Impact of the American Withdrawal from Afghanistan on Central Asia
(S. Frederick Starr, December 13, 2021)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
S. Frederick Starr is the founding chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, a joint transatlantic research and policy center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Institute (AFPC) in Washington (where Starr is Research Professor) and the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm. Dr. Starr is Distinguished Fellow for Eurasia at AFPC.
Starr has focused on the challenge of reopening continental-wide transport passing through Central Asia and Afghanistan, which he sees as a key to success in Afghanistan itself. This issue was the subject of a series of articles between 2000 and 2008 and of a book, The New Silk Roads, published in 2007. For writings that have had a direct impact on policy see The Key to Success in Afghanistan [with A. Kuchins et al] and Afghanistan Beyond the Fog of Nation Building: Giving Economic Strategy a Chance.
Starr is a frequent commentator on the affairs of the region, and the author of numerous articles in journals including Foreign Affairs, The National Review, Far East Economic Review, and op-eds in various leading American and international newspapers. His most recent book, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, has been widely acclaimed. In this book on the history of the region between the 8th and 11th centuries, he argues that Central Asia was the center of the world.
Starr was the founding Chairman of the Kennan Institute in Washington, and served as Vice President of Tulane University and President of the Aspen Institute and of Oberlin College (1983-94). He was closely involved in planning the University of Central Asia and the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy and is a trustee of the Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan. He earned his PhD in History at Princeton, MA at King’s College, Cambridge, and his BA at Yale, and holds five honorary degrees. Starr is also a founding member of the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble of New Orleans and founded the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the single largest non-governmental sponsor of post-Katrina recovery in that city. He has written four books on New Orleans, including New Orleans Unmasqued, Southern Comfort, and Inventing New Orleans: The Writings of Lafcadio Hearn.
Robert R. Reilly:
Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. We have been having a series of online zoom lectures during this coronavirus crisis. We are happy to present another one to you today with a friend of the Westminster Institute of some time, Dr. Fred Starr, who is the Distinguished Fellow for Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council. He also serves as the founding Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute. He is also a Research Professor at Johns Hopkins University SAIS, here in Washington and head of advisory council at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm. Dr. Starr is a frequent commentator on the affairs of the region and author of numerous articles in journals, including Foreign Affairs, National Review, the Far East Economic Review and op-eds in various leading American and international newspapers. He is the author or editor of some 20 books his work, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, has been widely acclaimed and translated into more than a dozen languages.
The last time Dr. Starr was with us, he spoke on this extraordinary work of his, and I certainly suggest to our audience to go back into our YouTube archives and watch Fred’s extraordinary lecture on that monumental book. In any case, his more recent books include The Long Game on The Silk Road: U.S. and EU Strategy for Central Asia and The Caucasus and Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland. Dr. Starr was the founding chairman of the Kennan Institute in Washington. He served as vice president of Tulane University and President of the Aspen Institute and of Oberlin College. He was closely involved in planning the University of Central Asia and the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy and he is a trustee of the Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan. Dr. Starr earned his PhD at Princeton, his MA at King’s College Cambridge, and his BA in Yale. A renaissance man, Fred is also a founding member of the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble in New Orleans. Today, he is going to address the subject of: The Impact of American Withdrawal from Afghanistan on Central Asia. Fred, welcome back.
S. Frederick Starr:
Thank you very, very much. It is an honor to be here. Let me say right off the bat, two years ago the State Department issued a U.S. strategy for Central Asia. And then, just a little while ago in our hasty, unplanned, and careless departure from Afghanistan, we completely obliterated our strategy for Central Asia, and as I will be arguing in this presentation, we have basically cut the ground from under Central Asian strategy, country by country for how they are dealing with their geopolitical reality.
Let me begin by summarizing the situation. Of course, we did not bother to inform the Central Asians [about our departure from Afghanistan] even though Afghanistan has for about 3,000 years been part of Central Asia, we did not bother to inform them let alone to do any forward planning on the impact. And, of course, you recall [and] every one of your viewers will recall how the Bagram Air Base with all its equipment, we simply walked away from that, a major, major facility. And practically the next day, the U.S. government was contacting the Russians to see if they could use Russian bases in Central Asia for whatever purposes they need.
