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Breakdownistan: U.S. Concerns in Central Asia and Afghanistan Going Forward

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Breakdownistan: U.S. Concerns in Central Asia and Afghanistan Going Forward

Charles J. Sullivan

Abstract: This article highlights the phenomenon of state failure in Central Asia. (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan for this discussion) to address this security challenge. In order to try to effectively curtail state failure, this article maintains that the United States should focus its efforts mainly on three “fronts” (democracy, religion, and the narcotics trade) so as to prevent the collapse of these states to the greatest possible extent. Additionally, the United States should chart a course in Afghanistan for the remainder of Operation Enduring Freedom (presumably until 2016) with the aim of orchestrating a settlement between the primary warring parties in the hopes of ending this conflict. That said, if the aforementioned Central Asian states ultimately succumb to collapse in the coming years and/or negotiations do not lead to the brokering of a political settlement between Kabul and the Taliban, then the United States will have to somehow learn to cope with the added complexity.

Central Asia is widely perceived as a remote part of the world which rarely makes the news headlines. Generally construed as a post-Soviet backwater, it is a place where autocracy reigns supreme and corruption is rife.[1] Worldly interest in the region tends to focus on the Great Powers vying for political and economic supremacy in a “New Great Game.”[2] That said, it is also a somewhat dangerous place in that a considerable portion of this region presents a rather complex national security issue to the United States today.

The guiding purpose of this article is to initiate a discussion between the U.S. academic, military, and policymaking communities so that America may effectively address the challenges that it will likely face in Central Asia in the years ahead. Overall, I believe that it is worthwhile for national security professionals to engage in a discussion with others who normally consider themselves to be outside of this community (such as social scientists), namely because a variety of threats face us all throughout the greater Middle East today. Since 9/11, the United States has gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq in an effort to eradicate menacing regimes and replace them with peaceful democratic states. However, both state/nation-building campaigns have proven to be extremely costly and neither has led to a desirable outcome. As such, it is necessary to start thinking more about how to deal with complex security concerns as they arise in the future. In his recent commencement address to the graduating cadets of the United States Military Academy at West Point, President Barack Obama (in speaking about the danger of terrorism) stated that America must “develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat; one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin, or stirs up local resentments.”[3] But what type of strategy should the United States adhere to in the future?

In my efforts to stimulate dialogue on this subject, this article puts forth an interpretation of Carl von Clausewitz’s “center of gravity” concept as it applies in the context of American interests in Central Asia. As U.S. and coalition forces prepare to withdraw most of their remaining resources from Afghanistan, the military and policymaking communities are surely aware that a substantial shift in the region’s power dynamics may soon take place. Yet the infinitely complex situation in Afghanistan is merely the tip of the iceberg, for the ruling regimes situated in neighboring countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are extremely “wobbly” on account of a volatile mixture of “aging autocrats,” elite rivalries, and ethnic tensions, coupled with the inability of these governments to exert full authority within their borders.[4] In response, the United States should strive towards ensuring that none of these states collapse. Aptly stated, the “centers of gravity” here are the states, and it is in our interest that they do not give way. Preventing a collapse thus constitutes our core regional interest in the “Stans”.[5]

The “Centers of Gravity” in Central Asia

In returning to Obama’s commencement address at West Point this past month, the President stated that “the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.” To counter this “diffuse threat,” President Obama has proposed a “Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund” which “will allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.”[6] This is all well and good, but it does not constitute a well-defined strategy. Moreover, it remains unclear as to what states are on the “front lines.” In fairness, the President said that this new strategy should encompass the region of the world stretching “from South Asia to the Sahel.”[7] So, what about Central Asia? Overall, I would argue that at least some of the “Stans” should be included in a discussion about formulating a new strategy to counter the “diffuse threat” facing us. But where do we begin? Speaking from an academic perspective, I believe that it would be best to start off here with looking closely at Clausewitz’s “center of gravity” concept.

According to Clausewitz, “A center of gravity is always found where the mass is concentrated most densely. It presents the most effective target for a blow…”[8] Strategically, Clausewitz contends that in order to vanquish one’s enemy, “Blow after blow must be aimed in the same direction…” so that the “center of gravity” eventually gives way.[9] In expanding upon this standard and borrowing from Echevarria (2003), a “center of gravity” is more precisely defined as a “focal point” and not simply a source of “strength” or “weakness” in regards to any particular entity. Rather, “…it is the point where a certain centripetal force seems to exist, something that holds everything else together.”[10] Understood in this context, the United States should work to try to correct the various social, political, and economic imbalances in Central Asia so as to prevent the incidence of a “knockout blow”[11] (i.e. state collapse) in any of the aforementioned countries. However, the enemy here is not necessarily any group, organization, network, or insurgency (at least not at the moment). Rather, it is a type of process. Specifically, state failure is conceptualized here as the enemy facing the United States in Central Asia.

