- - Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The United States is facing a double challenge in the heart of Eurasia and Central Asia. First, what will happen after American troops leave Afghanistan, and the second, how to balance China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and how to deal with Russia’s assertive policies along its periphery.

The five Central Asian states are engaged in an annual discussion with Washington known as C5+1, the one being the United States, and the Trump administration is about to reveal its Central Asian strategy. Therefore, the significance of this week’s visit of Kazakhstan Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi to Washington and his meetings with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other U.S. officials is particularly great.  

Kazakhstan is punching above its weight economically and diplomatically. With population of about 18 million, it boasts half of the total Central Asian GDP, and is the leader in economic reform and regional integration.

Its First President Nursultan Nazarbayev had initiated the five-country coordinating summits a year-and-a-half ago. The second such summit just happened in Tashkent on Nov. 29, with all five countries participating, including the reclusive Turkmenistan. Mr. Nazarbayev was made the honorary chairman of the event. Foreign Minister Tleuberdi is likely to discuss the result of the summit during his visit to Washington.

The history of U.S.-Kazakhstani relations is an example of proactive U.S. policy under President George H.W. Bush, and a confluence of national interests.

In 1992 Mr. Nazarbayev needed to develop a multi-vector policy to diversify his country’s ties — in addition to the former metropolis Moscow and the rising power in Beijing. When the United States became the first nation to recognize Kazakhstan’s independence and establish diplomatic relations, a strong bond developed between the two nations.

Kazakhstan’s inheritance from the demise of the USSR included a massive nuclear weapons arsenal. Working closely with the U.S. government, it dismantled the weapons and research facilities. Kazakhstan quietly transferred one-half ton of weapons-grade uranium to the United States, ensuring its secure storage. 

The Semipalatinsk (Semey) giant nuclear testing ground was decommissioned. Over the years, Kazakhstani leaders have signed numerous nuclear disarmament treaties, the 2018 U.N. Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons being one of the most recent.

There are many examples of practical U.S.-Kazakhstani cooperation. Kazakhstan’s military, together with other Central Asians, has participated in numerous military exercises with the United States, such as CentrAsBat, and provided critically needed ordnance engineers (sappers) to Iraq who destroyed four million bombs, saving lives of coalition forces and innocent Iraqis.

The nation’s importance to regional stability goes beyond its work with the United States. Kazakhstan is bordered by Russia to the north, China to the southeast and the Caspian Sea to the west. It straddles the principal East-West trade corridor, which will bring goods and services from Europe to China and back. 

As the largest land-locked country in the world, Kazakhstan is blessed by mineral riches, including oil, uranium, coal, metals. It is endowed in arable land, especially for wheat, and pastures. Investments from U.S. firms alone are in the tens of billions of dollars. Those investments stay secure as long as the government stays secure.

Kazakhstan just completed: A unique planned power transition in Central Asia. Nursultan Nazarbayev (79) stepped down in April 2019. Now considered the father of Kazakhstan’s statehood, he picked his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who won contested presidential election in June. Mr. Tokayev served as prime minister, foreign minister, Senate speaker, and director general of the U.N. Office in Geneva. 

Kazakhstan’s geostrategic location is challenging. Having two massive neighbors is not easy. Located to the south of the region is Iran. The Shia Muslim leaders in Iran know that Kazakhstan is iving proof that a peaceful, secular, predominately moderate Sunni Muslim society, with a large Russian minority, and many other ethnic groups, thrives — without export of violence and a massive arsenal.

The country’s economic challenges became its opportunities. Sharing membership in the Eurasian Economic Union with Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, investment to Kazakhstan is coming from Asia, Western Europe and America.  

Another inheritance from the Soviet era is corruption and bureaucratic red tape. President Tokayev has pledged to accelerate political and economic reforms, which have already helped significantly raise the nation’s living standard since independence.

Kazakhstan also positions itself as a neutral ground for peaceful negotiations. President Nazarbayev played a peacemaker by urging Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table. Kazakhstan hosted Astana Process on Syria: the talks between Russia, Turkey and Iran aimed to support the framework in accordance with the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254. The talks ended with an agreement between Iran, Russia and Turkey to form a joint monitoring body to work to enforce the UNSC Resolution 2254 ceasefire.

Perhaps the most daring humanitarian effort by Kazakhstan’s government was a rehabilitation program for wives and children of Islamist extremists. Family members were brought back from the war zones of Iraq and Syria and put through counseling, deprogramming and education courses. So far, this pilot program is achieving positive results.  

Thus, the Tleuberdi-Pompeo meeting will be used as a sanity check for the U.S.-Central Asian strategy and the C5+1 process.  

Going forward, Washington policy-makers need to realize and appreciate that Kazakhstan remains America’s friend in the region and the key for its economic success, security and stability.  

• Wes Martin, a retired U.S. Army colonel, served in the Army Military Police and in law enforcement positions around the world.

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