U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kazakhstan on Monday, the day after meeting with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian countries in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Kerry is the first U.S. secretary of state to meet with all five Central Asian foreign ministers simultaneously. Moreover, his visit to Kazakhstan kicked off a tour of each of the Central Asian countries — the first such tour conducted by a U.S. secretary of state.
At their meeting, Kerry and the foreign ministers from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan discussed and publicly promoted areas of cooperation as diverse as economics, water security and education. However, more sensitive and strategic issues are likely to be discussed during Kerry's visits to individual countries. And perhaps the most sensitive and strategic topics will relate to countries not represented at the summit: Afghanistan and Russia.
As Stratfor has recently noted, the borders between the Central Asian states and Afghanistan have become increasingly active, both in terms of militant activity and outside powers' diplomatic and security activity. Militant activity has increased in northern Afghanistan in recent months, punctuated by Taliban forces' capture of the town of Kunduz in late September and rumors of a buildup of Islamic State forces throughout northern regions. There have also been several reported attacks and shootouts between militants in Afghanistan and border forces of Central Asian countries such as Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Moreover, northern Afghan leaders such as Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum have recently launched security operations against these militants.
This militant buildup has been a substantial concern not only for the Central Asian states but also for countries that are influential in security matters in the region — chiefly Russia and the United States. (China is also an important player, though more so in the realms of economics and energy.) At a recent Collective Security Treaty Organization summit, Russia called Afghanistan the greatest threat to the region and announced plans to establish a joint border security initiative that reportedly would involve several Central Asian states.
Not all countries are thrilled with the initiative, however, as more independent and Russia-weary countries such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are discussing their own border security operations outside of the Russian initiative. These are the countries that have drawn the United States' attention. For example, Washington transferred more than 300 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles to Uzbekistan earlier this year, and recently a Turkmen delegation led by the foreign minister visited the United States.
Washington, like Moscow, is concerned about the rise of militancy in Afghanistan. But Washington is interested in strengthening security cooperation with Central Asian states not only to prevent a spillover of militancy there, but also to challenge Moscow as a dominant military and security power in the region.
Washington's motives for cooperation in Central Asia are clear, but the details of how the United States intends to enhance security cooperation in the region are hazy. This is largely because Central Asia is notoriously opaque in its media coverage of domestic security and military matters — even more so because public cooperation with the United States in these areas would certainly draw Russia's ire. And unlike the long list of U.S. assistance programs publicized during the summit with Central Asian foreign ministers in Samarkand, announcements of cooperation during Kerry's bilateral meetings in individual countries have been much more vague and discreet.
Consequently, specific details about concrete U.S. initiatives in the region are not likely to emerge from Kerry's tour, although Stratfor has received indications of several possible topics for his stops in Central Asia. One is the potential for Turkmenistan to grant the United States use of the Mary-2 air base located near the Turkmen border with Afghanistan, though Ashgabat has officially denied that the offer is on the table. Another possible topic of discussion is U.S. support for Tajikistan, which has the longest border with Afghanistan. Tajikistan is considered one of Russia's closest allies in Central Asia, but Washington would like to establish further inroads in the country. Yet another possible agenda item is the potential for U.S. support — whether through equipment, training or both — of a joint Uzbek-Turkmen border security initiative.
None of these forms of cooperation are confirmed, and none of them are inevitable. However, they are important to watch for as the United States and Russia both look to enhance their security and strategic position and influence in Central Asia. The volatile border region between Central Asia and Afghanistan is at stake, but on a larger scale, so is the evolution of the standoff between the United States and Russia over the entire former Soviet periphery.