In truth, the United States has had first-hand experience in trying to deal with state failure in Afghanistan in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the United States became directly involved in a civil war by siding with the Northern Alliance after the 9/11 attacks. In doing so, we were successful early on in ousting the Taliban from power. Needless to say though, the state/nation-building venture since the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom has proven to be extraordinarily difficult. In Iraq, the United States also succeeded in overthrowing the Ba’ath regime. But shortly thereafter, the U.S. government along with the U.S. military committed a series of stunning strategic blunders, causing the Iraqi state to collapse and chaos to ensue.[12] In both instances, the United States eventually came to embrace the principles of counterinsurgency, initially in Iraq (according to a new strategy)[13] and later in Afghanistan. Yet in quoting West (2014), “We tried COIN as nation-building twice, and twice it failed.”[14] To be certain, some progress has been achieved in rebuilding these countries. But the Iraqi and Afghani states are politically inept and physically weak.[15] Judging by the situation on the ground in cities like Fallujah and Mosul today, Iraq is on the brink of falling back into a civil war. Tragically, Afghanistan may share a similar fate in the future.[16] So, if COIN does not provide much of a blueprint in terms of how to go about (re)building failed states (particularly after an insurgency has been weakened militarily)[17], and since it is doubtful that the U.S. military will engage in another open-ended war soon, what else can we do?

In speaking about how the United States should conduct foreign policy in the years ahead, President Obama has stated that “military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance.”[18] Bearing this in mind, in order to commence with reversing the process of state failure in Central Asia, I propose here that America should focus its efforts mainly on three “fronts”: democracy, religion, and the narcotics trade. In terms of policy recommendations, the United States should work to try to convince the Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tajik governments in particular to begin developing and empowering democratic institutions, revising the nature of the relationship between the state and Islam, and combatting the narcotics industry. In doing so, the overarching goal of the United States should thus be to “restore the functionality”[19] of these states to the greatest possible extent, by (i) assisting ordinary people in acquiring more of a say in political affairs, (ii) reducing the ideological appeal of radical Islam, and (iii) improving Central Asians’ overall economic opportunities.

The outcomes of the struggles waged on such fronts will profoundly affect the developmental trajectories of these countries, and significantly determine whether the Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tajik states falter or endure. But why should Americans care about the “Stans”? After all, Central Asia does not serve as Washington’s primary region of strategic interest, and not every failed state poses a threat to the United States.[20] Shouldn’t we be more concerned about countering threats to our national security in countries like Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen? Furthermore, scholars such as Mazarr (2014) are openly challenging the wisdom of the “failed-state paradigm,” labeling it as “more of a mania than a sound strategic doctrine.”[21] Overall, in spite of such valid points, it is worth noting that if left unchecked the phenomenon of state failure could metastasize into a grave regional issue. In other words, the collapse of one Central Asian state would likely lead to the further destabilization of other neighboring countries. Dominoes might not necessarily start to fall across the board, but instability could become even more widespread (particularly if Afghanistan were to come to serve as a “staging ground” for insurgents).[22] Somewhere down the line, the end result could thus be the creation of a new safe haven for various elements affiliated with the “diffuse threat” facing us (which, incidentally, is happening right now before our eyes within a stretch of territory spanning across Syria and Iraq). In short, the last thing that we want is a similar situation to arise in Central Asia. Hence, it would be prudent to commence with addressing this issue now so as to better guard against the formation of another major U.S. national security concern.

State Failure in Central Asia

According to Rotberg (2004), “Nation-states fail when they are consumed by internal violence and cease delivering positive political goods to their inhabitants.” As a consequence of this state of affairs, “…governments lose credibility, and the continuing nature of the particular nation-state itself becomes questionable and illegitimate in the hearts and minds of its citizens.”[23] In drawing upon this definition, it is clear that failed states possess two key characteristics: they are functionally inefficient (in that they are unable and/or unwilling to regularly provide public services) and they, consequently, lack “legitimacy.”[24] In brief, failed states are very “weak” in the sense that they are unable to carry out their basic duties. Certainly though, failed states (or “weak states” in the process of becoming failed states) are not the worst thing imaginable, for states can “collapse,” coming to “exhibit a vacuum of authority” and amounting to but a “mere geographical expression.” Failing or failed states thus differ from fully “collapsed states” (which Rotberg characterizes as “a rare and extreme version of a failed state”) in at least one crucial sense; though highly inefficient and illegitimate, failing states still provide some modicum of services, retain some legitimacy, and exercise some degree of authority.[25]