Now, let it be said that after 9/11, when Putin personally telephoned each president in Central Asia and said do not cooperate with the Americans, after 9/11, the United States approached the Central Asians, not Mr. Putin, to ask could we use their bases for the mission in Afghanistan, and this resulted in the Uzbeks opening a base for American use, and the Kyrgyz doing the same. This time, however, we blindsided them and went over their heads to Moscow, a gratuitous insult and worse.
Now, let me just say that this has all been justified here in the United States because it is necessary as part of our pivot to Asia. Well, take a look at the map. Central Asia is Asia. It happens to have joined Xinjiang, the most concerned province of China. The residents of all those Muslim Uyghurs, and Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz, who are themselves being oppressed by Beijing [live in Xinjiang]. And here we are the neighbor, the neighboring states, we have just cut off, so that is the background situation.
Let me turn back now and take a longer view on what has been going on with regard to Central Asia and Afghanistan. Let me remind everyone: these five Central Asian states that were formerly part of the USSR were new sovereignties in 1991, and they all had to create their governments, their laws, their practices, everything, their economies from de novo. And they had to do this while privatizing sectors of their economy. It is an immense task.
They all did it more or less successfully over time, and then they faced their deepest reality, namely, they are all landlocked, as is Afghanistan itself as another Central Asian state, that means that their transport, their communication was entirely monopolized by Moscow in Soviet times. The Chinese opened roots from the east, yes, that is true, but they had no roots to the west and, most important, they had no roots to the south.
Now, we all talk about the silk road. The silk road, in fact, the main routes, the main transport corridors were not to China, they were to India to the south. And the interaction of Indian civilization and Central Asian civilization over thousands of years was extremely important to both, to both sides, to the Indian subcontinent and to all Central Asia. So, the task after the collapse of the USSR was for the Central Asians, including the Afghans, to open corridors to the south to the Arabian Sea and beyond that to the Indian Ocean.
This was their task, and when we, after 9/11, went in, we partially embraced this, partially. Interestingly, both presidents, Karzai and Ghani, spoke about their country, Afghanistan, as a roundabout, as a node of continental transport, which, in fact, it had been for centuries and centuries. Now, to his credit, General Petraeus was the one person in the U.S. government who embraced the idea of building transport routes between Central Asia and the Arabian Sea. He really did embrace it. In fact, he also shopped this idea to Secretary of State Clinton, who gave a speech in India in Chennai in which she called for a new silk road.
That term came from a conference and book that we published. The conference was held in Kabul. The purpose of the conference and book was to open up that corridor, and General Petraeus embraced it, Unfortunately, Secretary of State Clinton gave a nice speech about this, but then dumped it into the hands of third level State Department officers, and they did nothing. And indeed, the Obama White House never mentioned this even though it was supposed to have been a priority project, so that is all by way of background.
Meanwhile, at the same time the Turkmen in Central Asia, Turkmenistan, with Pakistanis, with the Afghans, come up with the idea long since of a gas pipeline clear across Afghanistan to Pakistan and then to India. This would have been a moneymaker for Afghanistan. It was certainly essential for Turkmenistan. The United States failed to get an American firm to build that. The Afghans wanted it, the Central Asians wanted it, but for very complicated reasons that were not flattering to our leadership, we did not deliver on that. And now, with the departure just last week, the Russians declared that they would like to become sponsors of this, and other states, the Arab world, is coming forth on this. I expect China to do so, as well. These are some of the indications of the situation on the eve of our departure. But let me add one other thing. The international financial institutions (the World Bank, ADB, and so forth), they all embraced the idea of reconnecting Central Asia via Afghanistan with the Indian subcontinent, and hence, Southeast Asia. They all had projects in this area, and they were all considering it a priority.
Now, let me just say that on this great opening to the south, which is essential to the independence and viability of the Central Asian states, the Central Asians themselves were proactive. I mentioned the TAPI pipeline for Turkmenistan they initiated. Let me also mention that the Uzbeks supported right from the beginning this railroad project across Afghanistan to Pakistan and on to Southeast Asia, and the Tajiks were all for this opening to the south, as well, so this is the situation. It all required coordination and cooperation among the Central Asians. And again, before our departure, our chaotic departure from Afghanistan, they themselves, the Central Asians, were moving to strengthen their regional identity, their regional coordination, and their regional institutionalization, but in several different ways, all very important.
