processes, the rule of law, media, and free speech. Intraregional and international contacts among election workers, the judiciary, political parties, and parliamentary bodies should be encouraged.

Key measures for reinforcing economic growth in Afghanistan and the other GCAP states should include tax reform; fast-track aid to the public sector to rebuild tax systems; help in gaining access to loans from the U.S. Export-Import Bank; U.S. support for entry into the World Trade Organization; the prevention of nongovernmental organizations from competing directly with the private sector and thereby retarding development; and poverty alleviation in the poorest regions and subregions.

The reopening of regionwide transport and trade is the only way to reestablish greater Central Asia as a major economic zone with Afghanistan at its heart. GCAP programs should coordinate U.S. initiatives in the areas of highway infrastructure, border controls, and the development of regionwide businesses. They should reopen trans-Afghanistan highway corridors and link these routes to secondary markets within greater Central Asia and neighboring economic centers. They might also address the transport of gas and oil and of hydroelectric energy.

Since agriculture remains the single largest livelihood across greater Central Asia, social stability there requires a viable agricultural sector. Without improvements in farmers' incomes, progress in the war on narcotics is inconceivable. Current U.S. funding for rural development in Afghanistan ($82 million, including for irrigation) and the former Soviet states is inadequate. Washington can augment these funds by tapping those U.S. antidrug funds earmarked for "transitional initiatives" in "fragile states." Additional money could be used for urgent programs, including developing agricultural credit banks, especially in Afghanistan, where today poppy growers are able to tap private loans that help them bridge the difficult period between planting and harvest but farmers growing legal crops are not; building storage facilities, so that farmers are not forced to market their crops when prices are at their lowest; better coordinating water usage everywhere; and involving Afghanistan, as a riparian state of the Amu Dar'ya River, in future arrangements on water issues with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Afghanistan's counternarcotics commission and the international community have succeeded in reducing poppy planting in 2005. However, this achievement could simply drive up poppy prices and thus cause the spread of poppy production beyond Afghanistan's borders, if not a resurgence in Afghanistan itself. The production and sale of narcotics in Afghanistan and greater Central Asia is the inevitable response to world demand, especially from Europe. Any permanent solution therefore requires the reduction of demand in Europe. Short of that, moral and practical considerations require that the EU step up and provide support for antinarcotics programs in greater Central Asia on a level comparable to Washington's multibillion-dollar support for such programs in Colombia. On the U.S. side, it is important to create a single interagency coordinator for all U.S. counternarcotics programs in Afghanistan and greater Central Asia. Responsibilities in this area are currently doled out among five agencies with no adequate coordinating mechanism among them, let alone coordination on a regionwide basis.

Other steps that might usefully be taken through the GCAP include the further identification and arrest of drug dealers; the identification and prosecution of international groups that dominate the heroin trade and claim most of its profits; maintenance of a credible threat of eradication while leaving actual work in this area to local governments, with U.S. and international forces providing training and in-field support only; the extension throughout the region of laws on trade-based money laundering; public works projects to provide alternative employment to poppy farmers at key periods in the cycle of poppy production; and the construction of roads into poppy-growing regions to facilitate the marketing of alternative crops.

Finally, local publics must be made to understand the underlying intentions of U.S. programs and the fundamental American values that inform them. This requires work in public diplomacy, education, and media. Public diplomacy should begin with the extension of the American cultural centers (called "American Corners") that now exist in half a dozen locales in Afghanistan to all major GCAP population centers. Further initiatives should include subsidies for selected translations and publications, as well as for independent media and publishing houses.

In the same spirit, U.S. embassies should sponsor regionwide conferences of students who have studied in the United States. With almost five million students in school, Afghanistan desperately needs teachers at all levels. Other countries of greater Central Asia have large cadres of Soviet-educated teachers who need retraining. The $250 million already dedicated to Afghan education should be focused on teacher training and curriculum reform. Central Asian graduates of Western universities and other qualified persons from the GCAP region should be engaged in this effort. Library of Congress exchange programs in which Uzbekistan now participates should be extended to the entire region.

Although impressive gains have been made in the development of Afghanistan's media, they still function in near-total isolation. Regionwide news and information services do not exist, nor do regionwide links in radio, TV, or print. Coordinated efforts to redress these problems should be mounted, drawing on U.S. expertise and also independent media elsewhere in greater Central Asia, and links should be forged between these regionwide information providers and U.S. media. A regionwide media-training center should be created, and programs to foster Internet access expanded.