Is state failure a concern in Central Asia? Upon observing data indicators provided by the Fund for Peace, three of the five Central Asian states (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan) are currently located within the “Warning” level on the Failed States Index’s rankings.[26] Why is this so? On the surface, Central Asia is a quite peaceful region. Occasionally, however, it experiences outbursts of violence. For example, Tajikistan is still coping with the aftereffects of a devastating civil war (1992-1997), and Kyrgyzstan experienced two “revolutions” in the span of just five years (both of which led to the ouster of Presidents Askar Akayev in 2005 and Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010, followed by a bout of ethnic rioting which gripped the southern region of the country in the wake of the latter).[27] Overall, such events largely arose out of a combination of clan/region-based rivalries and elite infighting over access to patronage.[28] Uzbekistan, by contrast, has neither fallen victim to a civil war nor experienced a “revolution.” That said, the Uzbek government is extremely repressive and Tashkent has harshly cracked down on its own citizens (such as in Andijon in 2005).[29] The country as well may experience turmoil when President Islam Karimov’s rule comes to an end.[30]

In general, the reason why these three Central Asian states are all failing to some extent is because they are, more or less, “predatory” in nature.[31] For the most part, the ruling regimes here run on graft and greed. Power is wielded by a coterie of strongmen who do not want to relinquish their authority. As a result, leaders such as Karimov and Tajik President Imomali Rahmon will presumably remain in power until they die. Under such a system, no one in the halls of power is truly accountable to the population at large, so the elites tend to behave accordingly. Political stability is largely predicated upon how certain actors (namely the presidents who sit atop these fiefdoms) fare in terms of doling out spoils to their subordinates. That being the case, once the rewards dry up or some high-ranking official gets to be too greedy, expect for all hell to break loose (at least until the status quo is restored).[32] Sadly, this is how politics is played throughout much of the post-Soviet space, with elites occasionally “defecting” from their “patrons” at opportune moments and joining the opposition to oust them.[33] What then, if anything, can the United States do to try to revise this type of governance practiced in the “Stans” today?

The Three Fronts

As previously stated, in order to try to curtail the process of state failure in Central Asia the United States should focus its efforts mainly on three fronts: democracy, religion, and the narcotics trade. Unfortunately, the situation on all of these fronts is rather grim. On the democracy front, little headway has been made in terms of implementing reforms.[34] Authoritarian rule is omnipresent throughout Central Asia. Freedom House (2013) recently bestowed very high scores upon Kyrgyzstan (5.96), Uzbekistan (6.93), and Tajikistan (6.25), a clear indication that citizens’ political rights and civil liberties are under siege. For the most part (with the exception of Kyrgyzstan to a degree), civil society groups in Central Asia face various forms of state harassment.[35] To counteract this trend, the United States should thus make democracy promotion the cornerstone of its foreign policy agenda vis-à-vis Central Asia going forward.[36]

In terms of recommendations, it would most likely be counterproductive to focus exclusively on civil society development, in light of that many groups in Central Asia tend to maintain a “cooperative” (as opposed to “contestative”) relationship with their respective governments.[37] On the other hand, adhering to a “sequencing” approach (emphasizing the development of the rule of law coupled with economic reforms) is also somewhat risky, for high-ranking officials will refrain from fully implementing policies which serve to undermine their power.[38] That being the case, America should not abandon its values in the hopes of attaining “influence” in the “Stans”. It has not worked out well for us in the recent past, and any “influence” that we attain is fleeting in nature. Moreover, it would be foolish for the United States to turn a blind eye to authoritarianism in this part of the world, since the clan-dominated form of autocratic rule which pervades throughout Central Asia is perceived to be detrimental to stability in the long run. In other words, authoritarian regimes based upon “kin-based bonds” sit atop shaky foundations.[39] To be certain, the Arab Spring did not destabilize the ruling regimes in Central Asia.[40] But there is no guarantee that they will endure indefinitely, and maintaining close relationships with them does not serve to enhance America’s image. As such, Washington needs to try harder at prying open the political spaces in Bishkek, Tashkent, and Dushanbe. Generally, the best way to go about doing so likely entails a combination of civil society and rule of law programs, but to varying extents for each country.

