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Central Asia

AreaPopulationGDP [PPP]GDP
per capita
Kazakhstan2,724,900 sq km17,520,000 $ 232.3 billion$ 13,900
Kyrgyzstan199,951 sq km5,490,000$ 13.47 billion $ 2,400
Tajikistan143,100 sq km7,760,000 $ 17.61 billion $ 2,200
Turkmenistan488,100 sq km5,050,000$ 47.55 billion $ 8,500
Uzbekistan447,400 sq km28,390,000$ 103.9 billion $ 3,500
Budget% of GDPArmyMBTfightersHelos
Kazakhstan$ 2.5 billion 1.1% of GDP
Kyrgyzstan$ 0.1 billion 0.5% of GDP
Tajikistan$ 0.3 billion 1.5% of GDP
Turkmenistan$ 1.6 billion 3.4% of GDP
Uzbekistan$ 3.6 billion 3.5% of GDP

The Great Game was the popular description of the strategic competition between Tsarist Russia and Victorian Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This came to a natural end before the Great War, as the two empires made common cause against the Kaiser. Post war it flared again as part of the Cold War, this time involving the USA. Now it used to characterize the situation where both the US and a resurgent Russia compete for influence in these same former Soviet Republics, all the more so post September 11. The United States Government has been careful never to lend credence to the "Great Game" interpretations of politics in Central Asia. The Central Asians, however, believe that they are in the middle of this chess board and must calculate their moves accordingly.

The Central Asian Republics (Kazakhstsan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) became recognized states in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The majority of the people in the region speak Turkic languages, except the Tajiks (they speak an Iranian language); and most are Sunni Muslims (some Tajiks are Shiaa Muslims). The region covers 1.6 million square miles and has an estimated population of 56.5 million people.

In the ten years between independence and the September 11 attacks, Central Asia drew interest as the site of a 'New Great Game,' as noted by author Ahmed Rashid, where a long list of actors competed for control and influence. Oil companies, Central Asian governments, neighboring countries (Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey), and powerful states such as China, Russia, and the United States all scrambled for control in an area that possibly represented the last unexplored and unexploited oil-bearing region in the world.

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are the most authoritarian states in the region, followed closely by Tajikistan, while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are the least repressed. The new republics in Central Asia were ill-prepared for independence. Each possessed executive and legislative institutions (to include a Ministry of Foreign Affairs) as ostensibly self-standing republics voluntarily formed into a larger union, but there was no republicanlevel military framework, and local economies were all subordinate to centralized planning and direction from Moscow. Each state, therefore, was immediately faced with the serious business of nation-building.

Stalin's "cartographic exercises" purposefully cut across nationalities, to "divide and conquer"; borders were drawn deliberately to generate internal ethnic tensions, to make each republic a sort of Matreshka-doll with minorities inside minorities inside minorities — all dependent on Moscow. Central authorities meant these borders as internal administrative control mechanisms; no one dreamed that Soviet Socialist Republics would ever become actual states. One area in this region has been a political powder keg — the Fergana Valley. Although historically a politically unified area, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan now claim various parts, thanks to Soviet cartographers who drew complicated republic boundaries. As a result, large pockets of ethnic Uzbeks live in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and a concentration of ethnic Kyrgyz live in Uzbekistan

The "nations" of Central Asia had no tradition of statehood prior to their creation by Stalin in the 1920s and 1930s. Each Soviet Socialist Republic was named after one specific (supposedly predominant) ethnic group, but in reality, as a result of centuries of transmigration, the republics instead bore a decidedly multi-ethnic character. Moscow's attempts to create a "Soviet" identity which transcended ethnicity, nationality, and religion failed. When Boris Yeltsin unleashed and encouraged ethnic nationalism to wrest central power from the Communist Party, he succeeded instead in destroying the Soviet Union and breaking it along ethnic lines.

By 1995 the United States still had hopes that the Central Asian states would continue the modest steps taken toward political and economic reforms, although in reality very little had been accomplished. But a new concern arose: potential Russian monopolization of the energy infrastructure in Central Asia. By this time, it was clear that the oil and natural gas deposits in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan could form a significant percentage of the world’s energy resources, and Washington wanted to ensure Moscow did not control their exploitation and shipment to the West. In the late 1990s the Central Asian states also drew international attention as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated. As concern over global terrorism rose and the brutality of the Taliban regime became evident, the Central Asian states (Turkmenistan tried to negotiate with the Taliban) found themselves increasingly involved in the fight for Afghanistan. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were at the forefront of this effort, frequently providing support to the Northern Alliance's fight against the Taliban.