First of all, beginning back in ’92, the Central Asians came up with the idea that there should be a nuclear-free zone, and the U.S. opposed [them for] complicated reasons, understandable ones, but everyone else supported it. It took them a decade, more than a decade, to actually pass this resolution and to get the United Nations to embrace it, but they did it, collectively. It is very important.
Then, also, the Central Asians themselves created a Central Asian union in the 1990s. All of them except Turkmenistan participated. The Turkmen for very specific reasons did not participate in a nuclear-free zone, the reason being that they had declared themselves unaligned and they were concerned that this might threaten that status, but otherwise the Central Asians moved ahead with creating their own Central Asia union [in the] 1990s, and this was actually so successful in operation that Mr. Putin asked to be joined as an observer. Of course, they had [to], they were in no position to [say no]. And so, he joined as an observer. Two years later, he asked to join as a member. Again, we did not give them any backing for declining even though this was their own organization and they allowed Russia to join the Central Asian union. Putin quickly disbanded it and folded it into his own Eurasian Economic Union.
These are all fundamental efforts by the Central Asians to affirm their sovereignty and independence, and we played a rather lackadaisical role. We never really backed them in this, and we did not do anything to resist Putin’s incursion into their project. Now, why do I mention this? Because the viability of the Central Asian states depends entirely on their cooperation with one another. They are the only world region that does not have an institutional base. Think of ASEAN in Southeast Asia. Think of the Nordic Council. Think of Visegrad. There are so many other regional entities in South and Central America.
The Central Asians did not have this because the Russians did not want it. Why did they not want it? Very simply because their game was divide and conquer. Unfortunately, [the] United States played the same game in that we handed out bon bons to those countries that we judged to be moving in a democratic direction, and we withheld support to those countries which we judge not to be. This is not something we did in Korea, by the way. We sustained our support there through rather difficult and nasty military rule because we took a long and strategic view. This was not done in Central Asia.
Now, so much for the background.
Let me now focus on more recent events, and that is after the death of President Karimov in Uzbekistan, his successor, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, immediately began opening the doors in every direction of Uzbekistan and embracing a regional concept. He did this successfully, so successfully that at a conference just a year ago President Mirziyoyev convened the leaders of all of Central Asia and people from all over to celebrate the emergence of Central Asia as a region. And who was participating in that? President Ghani, one of six presidents who showed up at the Mirziyoyev meeting in Tashkent. Who else showed up? 26 foreign ministers, including Russia and China.
Mr. Lavrov was clearly very miffed and displeased at all this and showed it so openly that everyone at the conference was amazed that he did not stand when President Mirziyoyev, the host, entered the room, for example, and he and he stayed seated, growling to himself until his next-door neighbor at the table poked him. And who was that neighbor? The Chinese foreign minister, and finally, Lavrov stood up. So, things were happening is all the context for the American background to the American action of the sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan. That is where we are now.
Now, let me at this point [give] a word about the fundamental principle of the foreign policies of all the Central Asian states, and a principle, which even the Afghans, too, were gradually moving to embrace. And that is the principle of balance. This notion was actually codified in a rather thick and impenetrable book published by the present President of Kazakhstan, Tokayev, back in the ’90s. He was then foreign minister. It is a very serious and interesting volume. What he argued was that the way for us (Kazakhstan) to survive and prevail is to link arms among ourselves, but above all, our positive relations with the external power.
Tokayev’s proposal was to balance positive relations with Russia, they could not avoid that, it is the longest common border in the world, with China, another direct long border, and with the West, with the United States. So, the United States plays an absolutely central role in the fundamental strategy, geopolitical strategy, survival strategy, of all the Central Asian states. And this required our consciousness of our role and our acceptance of it in a positive way. When we so precipitously departed from Afghanistan without prior consultation, planning or revision of our strategy, we undercut the core survival strategy of every Central Asian state, which was seeking to balance Russia and China with the United States and Europe. We basically cut the ground from under their feet, and that is the reality. We left them in the lurch, to be blunt.