If little has been realized in the way of democratic reform, the situation is just as bad when it comes to religion. This is so on account of how the governments in question here manage Islam within their societies. On this point, certain states (Uzbekistan in particular) label independent-minded religious figures as radicals, infused with a militant understanding of Islam.[41] The reason why the Uzbek government engages in this practice is because it provides Tashkent with cover to crack down at home without having to face much condemnation from abroad.[42] Yet such a hardline stance towards oppositionists can have unintended consequences, for the heavy restriction of the political space can serve to enhance the popular appeal of militant “Islamist opposition movements.”[43] Relatedly, recent research shows that citizens’ identification with Islam is growing strong in Kyrgyzstan, largely as a result of the Kyrgyz state’s inability to provide adequate public services. In turn, certain Islamic organizations (which are stepping up where the state is failing) are acquiring greater social significance.[44] Therefore, if we seek to stave off a popular groundswell in support of Islamic groups which tend to view America with suspicion and contempt (such as Hizb ut-Tahrir),[45] the United States needs to assume a more assertive stance on issues such as public services and respect for citizens’ rights.

Lastly, the narcotics trade has the potential to drag the entire region into an abyss. In addition to serving as a source of revenue for terrorists and insurgents, the drug trade cripples states by hindering human development and scaring away foreign investment.[46] Even worse, in certain countries (such as Tajikistan) the industry is so encompassing that “state capture” or the establishment of a “narco-state” has become a possibility.[47] To further complicate matters, as long as the sale of heroin constitutes a large share of economic activity, ordinary Tajiks will not want to disrupt the economic status quo. Based upon such an understanding of the situation, some may reason that it would be best for the United States to not focus on this front, out of the concern that trying to combat the drug trade here might stoke another civil war.[48] Yet doing nothing in the short-term (so as to avoid complicating relations with Dushanbe) will neither serve to strengthen the government’s functional capacity nor improve its standing among Tajik citizens. Taken together, since the drug trade is a regional problem with far-reaching implications, any policy proposal merits a careful region wide assessment prior to its implementation.

Clearly, the obstacles facing the United States on these fronts are daunting. In addition, in light of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, any potential U.S. military action in Central Asia (be it with or without the official cooperation of a host government) would cause relations between Washington and Moscow to deteriorate even further. That said, based upon America’s experience with the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, it is unrealistic to think that we can rely upon the U.S. military in the near future to once again partake in the “herculean task” of (re)constructing the social, economic, and political institutions of a failing or failed state essentially from scratch.[49] Consequently, there are not many “options” for the United States to select from in terms of dealing with security concerns in this part of the world. By adhering to an approach which takes into consideration all of the aforementioned challenges, however, we hopefully can begin to address the issue of state failure. Still, it is unlikely that a revamped foreign policy will assist in realizing our core regional interest if Afghanistan is not taken into consideration. Hence, it would be wise to get a plan in place regarding the region’s volatile underbelly as soon as possible.

What Lies Ahead in Afghanistan

Today, Afghanistan is very much in the news headlines. But the focus of the current debate centers on the issue of whether it was a wise decision on behalf of the Obama administration to release five Guantanamo Bay detainees in exchange for the return of an American soldier who was held in captivity for years. So far though, there has not really been any substantial debate on the issue of how to bring the War in Afghanistan to a close. For some reason, it has not entered into our national discourse as of yet. I find this to be troubling. Indeed, this is a pressing matter which merits attention.

After more than a decade of fighting, the United States and its coalition partners have not succeeded in bringing the War in Afghanistan to a definitive conclusion. The enemy (namely the Afghan Taliban or Quetta Shura for this discussion) has not been defeated, and the Afghan government remains unable to project its authority throughout the country. According to Eikenberry (2013), the 2009 “surge” of U.S. troops in Afghanistan did not lead to the collapse of the Taliban insurgency. Instead, the outcome of this conflict remains “indeterminate,” namely because of the failure of the United States to help establish a legitimate Afghan government capable of providing public services, disagreements between Washington and Kabul over the implementation of COIN, and the existence of multiple enemy “sanctuaries” in Pakistan.[50] Thus, the possibility exists that we may soon witness a localized war morph into a wider conflict as the United States and its coalition partners draw down their remaining military forces.[51]

In the interest of averting this scenario, the United States should remain engaged in Afghanistan, but with the goal of orchestrating a political settlement between the primary warring parties in mind for now. At this point, outright victory appears to be unobtainable, on account of that a variety of factors (ranging from the nature of the terrain along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to the inherent “weakness” of the Afghan government) favor the Taliban.[52] The fact that the Afghan government presides over a drug-infused economy also greatly magnifies the difficulty in quelling the insurgency, since counter-narcotics policies tend to undermine counter-insurgency efforts.[53] In response, Washington appears to have three “options” from which to choose. “Option One” entails the United States pulling out entirely and leaving Kabul to fend for itself. “Option Two” consists of the United States pushing onward, by waging a type of proxy war to prevent the return of the Taliban. Lastly, “Option Three” involves trying to resolve the country’s troubles by pressuring the warring parties to broker a political settlement.[54]

