Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, July 26, 2018 – The Partnership for Peace Consortium's (PfPC) Combating Terrorism Working Group (CTWG) hosted a Central Asia/Afghanistan regional tabletop exercise entitled "Foreign Terrorist Fighter Networks: Threats, Challenges, and Responses" from July 24 to July 26, 2018.

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For over a year now, the crisis in and over Ukraine has been a stable fixture among the top issues of concern and deliberation internationally. The subject has become a point of polarized debate, with most contributions favoring one side or the other between the collective “West” and Russia. Similar to most trending debates, especially those as divided as this, the discussion has tended to simplify the issue by lumping everything into singular categories, be they “Russian imperialism,” “American conspiracy,” “Ukrainian fascism,” or “the new Cold War.” However, the matter is far more complex.

This essay offers a mostly non-aligned analytical overview of the positions of five Central Asian countries on the subject. What these countries’ stances elicit is the complexity of the problem and the many-sided effects and challenges the involved and
surrounding parties need to face, where it is far from obvious why a country takes this or that stance, or—even more tellingly—why it appears to vacillate. From such an overview, a number of more general conceptual rewards can be derived.

The regional security of Central Asia hinges on the level of stability within Afghanistan and its foreign relations with its neighbors. Afghanistan is not only pivotal in the maintenance of regional security, but is also crucial to the region’s economic and political development. As Ashraf Ghani, chairman of the Afghan transition commission, stated, “The region needs to make a choice, a stable Afghanistan … is absolutely essential.” However, there is looming doubt as to the ability of Afghan forces to be able to defend the state against domestic and external insurgent movements and to sustain the progress in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency that the U.S.-backed, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan has established under UN mandates since the United States initiated military action against the Taliban in 2001. The year 2014 is the deadline that has been set for ISAF troops to withdraw from the war-torn country and hand over the responsibility for ensuring security in the nation to the Afghan Security Forces. Currently the U.S. and NATO forces are transitioning from a mission of combat to one of support. The participants of the “Bonn+10” conference identified 2011 as the dividing point “From Transition to the Transformation Decade,” during which the burden on the international community to assist Afghanistan in maintaining peace and continuing to develop its governmental reforms should gradually diminish. Several important questions require informed and insightful responses: During this “Transformation decade,” what will the security picture in Afghanistan look like? Who will supplant the U.S. forces and complement the Afghan security forces to establish the necessary stability in Afghanistan to allow further economic and political development in the country and the region?
At the time of writing, the U.S. had its highest-ranking military delegation in over two years, led by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, visiting Beijing. The mission was intended to conduct sensitive bilateral negotiations at the highest level in China, having been received by President Xi Jinping and members of China’s Central Military Commission. This visit took place during a period of heightened tension in northeastern Asia, characterized by nuclear tests and other provocative actions of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and the escalating territorial dispute between China and Japan over Diaoyu Island. It underscored the importance of Sino-U.S. bilateral relations, and encouraged students of the region to reflect on the strategic significance and policy implications of the U.S. pivot toward the Asia-Pacific, which is the key factor of the strategic context of the region.
The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the appearance of new players in the Central Asian region, the most important of which is China. In the span of some twenty years, China has become a major trade partner and investor in the region. Its trade with nations in the region has grown impressively, from almost nothing in 1991 to more than USD 30 billion in 2011, with China being the region’s second-largest trading partner after Russia. According to the Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, Wen Jiabao, Chinese direct investments in Central Asia by 2012 are estimated at USD 250 billion. China is extensively building oil and gas pipelines, developing a network of transportation links, “as well as expanding its diplomatic and cultural presence in the region.” Scholars and experts on the region have devoted extensive attention to the question of what are the drivers of Chinese policies in Central Asia. There is a consensus among Western as well as Chinese and Central Asian researchers that the region is not the primary focus of China’s foreign policy. China’s relations with the United States is its most important bilateral relationship, and perhaps the primary focus of its foreign policy, along with relations with Japan and other nations in North East Asia, with concerns over stability on the Korean Peninsula taking second place. South East Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific region take third place in order of priority. However, one point that has been highlighted by most studies is that the aspiration to pacify the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang (officially the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region) constitutes the key factor that defines Chinese engagement with and presence in Central Asia. Thus, according to Sébastien Peyrouse, “If Chinese influence in Central Asia has evolved in the course of the two post-Soviet decades, China’s key interests have not changed. The Central Asian zone has strategic value in Beijing’s eyes owing to its relationship with Xinjiang.”
Our world is on a trajectory leading to a point where terrorists will eventually acquire a nuclear weapon. It is only a matter of time. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States recognized the lack of effectiveness of its previous intelligence and military efforts in deterring terrorists and sought an alternate way to defuse the radical Islamist threat. By continuing to advocate the use of military force in Iraq after weapons of mass destruction were not found, the U.S. pursued a strategy in line with the idealist school of thought by attempting to plant a democracy in the heart of the Middle East. Iraq became the centerpiece of the United States’ ambitions to stop the region from exporting violence and terror, and attempted to transform it into a place of progress and peace. This effort was ambitious indeed, and many argued that these goals were beyond the United States’ ability to achieve. However, this strategy offered a possible solution to the endless cycle of violence across the Middle East and Africa and its continuing threat to U.S. national security. The current administration, in contrast, announced last year a “rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region,” ostensibly to counter the growing strength of China’s military power. Like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand, this shift pivots the U.S. away from its true threat and increases the peril its citizens will face. The United States should focus its efforts on supporting democratization in troubled regions, and policy makers must counter those who criticize this strategy, including military-industrial complex advocates of the “pivot.”
Over the past two decades of independent history, the Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) have developed pragmatic and largely nonideological national security strategies rooted in their perceptions and prioritization of the complex regional realities. The states’ attempts to match their military and security services capabilities to handle a variety of external and internal security challenges highlights the fact that the Central Asian states regard these capabilities as critical elements of hard power. At the same time, while often utilized to help quell various sources of domestic instability, all Central Asian militaries have lacked up-to-date operational experience. A review of their tactical proficiency in dealing with internal conflicts shows that although Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have contained sociopolitical unrest better than Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, all the states struggled to reform and adapt their armed forces to successfully deliver on their doctrinal obligations. This is because they have remained largely outside of contemporary international military interventions such as Operation Iraqi Freedom, the International Security Assistance Force or Kosovo Forces.
This paper outlines the national security objectives of the Central Asian states and analyzes available information on the size, funding, combat readiness and the overall performance of the militaries in recent domestic conflicts.