Now, a few more notes. The economy of these five states also depended on balancing of investment, of balancing of financial activity, the balancing of business links between their Russian ties, their Chinese ties, and the West. And again, our departure threatens to impinge on their economic viability, as well.
Now, where do we go from here? The Russians and the Chinese are moving rather vigorously to take over the projects that connect Central Asia to Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea and to the Indian Ocean. They have not done so yet, and maybe the international financial institutions will engage, but they are obviously mindful of this. The Russians have already suggested that they would like to participate in Turkmenistan’s TAPI pipeline across Afghanistan, and all this is already under discussion with the new Taliban government. That government may or may not survive, who knows, but there will be some form of government in Afghanistan. Some degree of cooperation is required if the Central Asians are going to maintain their sovereignty and viability in the way they would like to.
Now, this is not exclusively a Central Asian problem. It is also a problem for the countries in the Caucasus, especially Azerbaijan. All countries in Central Asia that border on the Caspian, that have Caspian coastlines, and Azerbaijan on the west side of the Caspian, have all built new ports recently, big, modern, new ports. Turkmenistan’s is Türkmenbaşy, and Azerbaijan’s is at Aylat, just south of the capital, Baku.
Now, these ports are essential for opening the transport corridors to the west, and again, this is being done by the Central Asians, by the Azeris themselves. Once more, by our precipitous action we have prevented those trans-Caspian links which should have gone eventually to Afghanistan and then to the Arabian Sea, and then to the Indian Ocean. This blocks those [links]. This is all done by our action. Our worst enemies could not have done a better job than we did in damaging our own interests.
Now, what do you do about it? Now, the temptation in Washington will be to engage in some kind of negotiation or conversation over the heads of the Central Asians. This will not work. This will go nowhere. We will have to engage directly with them, and we will have to figure out what kind of common strategy do we have going forward that will enable them to gain this window to the south and overcome their age-old isolation and landlocked status, but we are not doing this alone. I have to mention that the Japanese are engaged, the Koreans are engaged, even the Indians are engaged. Europeans are more engaged than we are today, considerably more, so there can be progress from other quarters in Washington.
It appears though, right now, that we have dealt ourselves out of the game, and we have done so in a way that is gratuitously offensive and insulting to the Central Asians. That is not the end of the story. We can recover from this. We have to. This will require deliberate actions on our part, and it will also require a thorough revision of the strategy for Central Asia. None of this is yet underway. It is not. We do not hear of anything in this direction taking place in the State Department or other relevant agencies, including the Pentagon, so we are at the moment at the bottom of a deep dip in American involvement. And at the very time when we claimed to be refocusing on China, we, in fact, have given China the biggest gift we possibly could have given, that is a free hand in Central Asia and to the south. Let me end with this. This is not a very charming or a happy report, I realize, but unfortunately, it is the reality right.
Robert R. Reilly:
Fred, thank you very much. With the absence of the United States, and the disaster we left behind in Afghanistan, there are several questions as to what the future holds until Afghanistan is somehow stabilized as it is at a precipice of economic and humanitarian disaster. I do not know how the Central Asian states, with which you are so close, view the Taliban, so that is one question. The other question is with our absence, how do Central Asians think of balancing the remaining competing powers, which of course are mainly China, Russia with the Eurasian Economic Union, you mentioned. One thing you have not talked about is Turkey and the organization of Turkic states, whether that is a fantasy or whether they are a player, and also any Iranian interest. Let me stop there because I have just really asked you half a dozen questions.
S. Frederick Starr:
These are the right questions, they are the right ones, and hats off to you. Who knows what the future will hold in Afghanistan itself? One could present a whole series of arguments both for and against the possibility of Taliban evolution. On the negative side [it is] very obvious: this is basically an ideological movement. It came, and exists, and it spread on the basis of ideology. Are they going to dilute their ideology for practical purposes? Well, if they do so, they will lose a lot of their support or hand it over to more radical groups like the various Islamic States, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, etc. That is all on the on the side of they will not change, they will only get worse.