Central Asia (and the Caspian region) is a lucrative, untapped oil-bearing region. The United States' 2001 National Energy Policy, stated the following: "Proven oil reserves in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are about 20 billion barrels, a little more than the North Sea and slightly less than the United States. Exploration, however, is continuing, and proven reserves are expected to increase significantly. For example, initial results of the exploration well at Kazakhstan's Kashagan field indicate the find is one of the most important in thirty years, and is comparable to Prudhoe Bay in size. Current exports from the region are only about 800,000 barrels of oil per day, in part due to limited export route options. However, potential exports could increase by 1.8 million barrels of oil per day by 2005, as the United States works closely with private companies and countries in the region to develop commercially viable export routes, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) and Caspian Pipeline Consortium oil pipelines."

Regional Affairs

Cooperation in the region has been greatly affected by political infighting and competing interests. In 1996, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, signed the "Shanghai Treaty" with China pledging the sanctity and substantial demilitarization of mutual borders. In 1997, a subsequent treaty demilitarized the former 4,300 mile Soviet-Chinese border. Facing its own indigenous separatist movement-the Uighur's in Xinjiang province- the Chinese have used the agreements to pressure the Central Asian states into dissuading any possible support for the Uighur's from their ethnic Uighur minorities. In 2001, Uzbekistan joined the group, now named the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), and in 2003 offered to host the SCO Anti-Terrorism Center.

Central Asia faces various sources of insecurity. Dams that may be built in impoverished Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would boost their economies but choke off much downstream water for agriculture in Uzbekistan. Its ruler, Islam Karimov, recently warned of "water wars." The lush Ferghana Valley -- shared by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- is a swirl of peoples and oppression, and a recruiting ground for Islamic jihadists. In 2005, a large number of protesters died at the hands of Uzbek security forces in Andijon, Uzbekistan, and in 2010 several hundred Uzbeks and a much smaller number of Kyrgyz died in ethnic clashes in the Kyrgyz city of Osh and nearby areas. A cesspool of corruption in Central Asia undermines governance. On Transparency International's index of corruption perceptions of 174 countries, Central Asian states rank poorly, averaging 157th place.

The United States and Central Asia

The U.S. Government’s overarching goal in these five republics is to promote stable, market-oriented growth that will enable access to its oil, gas and mineral resources, as well as political stability in the region. The U.S. also seeks to prevent the expansion of radicalism, narcotics and arms trafficking from neighboring countries, such as Iran and Afghanistan. Stable economic and political growth will enable the respective governments to address global health and environmental problems, such as the spread of HIV/AIDS and drug-resistant tuberculosis and the waste of water and energy resources.

In 1999, the US Congress reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to continued military engagement with Central Asia, with the passage of the Silk Road Strategy Act. This legislation was much better targeted to the needs of these states, as it explicitly provided for assistance to counteract drug trafficking, weapons proliferation, and transnational criminal activity, as well as regional terrorism. US EUCOM transferred responsibility for US military engagement activities, planning, and operations in Central Asia to US Central Command (CENTCOM) in 1999.

In 2000, a new five-year Assistance Strategy for USAID in Central Asia was developed and approved. This new strategy recognizes the region’s historical and geographic isolation, lack of any experience of modern statehood, halting transition toward economic and political reforms, and its deteriorating health and environmental conditions. The strategy takes a longer-term approach, which seeks to educate governments, nascent businesses and new professionals, and civil society – citizens, particularly young adults – on the benefits of reform to build commitment and pressure for change, a “constituency” for reform.

The perid from September 2001 to August 2002 marked the high watermark of US security-cooperation efforts in Central Asia. Instead of being viewed as the backwater in Washington’s and USCENTCOM’s security-cooperation calculus, Central Asia moved to the forefront. Soon after the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001, the Central Asian states offered overflight and other support to coalition efforts in Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have hosted coalition troops and provided access to airbases. Furthermore, in 2003 Uzbekistan endorsed coalition military action in Iraq, and Kazakhstan provided about two dozen troops for rebuilding.

Before September 11 most analysts argued that developments in Central Asia remained largely marginal to US interests. Although anti-Western extremism was a concern to the US, American-Central Asian relations remained largely rhetorical, limited to optimistic declarations and policy proposals (see Silk Road Strategy Act below) that were implemented with little vigor. In the post 9/11 world, however, the Bush administration began to see Central Asia as a crucial theater in the global war on terror. During a February 2004 visit to the region, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that "it is Caspian security...that is important" for the United States and the world, and in April 2004, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage proclaimed that Central Asia "is a linchpin in global peace and prosperity" and that "stability in the area is of paramount importance and of vital national interest."

From the beginning, US military planners failed to understand the extent of competition and often deep-seated animosity between some of the Central Asians countries, especially between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. This failure lead to the US promotion of a number of regional efforts that were doomed from the start. Most notable of these efforts was the “Central Asian Battalion” — CENTRASBAT.