Unfortunately, all of these “options” come equipped with drawbacks. With respect to “Option One,” although many wish to leave the War in Afghanistan to history, the truth of the matter is that it appears to be far from over. Simply put, the war will not end if America walks away from the battlefield, and Afghanistan may soon descend into chaos reminiscent of the late 1990s if all U.S. and coalition forces leave soon. Since it is unlikely that the Afghan government will be able to vanquish the Taliban, Washington thus seems to think that it is best to push onward for now. President Obama intends to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan next year, followed by the withdrawal of most U.S. troops by the end of 2016.[55] But if “Option Two” amounts to just training and equipping more Afghan soldiers and replenishing Kabul’s coffers, then we may have to indefinitely set aside funding.[56] Moreover, training and equipping more Afghans and continuously funding Kabul should not define U.S. strategy outright because it does not provide us with a resolution to this conflict. That is, unless these tactics constitute part of a grander strategy designed to broker a settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

To be clear, “Option Three” is not a panacea. For starters, it is difficult for many (myself included) to embrace this option, since the Taliban provided safe haven to Al-Qaeda prior to the onset of Operation Enduring Freedom and have since killed U.S. and coalition forces in combat. It is also hard to say whether this option will yield any beneficial results in the long run. After all, Afghanistan faces a variety of challenges that will continue to sap the country’s developmental prospects for well into the foreseeable future. It is also possible that the Taliban simply do not want to broker a lasting political settlement with Kabul (particularly if the enemy believes that American forces will soon enough leave Afghanistan for good). On this point, the Taliban are surely watching how war-weary Washington responds to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s recent acquisition of Mosul and Tikrit. If ISIS lays siege to Baghdad in the days ahead, then the Taliban may reason that it is but a matter of time before Kabul is theirs for the taking too.

In spite of these difficulties, however, “Option Three” constitutes our best choice at the moment (with “Option Two” as the reserve). So far, talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have not borne any fruit. But perhaps the Taliban may decide to enter into productive negotiations with the Afghan government’s High Peace Council, thereby providing Washington with an opportunity to partake in laying the groundwork for resolving the country’s troubles.[57] That said, in the event that a settlement is brokered, a U.S.-led military force would presumably have to remain in Afghanistan post-2016 so as to ensure a lasting peace between the combatants. Plainly stated, if we are serious about “Option Three” then our exit will be further delayed.[58]

Then again, peace may prove to be unrealizable in the end, and the continuation of fighting might result in the de facto partitioning of the country and creation of a Taliban “phantom state.”[59] If such a scenario plays out, then America will have to find a way to manage this threat. Consequently, in light of the uncertainty of the situation, it would be wise to start trying to strengthen the “centers of gravity” in Central Asia now.


Realistically, there is no “New Great Game” to be won in Central Asia.[60] There is no sphere of influence which America can wrestle away from Russia and/or China. Today, Moscow seeks to assert political dominance over its southern neighbors while Beijing aspires to acquire access to the region’s vast energy reserves and enhance its economic clout. The Central Asian elites know as well that they can rely upon these two for cover whenever America disapproves of their conduct.[61] Yet there is also no truly pressing interest that requires Washington to wed itself to the Kyrgyz, Uzbek, or Tajik government.[62] There is but a lurking danger here, and there’s only one way to prevent its realization; we need to try to toughen up the states themselves. They need to become more accountable, more transparent, more inclusive, and more attentive. It is their own lack of accountability, transparency, inclusiveness, and attentiveness which hinders their stability and calls their longevity into question. At this time, it remains unknown as to whether this issue will materialize into a major U.S. national security concern. In any event, this latent threat should not be overlooked. Thus, it is crucial that the United States not lose all interest in Central Asia in the days ahead, when the first truly post-Soviet generations of Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Turkmen, and Uzbeks are starting to take shape. In truth, Central Asia wields significant potential and the barriers insulating the “Stans” from the rest of the world are weakening as youths venture abroad, Western scholars come to work at new universities, and the economies of the region grow. In summary, America should aspire to see that Central Asians realize their developmental potential.[63]

Much though still depends upon the local ruling elites. In the final analysis, the Central Asian states discussed here along with Afghanistan may prove to be incapable of repair and succumb to collapse. If such a scenario plays out, then the United States will have to somehow learn to cope with the added complexity. In short, the vexing problem with failed states is that they are unstable actors led by unreliable rulers. But I think that it is rather obvious as to why it is in our interest to try to prevent a state collapse from transpiring in the near future here. The deteriorating security situation that we now face in Iraq (with terrorists overtaking large cities) is a telling example of what happens when the United States adheres to a policy of “strategic neglect.”[64] Furthermore, failed states are not about to disappear from the international system and security concerns emanating from these actors will surely continue to arise. As such, we should be looking for ways to manage at least some of these actors, but in a manner which does not entail going to war and committing our military to another open-ended state/nation-building campaign.[65]