The other argument is, no, the leadership has been living in nice hotels in the Middle East. They have seen the world. A lot of Taliban [members] have seen the world in the last 20 years thanks to American action. They know that that the world does not live the way backward Afghan villages were living 30 years ago when they started, and therefore one could imagine on the other side the opposite hypothesis, some form of evolution and softening there. Obviously, it is far too early to base any conclusions on the evidence at hand. That being the case, how did the Central Asians deal, how do they proceed?
Well, I want to stress that the first foreign minister to visit Kabul after the American departure was Foreign Minister Kamilov of Uzbekistan. He is an opponent of the Taliban ideology. Far from it, he is a very enlightened guy. He speaks fluent Arabic, he knows the Muslim world extremely well, and is very prudent. He went there [and] advanced their interest in getting these routes open to the south, and if they can come to some understanding with the Taliban to do so, they will. And the other Central Asians have done the same. Turkmenistan is actively working again to build its pipeline, its TAPI pipeline across Afghanistan to Pakistan and beyond, and possibly India, so they are proceeding.
The Kazakhs have extended a lot of aid. They want to be the chief jumping off point for humanitarian assistance to Afghan people. They are not recognizing the Taliban, but they acknowledge the humanitarian crisis there, so they are not disengaged from Afghanistan. They are very intensively engaged. The question is can they do this alone or will their efforts be overshadowed and subsumed under efforts from Moscow or Beijing.
Now, you mentioned Turkey. Very important point: Turkey has always had two faces in Central Asia. One is very practical, very effective, well-run Turkish businesses have done a lot of construction work. They are invested there in many ways and, of course, they were in Afghanistan a lot. A lot of the goods going into Afghanistan arrived through Turkish carriers. Turkey built the airport in Kabul, so the Turks know Afghanistan and Central Asia very well, and especially the Turkic peoples there.
Now, the other side of Turkey’s engagement is ethnically based. It is, ‘We are Turks, you are Turks, we are all one, and we now are going to invigorate our pan-Turkic alliance.’ They have taken a lot of efforts along these lines recently, not always successfully. They held a big event in Almaty in Kazakhstan just a while ago. Unfortunately, the big, filmed presentation that they debuted at that meeting on very large screens was done in Anatolian Turkish. Well, the Kazakhs did not understand it because their languages are quite different, and it was not a howling success. However, in the absence of other stabilizing forces from the West, Turkey could play an active role.
I should also, however, mention that the European Union and European states generally have in the last few years taken [a] much more active role and more strategic role in Central Asia than has the United States. Our Central Asia-Caucasus Institute published a book on this subject, on European and American strategy in Central Asia, and we found [that] we were impressed with what the Europeans have recently done, that that could somehow fill the gap until the United States re-enters with some new strategy. Will it work in the long run? I doubt it.
Robert R. Reilly:
There seem to be in years past a lack of awareness perhaps on China’s part and maybe Russia’s of under Erdogan the Turkish effort at re-Islamization in Central Asia until that became a kind of worry. Now, you know you know well the moderate character of Islam in Central Asia, though there are some radical movements, and of course, the Taliban is a radical movement. And Erdogan apparently has good relations with the Taliban. To what extent is the character of Islam in Turkey as personified in Erdogan a worry for Central Asian countries, and of course, with China and their Uyghurs? And also, of course, Putin has been worried for a long, long time about radical Islam.
S. Frederick Starr:
These are important issues. Let me say the obvious. The real concern of Turkey about Islam in Central Asia had to do with the Gulen movement, Fethullah Gulen now living in the Poconos in the United States. And this was their primary concern, and they made great efforts to close down Gulen schools, to change universities that had been under Gulen’s influence, to turn them in a new direction. Turks have been relatively comfortable with official Islam in Central Asia, and, by the way, popular Islam in Central Asia, which is notably moderate. It is Hanafi. Well, even though it is itself if you read the actual texts, it is itself rather tough in a lot of areas.
