Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice completed her visit to Central Asia and Afghanistan last week. This is a tough neighborhood, which plays a key role in the forthcoming global game between the West and the rest.
The visit demonstrated Sec. Rice's balancing act skills. On the one hand, she needs to propel further President Bush's democratization agenda. But on the other, just like in the Middle East, the imperatives of the war on terrorism and U.S. energy security dictate a more Realpolitik approach.
The stakes are high. Afghanistan and Central Asia are where the rubber of President Bush's democratization doctrine meets the rocky road of authoritarianism. What's more, Central Asia is important as a major source of oil and gas. By 2015, the Caspian Sea basin, including Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, will produce four million barrels a day -- more than Kuwait and Iraq today combined. The region is also surrounded by the emerging giants, energy-starved India and China, and bordered by key Islamist states Iran and Pakistan.
The U.S. has growing geopolitical competition in the region from Russia, China and the global Islamist movement. Ms. Rice is now playing the 21st Century version of the "Great Game" in which, 100 years ago, the British Empire and Czarist Russia competed over the heartland of Eurasia.
Consider that in May, hundreds of protesters were shot by troops loyal to Uzbekistan's President Karimov after an Islamic insurrection took place in the city of Andijan. After the U.S. protested, Karimov kicked out the American military base from Karshi-Khanabad -- with Russian President Vladimir Putin's encouragement. China "congratulated" Karimov by signing a 600 million dollar gas pipeline deal with Uzbekistan.
Beijing and the Moscow-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) recently demanded the U.S. provide dates certain to pull out the troops from Central Asia and Afghanistan. In meetings with President Putin and his defense minister Sergey Ivanov which this writer attended in September in Moscow, the Russian leaders claimed that the military phase of the operation in Afghanistan is over and it is time for U.S. troops to go home.
Ms. Rice certainly takes exception to this assessment. On her recent trip, she dropped in on newly elected leaders of the small mountainous republic of Kyrgyzstan to make sure that the U.S. air base at Manas airport in the capital Bishkek remains open. She also visited the leader of Tadjikistan, where another U.S. military base can be located.
In August SCO sent a strong message to its Central Asian members when they conducted unprecedented joint military maneuvers in the Far East. The new de-facto Moscow-Beijing bloc is aimed at U.S. "hegemony" as well as to American rhetoric of democracy.
In the meantime, Islamist radicals are spreading their tentacles in the impoverished and drug-ridden villages and slums of the region. Hizb ut-Tahrir, a global Sunni clandestine organization which aims to overthrow secular regimes and create a Califate, has made Uzbekistan its primary target. Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is allied with Al Qaeda and active in Afghanistan and Pakistan's border areas.
Coordinating counter-terrorism, non-proliferation activities, battle for hearts and minds and drug interdiction activities with Central Asian states was high on her agenda. She visited Kazakhstan where she met President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
Kazakhstan may be a key to U.S. interests in the region. As Nazarbaev announced in his September speech to the parliament, in ten years his country may surpass Kuwait and Nigeria as an oil exporter, pumping over 2.5 million barrels a day. Under Nazarbaev the country may possibly double its living standard improve rule of law, and develop civil society. It will all take time -- and money, he says -- in a society which was predominantly nomadic 80 years ago, but now is developing a middle class.
With prosperity growing, Nazarbaev promised to implement democratic reforms, starting with contested presidential elections in December. He is introducing elections of regional governors, jury trials and e-government.
Sec. Rice has encouraged her host to conduct the elections in a transparent fashion. She wants Kazakhstan to promote separation of power, transparency, and political pluralism. But she treaded carefully -- Kazakhstan has political options to the North and East -- China and Russia covet its oil and huge expanses. In September China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) committed to pay $4.2 billion for Petrokazakhstan which controls 550 million barrels of oil.
One hopes that Sec. Rice also encouraged Mr. Nazarbaev to finally authorize construction of a pipeline connecting Kazakh oil fields to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline which takes Caspian oil to the Mediterranean and global markets.
She could also praise and encouraged Kazakhstan to promote its unique model of peace and harmony among Muslims, Christians and Jews around the Islamic world. Finally, she could encourage Kazakhstan to sponsor the U.S. gaining observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, so that Washington can alleviate Beijing and Moscow's fears as to its intentions in the heartland of Eurasia while continue playing an important role there.
Anchoring U.S. interests in Central Asia can come only as a two-way street, in which America gives, not only takes, and listens, not only lectures.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and the author of Eurasia in Balance (Ashgate, 2005).