Do the “Stans” though merit a substantial amount of the U.S. national security community’s attention in the coming years? In spite of all of the challenges other failing governments, rising powers, rogue states, and terrorist organizations pose to the United States today, I would still venture to say so. I have also argued here that it would be wise to start addressing the issue of state failure sooner rather than later. As previously stated, Central Asia is a somewhat dangerous place. To serve as a case in point, current news reports indicate that the recent terrorist attack (perpetrated by the Pakistani Taliban) on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi was (partially) carried out by Uzbek militants affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.[66] Yet we should just as well not exaggerate the danger facing us in the “Stans” today, operate under the assumption that the solution to this unique security challenge is straightforward in nature, or allow the notion of a “New Great Game” to dominate our thinking and influence our actions. In closing, the United States should try to strengthen the “centers of gravity” in Central Asia, but with an understanding of our interests, values, and limits firmly in mind.

End Notes

[1] According to Freedom House, Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia listed as “Partly Free,” whereas Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are “Not Free.” See “Eurasia,” Freedom House (2013) (accessed 13 Jun. 2014). See also “Corruption Perceptions Index 2013,” Transparency International (2013), (accessed 13 Jun. 2014).

[2] Lutz Kleveman, The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia (New York: Grove Press, 2004).

[3] Mark Landler, “Obama Warns U.S. Faces Diffuse Terrorism Threats,” The New York Times (28 May 2014), (accessed 2 Jun. 2014). See also “Remarks by the President at the United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony,” The White House – Office of the Press Secretary (28 May 2014), (accessed 2 Jun. 2014).

[4] Eric McGlinchey, “Central Asia Grows Wobbly,” Current History (Oct. 2012): 275-280.

[5] Arguably, preventing state collapse has been America’s core regional interest in Central Asia since the 9/11 attacks. See Fiona Hill, “The United States and Russia in Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran,” The Brookings Institution (15 Aug. 2002), (accessed 21 May 2014).

[6] “Remarks by the President at the United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony,” (2014).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 485.

[9] Ibid., 596.

[10] Antulio J. Echevarria II, “Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity: It’s Not What We Thought,” Naval War College Review Vol. 56, No. 1 (Winter 2003): 115, 117.

[11] See Echevarria (2003): 116.

[12] See Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (New York: Penguin Books, 2006).

[13] See Thomas E. Ricks, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq (New York: Penguin Press, 2010).

[14] Bing West, “The 2014 Counterinsurgency Field Manual Requires Pre-Publication Review,” Small Wars Journal (14 May 2014), (accessed 4 Jun. 2014).

[15] For 2013, Afghanistan and Iraq hold the positions of #7 and #11 on the Failed States Index’s rankings, respectively. See “Failed States Index,” Fund for Peace (2013), (accessed 4 Jun. 2014). Now, the “Failed States Index” is known as the “Fragile States Index.” See (accessed 13 Jun. 2014).

[16] “The Fall of Mosul,” The Wall Street Journal (11 Jun. 2014).

[17] As an example, see Ricks, The Gamble, 261-267, 271-272, 295-298. Ricks argues that the Iraqi government essentially failed to capitalize on the opportunity provided to it by the successful U.S. military “surge” of 2007-2008 to address and resolve a variety of divisive political issues facing the country.

[18] “Remarks by the President at the United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony,” (2014).

[19] Robert I. Rotberg, “The Failure and Collapse of Nation-States: Breakdown, Prevention, and Repair,” in Robert I. Rotberg, ed., When States Fail: Causes and Consequences (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 1.

[20] James Traub, “Think Again: Failed States,” Foreign Policy (Jul./Aug. 2011): 51-52. See also Michael J. Mazarr, “The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm,” Foreign Affairs Vol. 93, No.1 (Jan./Feb. 2014): 116.

[21] Mazarr (2014): 113.

[22] For a similar argument which I draw upon here, see Scott Radnitz, “Spinning the Spillover: Why NATO Withdrawal from Afghanistan Does Not Pose a Threat to Central Asia,” Project on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia Policy Memo 301 (Sep. 2013), (accessed 21 May 2014).

[23] Rotberg, When States Fail, 1.

[24] Jack Goldstone, “Pathways to State Failure,” Conflict Management and Peace Science Vol. 25, No. 4 (Sep. 2008): 285-296.

[25] Rotberg, When States Fail, 2, 4-9.

[26] “Failed States Index,” (2013).