Nonetheless, in terms of business, in terms of commerce, in terms of certain types of modern activity, Hanafi Islam is relatively milder than the other schools, and as applied in Central Asia, especially having survived the very anti-religious regime from Moscow, they are very well adapted to modernity. In fact, my colleagues Svante Cornell, who is director of our Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, is finishing a book on just this, the degree to which Central Asian Islam may become a model for the Muslim world generally. Let me say about this [that] this is not a fantasy because the Central Asians and Afghans feel they have as much claim to being the heartland of the faith as does the Middle East, and there is quite a case for that, and I discussed this in some length in my own book, Lost Enlightenment. And so, this, again, our rapid departure from Afghanistan, shakes up this entire issue, as well, and how it evolves in the future remains to be seen.
Robert R. Reilly:
I am wondering whether the model of Islam in Indonesia, particularly in the Nahdlatul Ulama movement, which is the largest Muslim organization in the world, is that too far away, too foreign to Central Asia to have a favorable influence there or are they aware of that?
S. Frederick Starr:
They are well aware of all these currents in the Muslim world from everywhere, but with regard to the Indonesian movement, they think the Indonesians should be coming to them, not vice versa. They see all the difficulties that are arising in Indonesia itself and say, look, these are far more serious problems than we face. Our handling of the faith is more successful and a better model than what they have produced in Indonesia.
Robert R. Reilly:
In what respects better?
S. Frederick Starr:
They would argue that we do not have these radical elements, popping up in random places around our region. We have developed working relations with official Muslim bodies, and we have extensive ties in the rest of the Muslim world without in any way compromising our Hanafi, and much milder and more pro-education and so forth, approach.
Robert R. Reilly:
I think the reaction from Nahdlatul Ulama to what you just said is that they have had to deal with the Wahhabi influence and the infiltration of Saudi Islam into their country, and that is what radicalized it. And of course, there is a great deal of bitterness expressed against the Saudis at least in the past in this respect, whereas that Saudi influence perhaps did not penetrate Central Asia.
S. Frederick Starr:
Interestingly, it began in Soviet times, and the Wahhabi currents in Central Asia were a real factor at the time of the collapse of the USSR. And there were real difficulties that the Central Asian states had in suppressing Wahhabism. The most notable case was one which the United States grossly misread, and that occurred in 2005 in the Uzbek city of Andizhan. And at that point a very radical group basically invaded the city hall, killed members of the city council, chased them to their homes, shot them there, then took over the local jail, marched them out on the street, using the prisoners as human shields, and there was a big shootout with untrained Uzbek forces.
They were untrained because even though we had Partnership for Peace, NATO’s Partnership for Peace, in Uzbekistan at the time, it did not include domestic forces, so that the Uzbek army, paradoxically at the time of the Andizhan crisis, could have handled it in a much more sophisticated way than the domestic forces did. Big shootout, 180 people killed, terrible event, including people who were human shields and so forth.
We misinterpreted. We concluded that these were peaceful demonstrators, and the oppressive Uzbek government had shot innocent people and especially pious people, which was the phrase that both the State Department used and the various human rights groups. They were wrong. To give another detail on this, there was a BBC reporter who happened to be in Andizhan at the time. [He] reported that he was observing peaceful demonstrators that were being killed, slaughtered by the Uzbek forces.
However, subsequently, several films taken by the attackers, by the Islamists – why did they take films? Because they thought they were ushering in the new world. Their films were eventually found and captured, and they showed this BBC reporter, this Russian reporter for BBC, walking by rows of machine guns. This was not a peaceful demonstration. These were not especially pious Muslims who were peacefully demonstrating. This was an armed attack. It was put down brutally, it was bad, but we misread it, and punished the Uzbeks accordingly.
Robert R. Reilly:
Fred, to what extent do you think U.S. cultural illiteracy in Central Asia has led to our missteps there? I mean I would from my limited knowledge certainly say I think our 20 years in Afghanistan was animated by huge misunderstandings of the nature of Afghan society or even the very history of the country, and you just gave another instance of an error perhaps based on similar cultural illiteracy. I mean you are one of the best-informed, experienced Americans in Central Asia, and there are not many of you.
