U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will arrive in Kyrgyzstan on the first leg of a five “Stan” tour just a week after the visit of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who returned to Tokyo with $26 billion in contracts.
This will be Kerry’s first visit to Central Asia and the first-ever visit by a U.S. Secretary of State to all five Central Asian republics on the same trip. The trip builds on the momentum of a September 26 meeting on the sidelines of the 70th anniversary session of the UN General Assembly in New York, which brought together the first meeting of the foreign ministers of Central Asian countries and the United States, dubbed the “C5 + 1” format. The agenda was to discuss possible ways of cooperation with the U.S. on regional issues of common interest, including Afghanistan, the development of regional economic cooperation with the United States, the development of hydropower resources and global climate change.
The State Department has been fairly terse about Kerry’s visit, which begins on October 31 with a one-day visit to Bishkek, where a meeting with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev is planned. Kerry will also participate in the opening of the new campus of the American University of Central Asia and dedicate the new chancery of the U.S. Embassy.
Kerry then travels to Samarkand to participate in a joint “C5 + 1” meeting with the foreign ministers of all five countries. While in Uzbekistan Kerry is likely to hear an earful from President Islam Karimov about the State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom Report, released on October 14, which noted, “In numerous authoritarian countries around the world, regimes have co-opted the language of counter-terrorism and countering violent extremisms as a means to neutralize political opposition seen as emanating from peaceful religious individuals or groups,” pointing in particular to Central Asia, where the Uzbek and Tajik governments have defined “Islamist” in ways the U.S. argues are too broad. The report singled out Uzbekistan; “Many Central Asian governments used the pretext of violent extremism to crack down widely on peaceful religious activities. In Uzbekistan, the government enforced its policy to broadly ban Islamic groups it categorized as extremist without any reference to violent activities.”
Kerry is likely to receive a warmer welcome in Kazakhstan, where the State Department notes that he “will participate in the fourth meeting of the U.S.-Kazakhstan Strategic Partnership Dialogue and deliver remarks on Central Asia’s role in addressing global issues at Nazarbayev University.” As for his visit to Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, the State Department notes in a single sentence that “the Secretary will discuss a range of bilateral and regional issues of mutual interest with senior government officials.”
Beyond a feel-good tour, Central Asian leaders have to wonder about the purpose of Kerry’s visit, as beyond hectoring human rights and religious freedom lectures, there is little on offer. In a telling statistic that Central Asia-Caucasus Institute chairman Fred Starr labels “dollar store diplomacy, the Obama administration for FY2015 requested $113 million in aid for Central Asia – less than half the amount annually granted to the region prior to the 9/11 attacks and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan.
As for what Kerry will hear from his hosts, discussions will likely center on Afghanistan, where the deteriorating situation was epitomized by the Taliban’s capture on September 28 of Kunduz, capital of Kunduz province – which shares a border with Tajikistan. Skirmishing with Taliban forces is also occurring in provinces bordering the post-Soviet space – Herat, Baghdis, Faryab and Jowzan (Turkmenistan), Balkh (Uzbekistan) and Takhar and Badakhshan (Tajikistan.)
It is exceedingly unlikely that Kerry will offer Central Asia anything substantive in the realm of military assistance, which will inevitably see the region turn for assistance to regional superpowers Russia and China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), both of which have deeply sobering views of the worsening security situation in Afghanistan and its potential for regional destabilization.
On October 27 a meeting of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) security bodies and special services heads convened in Moscow. FSB head Aleksandr Borotnikov told his colleagues that Russia initiated its Syrian aerial campaign primarily to prevent militants fighting with Islamic State (IS) from returning to their home countries in the former Soviet Union, telling his colleagues, “The international community has now a new geopolitical challenge, an international criminal group in the name of the Islamic State… According to our estimates, citizens from more than 100 countries are currently fighting in the ranks of terrorist structures of IS in Syria and Iraq and the recruits constitute up to 40 percent of their forces,” including “about 10 gangs… of citizens of Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Central Asian nations.” According to Borotnikov, the greatest danger facing the CIS today is the worsening situation in Afghanistan, with its potential to unleash terrorists into Central Asia, for which he observed, “Now, on the country’s northern borders numerous armed bands are concentrating, under the banner of the Taliban. Some of them are Islamic State members, and these developments have led to a sharp increase in the threat of invasion by terrorists into Central Asia. In this context, the acute problem is to strengthen the external borders of the CIS, especially in Central Asia.”
Nor is concern about rising extremism limited to Afghanistan’s post-Soviet neighbors. On October 28, during a meeting with Viktor Ivanov, the head of the Russian drug control service, Ali Akbar Velayati, a top advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and head of the Strategic Research Center of Iran’s Expediency Council told journalists, “We know that terrorists seek to infiltrate Central Asia, a region in the security domain of Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran,” adding that the terrorists’ funding is augmented by narcotics trafficking, adding, “Drugs and terrorism are in fact two interrelated issues.”
Accordingly, as Kerry will not be bringing with him any substantive fiscal or military assistance, the question that will linger after he departs on November 3 will be – why did he bother to come?