[27] For an analysis of the Tulip Revolution, see Scott Radnitz, “What Really Happened in Kyrgyzstan?” Journal of Democracy Vol. 17, No. 2 (Apr. 2006): 132-146. For a discussion on the ethnic rioting in 2010, see Alexander Cooley, “Kyrgyzstan on the Brink,” Current History (Oct. 2010): 304-306.

[28] With respect to the debate concerning the causes of the Tajik Civil War, see Muriel Atkin, “Tajikistan’s Civil War,” Current History (Oct. 1997): 336-340; Kathleen Collins, “The Logic of Clan Politics: Evidence from the Central Asian Trajectories,” World Politics Vol. 56, No. 2 (Jan. 2004): 224-261; and Lawrence P. Markowitz, “Unlootable Resources and State Security Institutions in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan,” Comparative Political Studies Vol. 44, No. 2 (2011): 156-183. For a discussion concerning the causes of the 2005 and 2010 “revolutions” in Kyrgyzstan, see Eric McGlinchey, Chaos, Violence, Dynasty: Politics and Islam in Central Asia (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), 80-113.

[29] Adeeb Khalid, Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 192-198.

[30] For an overview of Karimov’s political history, see “Uzbekistan: Karimov’s Long Rule Extended Again,” (25 Mar. 2012), (accessed 21 May 2014).

[31] On “predatory” regimes, see Peter Evans, Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 45-47. For a similar argument which emphasizes the danger of Islamic terrorism in the region, see Charles J. Sullivan, “Havoc on the Horizon: The Dangers of State Failure and Radical Islam in Central Asia,” The Washington Review of Turkish & Eurasian Affairs (Mar. 2011), (accessed 23 May 2014).

[32] See McGlinchey, Chaos, Violence, Dynasty, 17-47, 80-164.

[33] See Henry E. Hale “Regime Cycles: Democracy, Autocracy, and Revolution in Post-Soviet Eurasia,” World Politics Vol. 58, No. 1 (Oct. 2005): 133-165.

[34] For a discussion on the reformist measures in Central Asia during the first decade of post-Soviet rule, see Martha Brill Olcott: Central Asia’s Second Chance (Washington: Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, 2005), 20-51.

[35] Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska, “Nations in Transit 2013: Authoritarian Aggression and the Pressures of Austerity,” Freedom House (2013), (accessed 13 Jun. 2014).

[36] Washington has sought to promote political and economic reform in Central Asia. Unfortunately, the ruling regimes in the region perceive reform as detrimental. See Eugene B. Rumer, “The U.S. Interests and Role in Central Asia after K2,” The Washington Quarterly Vol. 29, No. 3 (Summer 2006): 145-146, 150-151.

[37] See Charles E. Ziegler, “Civil Society, Political Stability, and State Power in Central Asia: Cooperation and Contestation,” Democratization Vol. 17, No. 5 (Oct. 2010): 795-825.

[38] Thomas Carothers, “The “Sequencing” Fallacy,” Journal of Democracy Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jan. 2007): 12-27.

[39] On the dangers of clan-based rule, see Collins (2004).

[40] Scott Radnitz, “Yawning through the Arab Spring: Resilient Regimes in Central Asia and the Caucasus,” Project on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia Policy Memo 179 (Sep. 2011), (accessed 21 May 2014).

[41] See Eric M. McGlinchey, “Islamic Leaders in Uzbekistan,” Asia Policy No. 1 (Jan. 2006): 123-144. See also Khalid, Islam after Communism, 169-170.

[42] See Khalid, Islam after Communism, 168-185, 191.

[43] Eric M. McGlinchey, “The Making of Militants: The State and Islam in Central Asia,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East Vol. 25, No. 3 (2005): 554-566.

[44] Eric McGlinchey, “Islamic Revivalism and State Failure in Kyrgyzstan,” Problems of Post-Communism Vol. 56, No. 3 (May/Jun. 2009): 16-28.

[45] For a discussion on Hizb ut-Tahrir in Central Asia, see Kathleen Collins, “Ideas, Networks, and Islamist Movements: Evidence from Central Asia and the Caucasus,” World Politics Vol. 60, No. 1 (Oct. 2007): 64-96.

[46] Svante E. Cornell and Niklas L.P. Swanström, “The Eurasian Drug Trade: A Challenge to Regional Security,” Problems of Post-Communism Vol. 53, No. 4 (Jul./Aug. 2006): 10-28.

[47] Ibid., 19, 21-23.

[48] “Addicted: Heroin Stabilizes a Poor Country,” The Economist (21 Apr. 2012), (accessed 21 May 2014).