After September 11, US policy in the region focused on increasing security in order to stem terrorism, proliferation, and arms trafficking. Democratization, human rights, and free market economies have been a policy goal since 1999, when Congress passed the Silk Road Strategy Act (P.L. 106-113), yet little progress has been made. In fact, in July 2004 the United States announced it was cutting aid to Uzbekistan as a result of poor human rights practices.

Nevertheless, the importance of Central Asia has not been discounted, as it became clear when, only weeks after the State Department's decision to cut aid to Uzbekistan (equal to $18 million), General Richard Meyers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled to Uzbekistan and announced that Washington would be giving an additional $21 million in military aid to the country.

The history of US security cooperation programs in Central Asia went through five distinct phases of development as those programs sought to achieve US objectives in denuclearization and proliferation prevention, democratization and military reform, regional cooperation, and improving military capabilities. The five Central Asian republics seem to have convinced the United States that secular authoritarian governments are the only option to support, because there is no alternative save radical Islamist governments. No one in the region believes in the possibility of moderate leaders, leaving the field to extreme secularists and extreme Islamists, both of whom are growing in influence.

By 2013 United States was supporting plans to link the countries of Central Asia by new rail lines with Afghanistan. Other plans include the construction of a railway corridor from Central Asia through Iran, nor Chinese extensions of its national rail system into the area. These overlapping transportation development projects might spark a new “railroad war” in Central Asia. In the absence of counter-efforts by Russia, this might result in a sharp reduction of Moscow’s influence over the region.


Russia does not have any military facilities in either Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, but it does have bases of various sizes in Kazakhstsan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. A significant player in the new Great Game that was unfolding in Central Asia before September 11, Russia has since tempered its competition vis-a-vis the US but still remains deeply interested in asserting its power in the region. Strategic security, economic ties, and the treatment of ethnic Russians have been the crux of Russian interest. As its war in Chechnya intensifies, and general concern over terrorism grows, good relations with the Central Asian states are pivotal to the development of the region as a buffer to Islamic extremism.

The IMU incursion into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 1999 and 2000 was such an opportunity. The incidents shocked the Central Asians and they looked desperately for outside assistance. Some of that assistance desired was in the form of lethal equipment, which the US refused to provide. Russia quickly stepped in and provided much of the requested equipment and material.

In May 2001, a CST summit (Collective Security Treaty- a military alliance created after the dissolution of the Soviet Union comprised of the Central Asian states and Russia) approved the creation of a Central Asian rapid-reaction force headquartered in Kyrgyzstan, with Russia's troops in Tajikistan (according to the Military Balance 2003-2004 Russia has approximately 12,000 Federal Border Guards in Tajikistan, and 7,800 troops from the 201st motorized rifle division) comprising most of the force, along with small Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tajik battalions. Furthermore, in September 2003 Russia signed a 15-year military basing accord with Kyrgystan providing access to the Kant airfield, near Kyrgyzstan's capital of Bishkek.

Central Asia lies between ambitious regional and great powers. The attacks of 9-11 substantially changed US presence in Central Asia. The swiftness and depth of US penetration into the region appears to have caught Moscow off guard and without a plan to respond. Many Russians did little to hide their hostility toward the “uppity” Central Asians or their distrust of US intentions. Many in the US failed to understand the extent of Russian influence in the region.

In December 2012, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautioned against Russia's manipulation of a customs union it dominates in order to "re-Sovietize" Eurasia. Despite popular objections at home, Kazakhstan has joined the union but resists its becoming a political body. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan may have no choice but to sign up since one-third to one-half of their economies depend on migrant-labor remittances from Russia. If after NATO draws down in Afghanistan fighting spreads northward, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- both of which host Russian military bases -- might seek added protection from Moscow even as they try to maintain wiggle room to protect their own interests.

Kazakhstan, though rich enough to attempt an independent foreign policy, is reliably in the Kremlin camp; Uzbekistan is now Russia's because of rigid U.S. human rights ideology; Kyrgyzstan is coming to its senses and knows who butters which side of its bread, especially because of American spies from Embassy Bishkek working to undermine President Bakiyev's government; and Tajikistan owes its existence and its current leaders solely to Russia. Central Asian states are still within the orbit of Russia's political, military-political, and economic influence.

Russia remains the leading supplier of arms and military hardware to Central Asian countries (some of it at concessional prices for members of the CSTO). The overwhelming majority of future officers are trained in Russia. For example, Kazakhstan has over 700 officer cadets studying at Russian military education institutions, while only about a hundred are studying in Western Europe and the United States. This is an obvious example of how closely Kazakhstan cooperates with the Russian Federation. In principle, the same can be said for other Central Asian states.

Moreover, there are the CSTO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. There are associations within these influential international organizations: the Regional Anti-Terrorism Center (within the SCO) and the CSTO Regional Coalition Group in Central Asia. In other words, Central Asian states are still within the orbit of Russia's political, military-political, and economic influence.

Russia has not stopped building up its influence in all the areas of activity.

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