Any discussion of American policy toward Central Asia must begin with the admission that the United States has historically failed to pay sufficient attention to the region.
Central Asia is not unique in this regard. There are numerous areas of the world—including Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa—where American outreach can be said to have been lacking. But Central Asia has arguably suffered from the greatest neglect over the years.
During the decades of the Cold War, this was at least partially a function of U.S.-Soviet competition. Successive administrations in Washington came to see the countries of the region as "lost spaces" where American influence was impossible, at least at that time.
After the Soviet collapse, American attention began to refocus on the region, but it did so only derivatively. In the 1990s, we regrettably came to see the region as a bargaining chip of sorts in our relations with Boris Yeltsin's Russia. During the same period, the discovery of substantial new energy sources in and around Central Asia made the area an arena of competition with Moscow and Beijing—a contest that some scholars have likened to a new "Great Game." And after the events of 9/11 and the start of the Global War on Terror, the region became viewed as a buffer zone for transnational security threats (like narcotrafficking and Islamic fundamentalism). In other words, it would be fair to say that the United States did not truly see Central Asia as a region of importance in its own right.
This situation still obtains today. Even when Washington has sporadically focused on Central Asia in its policy – like in the "New Silk Road" strategy championed by Hillary Clinton during her time as Secretary of State – its approach has been haphazard, tactical in nature and lacking in clear vision.
A DYNAMIC REGION
Such an approach is simply not sustainable today. As my colleague Frederick Starr has eloquently stated, "something is stirring across Eurasia." Change is now occurring in the region at a dizzying pace. It is visible in greater economic cooperation and political coordination among the countries of Central Asia. It can be seen in the concrete links—telecommunications, transport and infrastructure—that are emerging and which will, over time, bring regional states closer and closer together.
Today, Uzbekistan is unquestionably a principal engine of this change. But, as we Americans say, "it takes two to tango." Tashkent's overtures would be less effective, and far less far reaching, if the other countries of the region were not prepared to embrace a new era of dynamism and integration.
What does all this mean for America? The United States has a number of critical priorities in this part of the world.
In Afghanistan, the Trump administration has charted a new course—one that is designed to reverse the policy drift of recent years. The current Administration's Afghan strategy envisions a larger American footprint in Afghanistan, and an abandonment of a concrete "timetable" in favor of a results-based approach to security and governance in that country. It is clear, however, that America cannot go it alone. The new U.S. strategy is not designed to be implemented without assistance from our friends and partners – or from Afghanistan's neighbors. Indeed, we cannot succeed without input and assistance from those nations who represent critical stakeholders in Afghanistan's long-term stability and prosperity.
Economically, the United States has a vested interest in seeing a region that has languished for more than a quarter century become more prosperous and vibrant. A dynamic Central Asia should be of great interest to American policymakers as an area of investment, an arena for development, and a new destination for goods and services. We are certainly not alone. Today, we see many other actors—from China to Russia to Europe to Turkey—beginning to seriously consider Central Asia as a zone of economic growth and desirable investments. They should. It is in no one's interest to view engagement in Central Asia as a zero sum game. The key to unlocking the region's economic potential rests in working collaboratively—and in the countries of the region initiating the necessary political and economic reforms to attract foreign dollars. This, as we can see, is already beginning to happen.
Finally, on terrorism, we face a changing challenge. Today, the United States is focused overwhelmingly on the Islamic State—and we are winning. At the height of its power in mid-2014, ISIS held territory the size of the United Kingdom and controlled approximately 8 million citizens. The Islamic State, in other words, was a real state. Today, the anti-ISIS coalition marshaled by the U.S. and its partners has succeeded in changing this equation. Nearly 90 percent of the territory once held by the terror group has been liberated, and 6.5 million of its captive citizens freed. But the decline of the caliphate does not mean the fight is over. In fact, we face new problems as we begin to think beyond ISIS.
ISIS MAY BE DOWN, BUT IT IS NOT OUT. The United States and its allies have not yet defined what "victory" against the Islamic State looks like. As a result, it is possible to envision the existence of a smaller, but still sustainable caliphate in the Middle East—one that will continue to be a global threat, because the group has the power to mobilize extremism beyond its core territory.
ISIS AFFILIATES REMAIN A REAL THREAT. To date, no fewer than 34 separate radical groups have made common cause with or pledged allegiance to ISIS. These factions will doubtless be deeply affected by the Islamic State's decline in Iraq and Syria. But we cannot expect it to result in their demise. This is because, in virtually all cases, these organizations predate the advent of the Islamic State, and have autonomous personnel, infrastructure and operational capabilities. As a result, the decline of the Islamic State could well usher in an era of diffuse, localized jihad: one in which ISIS' current and former partners, in the absence of coherent central authority, seek to promote their own radical vision on a national or regional level. We must be prepared to combat this.
THERE IS A NEW FOREIGN FIGHTER PROBLEM. Over the past six years, civil war has turned Syria into the new Afghanistan, a training ground for future jihad. To date, an estimated 40,000 foreign fighters have joined the ranks of the Islamic State—twice the number of extremists that joined the Afghan jihad in the decade between 1979 and 1989. Many of them hail from this part of the world, and this makes coping with the problem posed by extremist returnees critical to the security of regional states. But it should also serve as the basis for greater, deeper and more robust counterterrorism cooperation between Central Asia and the West.
How does America navigate this changed landscape? After decades of historic neglect, we are only now waking up to the changes taking place in the region. But it is already clear that the United States needs to think about Central Asia differently, as a geopolitical center in its own right. And it is not too early for Washington to begin exploring what kind of relationship it wants to have with the region in the years to come.
We need to do so because it is in America's interests to encourage the emergence of stable, independent and prosperous states. We need to do so because we understand that regional politics and security cannot be dictated by outside players. And we need to do so because Central Asian integration will, over time, create valuable new partners for the United States.
I am delighted to be here as we begin this process.