[49] Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., “Still Shortchanged: Some Observations About the Army/Marine Corps COIN Doctrine,” Small Wars Journal (18 May 2014), (accessed 23 May 2014). Similarly, see Mazarr (2014): 117-120.

[50] Karl W. Eikenberry, “The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs Vol. 92, No. 5 (Sep./Oct. 2013): 59-74.

[51] There exists a concern that Central Asians affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan may soon return to the Fergana Valley (after the United States and its coalition partners withdraw from Afghanistan) to renew their armed struggle against the Uzbek government. See Qishloq Ovozi, “Karimov Prepares for Terrorists,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (24 Jan. 2014), (accessed 28 Apr. 2014). See also Thomas M. Sanderson, Daniel Kimmage, and David A. Gordon, “From the Ferghana Valley to South Waziristan: The Evolving Threat of Central Asian Jihadists,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (2010), (accessed 21 May 2014).

[52] For a discussion on factors which favor an insurgency, see James D. Fearon and David Laitin, “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War,” American Political Science Review Vol. 97, No. 1 (Feb. 2003): 75-90.

[53] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Afghanistan: When Counternarcotics Undermines Counterterrorism,” The Washington Quarterly Vol. 28, No. 4 (Autumn 2005): 55-72.

[54] For a similar argument, see Stephen Biddle, “Ending the War in Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs Vol. 92, No. 5 (Sep./Oct. 2013): 49-58. Biddle does not view what is referred to as “Option Two” here as viable.

[55] Karen DeYoung, “Obama to Leave 9,800 Troops in Afghanistan,” The Washington Post (27 May 2014), (accessed 28 May 2014).

[56] For a discussion on why the United States will likely tire of funding the war, see Biddle (2013): 51-52.

[57] For a discussion on why the Taliban may want to engage in negotiations, see Biddle (2013): 53-54.

[58] I draw upon Ricks’ (2010) assessment of the political implications of the “surge” in Iraq in my reasoning here. Ricks notes that following the “surge,” the U.S. military essentially came to serve as the “glue” of the Iraqi state by deterring former combatants from fighting each other. See Ricks, The Gamble, 271-272. For a discussion on other challenges that would need to be addressed if a settlement is brokered, see Biddle (2013): 55-57.

[59] For a discussion on “phantom states,” see Daniel Byman and Charles King, “The Mystery of Phantom States,” The Washington Quarterly Vol. 35, No. 2 (Summer 2012): 43-57.

[60] For a critique of the “New Great Game” concept, see Matthew Edwards, “The New Great Game and the New Great Gamers: Disciples of Kipling and Mackinder,” Central Asian Survey Vol. 22, No. 1 (2003): 83-102.

[61] Alexander Cooley, “The New Great Game in Central Asia,” Foreign Affairs (7 Aug. 2012).

[62] The U.S. military “officially closed” the Transit Center at Manas on June 3, 2014. See “U.S. Base in Kyrgyzstan Officially Closes,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (3 Jun. 2014), (accessed 3 Jun. 2014).

[63] S. Frederick Starr, “Moderate Islam? Look to Central Asia,” The New York Times (26 Feb. 2014), (accessed 21 May 2014).

[64] “The Fall of Mosul,” (11 Jun. 2014).

[65] For a discussion on how the United States should deal with failed states, see Mazarr (2014): 120-121.

[66] Declan Walsh, “Assault on Pakistan Airport Signals Taliban’s Reach and Resilience,” The New York Times (9 Jun. 2014), (accessed 10 Jun. 2014).


About the Author(s)

Dr. Charles J. Sullivan (PhD The George Washington University) will begin serving this fall semester as an Assistant Professor of Political Science & International Relations in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Republic of Kazakhstan. The opinions expressed here in this article represent those of the author and do not represent the opinions of Nazarbayev University.


The calculus on the three option scenario needs some further consideration. With the US government having already announced a date for its cut and run (Obama certainly has more leverage than would have Bush in not holding to such in regards to US domestic politics as the vast majority of those identifying as (D) will not be openly critical to any significant extent and those identifying as (R) will want to see a continued US presence), why would the Quetta Shura Afghan Taliban look for a 'political solution?' They simply have to do exactly what they have been doing and wait out the US. One of the stated goals of this organization has been the removal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan. If the US actually pulls out, the current iteration of the Najibullah government, based on current performance, will wilt in a manner akin to a paper towel placed under Niagara Falls. If, on the other hand, the successor to the Karzai regime signs a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), the casus belli for the insurgency will remain. Even if the diplomatic fantasy of a political solution unfolds, any expectation that the Taliban will honor any segment of such an agreement dealing with respecting the Western secular political process would be one based on hope rather than on an understanding of the religiously accepted strictures that govern negotiations with infidels.