The GCAP should welcome other donor countries as members or observers. Countries that have participated in the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan should be particularly encouraged to join. Other countries with serious interests in the region, including China and Russia, should also be welcomed as observers or, if they are donors, as participants. The existence of the GCAP would not affect any current economic or security arrangements, including those existing under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Both China and Russia view the current ambiguous situation with apprehension. The establishment of the GCAP would doubtless heighten their concern, at least initially. China continues to worry that instability to its west could foment unrest in its Muslim region, Xinjiang. Russia, convinced that the U.S. presence in the region will be brief, is already moving to fill what it sees as an emerging vacuum, creating new forms of instability in the process. Unlike the U.S. bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, Russia's bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are permanent. Meanwhile, the Russian gas company Gazprom is taking over the region's gas transmission system, and Russian energy firms may soon dominate its hydroelectric capacities. Moscow, arguing that the United States is fomenting democracy in order to destabilize the new governments of Central Asia, is presenting itself as the champion of order.

The GCAP would pose no threat to Russia's or China's legitimate activities in the region, but it is understandable that Russia or China might object to its creation. Both countries would perceive, correctly, that the GCAP signified a longer-term U.S. interest and presence in the region -- and a break on the realization of their own aspirations, insofar as those aspirations run counter to the sovereignty and viability of the regional states. Still, Washington can help Russia and China appreciate the benefits that the GCAP would offer each of them. Development would alleviate the extreme poverty that feeds extremist movements, and it would stem the tide of illegal immigrants to Russia. Strengthened border regimes would help reduce separatist activity in Xinjiang. The improvement of transportation infrastructure would give western Siberia and the Urals new export routes to Asia, and China's Xinjiang region would gain a window onto the south.

Both India and Turkey are natural members in the informal "concert" of neighboring states that would, along with the United States, become the unofficial guarantor of sovereignty and stability in the region. India enjoys a deep historical relationship to Central Asia and can today help generate trade and investment. India has already emerged as a serious donor in Afghanistan and is extending its involvement elsewhere in the region. Turkey, meanwhile, shares strong linguistic and cultural ties with greater Central Asia. Although the amount of attention it has paid to the region has varied, the process of Turkey's accession to the EU will make that country an attractive economic partner for Central Asia. Turkey is also assuming command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan for the second time.

The arguments against Pakistan's participation in the GCAP are obvious. Its territory is still used by terrorists to mount raids into neighboring Afghanistan, and the Musharraf regime is no model of democracy. At the same time, Pakistan's cooperation in the war on terrorism and its inevitable influence over Afghanistan's long-term fate argue for its inclusion. Pakistan's participation in the construction of a highway connecting its port at Gwadar with Afghanistan, its extension of preferential trade status to Afghanistan, and its plans for a trans-Afghanistan gas pipeline to Turkmenistan all suggest that it is already engaging in the kinds of activities the GCAP would promote. In addition, Pakistan participates, along with the United States and Afghanistan, in the Tripartite Commission, which is proving an effective channel for resolving outstanding problems along its border with Afghanistan, as well as a vehicle for advancing more positive regional ties.

Iran receives no U.S. aid and is therefore not a candidate for membership in the GCAP. Moreover, its status as a Shiite theocracy and its actions in the areas of terrorism, nuclear arms, and human rights preclude its participation in the GCAP. However, Iran, like Pakistan, is inevitably a force in Afghanistan and, increasingly, across the whole of greater Central Asia. It already figures centrally in the expanding transport network, and its investments in Afghanistan are growing. Nor will issues of Afghan drugs be resolved without Iran's cooperation. The GCAP's regional strategy would provide incentives for the rise of moderate forces within Iran. Rather than categorically excluding Iran, then, Washington should hold out the long-term possibility of a changed Iran finding a place in the GCAP.


In the formerly Soviet parts of Central Asia, the United States has pursued a steady course for more than a decade, thanks to which the newly sovereign states all survived their incubation period, have advanced economically, and are making fitful progress in political and institutional reform. In Afghanistan, which the United States neglected throughout the 1990s, a major effort after September 11 prevented a looming disaster and resulted in remarkable gains in stability, security, and practically all areas of political and social life. Strong and bipartisan congressional support underlay both projects and has persisted down to the present. Will this continue?

In relations among states, success does not necessarily breed success. In both Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia, the United States is at a crossroads and must either move forward or fall back. If it chooses disinterest or passivity the cost will be enormous. Afghanistan will sink backward and again become a field of fierce geopolitical competition. Other countries of Central Asia will either be drawn into its destructive vortex or seek refuge at whatever cost, most likely in the arms of Russia or China. This will seed fresh rounds of instability as nationalists throughout the region fight for their waning sovereignties, as they did for years after 1917. Development will halt.

If, however, the United States chooses to act, it can, through judicious leadership but with comparatively little expenditure of money, be the midwife for the rebirth of an entire world region. For all their differences, the people of greater Central Asia are moderate in their Muslim faith, believe in citizens' rights, aspire to full participation in the modern world, and seek cordial relations with the United States, to which they look more with gratitude and hope than with fear. Given the challenges U.S. policy faces elsewhere, the long-term value of empowering such people, and thereby building stability and modernity where chaos might otherwise reign, cannot be emphasized enough.

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  • S. Frederick Starr is Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
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