S. Frederick Starr:
Yes, by default, but let me say about that. There is held in Washington on the same day that we are meeting now, there was held at a conference of celebrating 30 years of Kazakhstan-U.S. relations. One of the official spokesmen, I will not say whether it was NSC or State Department, but the person they sent had never been there in anywhere in the region, and made the profound cultural observation that she wanted to go there because she had heard that apples originated in Kazakhstan, which is true, or Kyrgyzstan, and what could be more American than apple pie? Well, this was the extent of her cultural sophistication. I think your use of the term cultural illiteracy is very appropriate.
Robert R. Reilly:
Could we talk about some of the cultural character of Central Asia? I was hearing that some of the Central Asian states are, for instance, moving away from the Cyrillic alphabet and into the Latin alphabet as one indication of their attempting to move out from Russian hegemony. Would that be reading that correctly?
S. Frederick Starr:
The ‘move out from Russian hegemony?’ I would rather suggest they want to dilute Russian hegemony by equally strong and balancing relations with the West. They first proposed to dilute that hegemony by opening the door to China. Now, they have to seek this balance with Russia and China by opening to the West. Now, the Cyrillic alphabet becomes a real issue in this, and the Uzbeks have officially adopted the Latin alphabet. They are slowly shifting, not easy to do, and the Kazakhs have done the same and President Tokayev recently announced that he wants to speed up the process of Latinization. The Turkmen have not done anything in this direction, but the Kyrgyz are. Tajiks are in a very complicated position because they do not want to go Latinization for various reasons, but the temptation there is to adopt the modified Arabic script that is used in Iran and Afghanistan.
There are forces that are urging that policy in Tajikistan. It is not going to happen either. For the time being they are going to continue to use their Tajik language, which is closely, closely related to Afghan Dari and to Farsi in Iran, but they are going to use it in the Cyrillic script, but this is a real indicator, and note that Azerbaijan has made the switch. They have really done so. This is part of the bigger story. It is not that they are jumping ship with the Russians and the Chinese, they could not possibly. They are just too close, to omnipresent, but they want to balance it, and even a matter like the script comes into play as they seem to do that.
Robert R. Reilly:
When you mention Farsi and Dari, it brings to mind the deep cultural influences from Persia, from Iran in the region. Has Iran more or less cut itself off to the character of its own regime, which is unattractive to the moderate Islam in Central Asia?
S. Frederick Starr:
Not really. Interestingly, there was a push in this direction after the Khomeini revolution. There were pictures of Khomeini, [which] popped up in Tajikistan in people’s houses and so on. This died out very quickly and it was put down very quickly. And the Central Asians’ position now as a group is, yes, we respect our very old ties with what is now Iran. We in Tajikistan value our common language. However, keep the religious stuff at home. We know who we are, we do not need your help. They are really quite good at identifying their interests and defending them in both language and culture.
Robert R. Reilly:
In terms of understanding who they are, I believe you, Fred, have made a major contribution to that understanding with your magnum opus, Lost Enlightenment. Can you talk about its impact there? I mean it has been translated into those Central Asian languages, and it is quite celebrated there. Is that a correct characterization?
S. Frederick Starr:
Excellent translations into the Central Asian languages, yes, and I have to say while I was working on it, I received wonderful cooperation from every country. In Turkmenistan, for example, I had wonderful cooperation. I had to see material in certain Turkmen museums in Ashkhabad and elsewhere. I had to go to some very remote places to see the ruins of ancient cities, and I got full cooperation.
And let me tell this story because it is revealing.
Berdimuhamedow generally does not get a positive press in the West and in the U.S., and there is a good deal of criticism of his domestic policies. He runs a very, very tight ship that not everyone is pleased with, that is for certain. I have understated it here. That said, let me report on a park in central Ashhabad, which the same Berdimuhamedow, so much criticized in the West, he had created. And the park is astonishing in that it has 10-foot sculptures, pretty good pieces, of all the great intellectual and cultural figures from a thousand years ago in Central Asia.
Well, I was taken now, I was shown this, and after viewing it, I had a chance to ask officially at the highest level, ‘wonderful, congratulations, these are all my friends I have been writing about, but you do know they are not Turkmen?’ And the answer, which I got from the president himself is, yes, we know that, but they are our common heritage. And it is this awareness of a common heritage and high culture which is bringing them together. And by my good fortune my book appeared at just the time they were looking to affirm that common heritage, and that in turn becomes a basis for their linking arms today. That enables them to or will enable them more effectively to deal with the outside powers.
Robert R. Reilly:
I have seen photographs of that that park. It really is extraordinary. Fred, before we close, I think we need to touch upon the Uyghur problem in Xinjiang, about which you have written, China is the big boy on the block, it is exercising such influence, Belt and Road Initiative, its economic power, which cannot be ignored by any of the Central Asian states. Yet, as Muslims they have to be repelled by what the Chinese state is doing to their confrères.
S. Frederick Starr:
This is a deeply vexing problem. The Chinese are dead serious. Their goal is not simply to contain excesses of cultural enthusiasm among Uyghurs and other Central Asians in Xinjiang, and I mean by that Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, there are even a quarter million Tajiks in Xinjiang. We never hear about them. It is not just to contain their excesses of radicalism and so on. No, it is now to wipe out their independent identity as a culture and turn it into a kind of cultural ethnographic museum.
Now, that is very serious, and I think the Chinese have shown every evidence of being very serious about it. Can you do that with millions and millions of people? Is that really possible or are they by doing this radicalizing the next generation? It is too early to say. The Chinese believe they can do it by moving people around, by requiring the study and mastery of the Chinese language, the suppression of Turkic languages in Xinjiang, and so on.
Now, where are the Central Asians about all of this? Uyghurs were really you could say they were the first great Central Asian Turkic civilization long before anyone heard of Turks, Turks and Turkey. They were the earliest to have a written alphabet. They had urbanization and so on and great writers and thinkers. The Central Asians know this very well. An Uzbek and a Uyghur do not need an interpreter to speak with each other. They have different languages, but they are close enough that they understand each other.
Now, why are they so passive about this tragedy taking place on their doorstep? Well, very simple reason. Read the founding documents of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The first three members of which were the neighbors of Xinjiang in Central Asia, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, all of them were required to renounce the use of their territory for any independent activity directed towards Xinjiang. This is in their agreement. It is an international document. It is never mentioned, but they handed over this degree of sovereignty in order to basically engage with China, to get China to balance Russia, and then they had to turn around later, and turn to the United States to balance Russia and China. And it is that third step which we have destroyed by our precipitous departure from Afghanistan. Our challenge today is to try to pick up the pieces and to develop constructive strategies with the Central Asians that will enable them to re-establish the balanced system of foreign relations that was against no one and benefited them and us equally.
Robert R. Reilly:
Is the C5+1 effort by the answer is the C5+1 part of the answer?
S. Frederick Starr:
Well, yeah, C5+1 means five Central Asian states plus the U.S. This was established by the U.S. government, and it holds periodic meetings at a high level, but with usually very low level of preparation on the American side. Why do we have a C5+1? Because the Kazakhs proposed it to us. We did not invent it ourselves. They wanted to engage us with the region. It was created. Secretary of State Kerry reluctantly agreed just to get this off his back and agreed to create the C5+1. It has been treated as a secondary interest ever since.
It is not enough and just to claim that we are going to activate it now, maybe that would make some difference, [but] I am skeptical. We have to do much more than that. I think to think that activating the C5+1 meeting would suffice to rectify the damage we have done by the way we departed from Afghanistan, I do not think that is the case. I think we are going to have to do more. We have really undercut the basis of Central Asian foreign policies, and as a result we have threatened their sovereignties. We need to take much more serious steps than we are contemplating yet, and we have to do it alone and with the Europeans and other well-disposed countries that are eager to see a balance to China and to Russia.
Robert R. Reilly:
Fred, thank you so much. I am afraid we are out of time. I thank Dr. Fred Starr from the American Foreign Policy Council for talking with us today on: The Impact of the American Withdrawal from Afghanistan on Central Asia. Again, I invite our viewers to go to the Westminster Institute YouTube channel to see our other videos addressing subjects on China, Russia, the Middle East and so forth, and to find the superlative lecture by Dr. Starr on his book, Lost Enlightenment. Thank you for joining us today. I am Bob Reilly, director of the Westminster Institute.