Tag: Central Asia

Podcast No. 7 – Interview with Alex Cooley

The seventh episode of the Duck of Minerva Podcast just went live. In it, I interview Alex Cooley about his books on hierarchy, basing, incomplete contracting, and his new book — Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia (Oxford University Press, 2012).


  • Front Matter
  • Who is Alex Cooley?
  • Logics of Hierarchy
  • Base Politics
  • Contracting States
  • Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia
  • End Matter

Note: the publication date of the podcasts remains in flux, but I am aiming to have them appear Friday-Sunday each week.

A reminder: I am running the podcast feed on a separate blog. You can subscribe to our podcasts either via that blog’s Feedburner feed or its original atom feed (to do so within iTunes, go to “Advanced” and then choose “Subscribe to Podcast” and paste the feed URL). Individual episodes may be downloaded from the Podcasts tab.

Comments or thoughts on either this podcast or the series so far? Leave them here.


Sino-Russian Tensions and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Alex Cooley — whose book on power-political competition in Central Asia is due out soon — had an interesting op-ed in Friday’s New York Times. He argues that the apparent success of the 12th Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit masks ongoing Sino-Russian tensions in the region:

Since the financial crisis, China has displaced Russia as Central Asia’s leading trading partner, and Beijing would welcome using the S.C.O. framework to further boost regional economic integration and investment. But both Russia and the Central Asian countries fear the political repercussions of Beijing’s growing economic weight. 

China’s pledge to provide a $10 billion loan under S.C.O. auspices for the development of regional infrastructure is actually a replay of a similar offer it made in 2009 to establish an S.C.O.-backed anti-crisis fund. Back then, Moscow refused to co-fund the loan and worked behind the scenes to block China’s disbursal of the funds, fearing that such lending would undermine its position in the region. Meanwhile, Moscow is also pushing its own Eurasian Union and trying to expand its own Customs Union into Central Asia. 

Similarly, Beijing’s pledge to offer 30,000 government scholarships and train 1,000 teachers for the Confucius centers sprouting up throughout Central Asia clearly undermines the soft-power monopoly that Russia traditionally has enjoyed. 

China’s recent achievements in the region’s energy sphere are also causing concern in Moscow. Since the opening of the China-Central Asia gas pipeline in December 2009, gas from Turkmenistan has started to flow eastward, away from the old Soviet-era network controlled by Russia. It will soon be joined by gas from Uzbekistan. A third pipeline to China is now being constructed, and an additional spur originating in Kazakhstan is also planned. 

Worse still for Moscow, Beijing is now using the cheaper prices it agreed upon with its new Central Asian suppliers as leverage in its pricing negotiations with Russia’s Gazprom for major new contracts. 

The issue of Afghanistan also reveals critical differences, despite the admission of Afghanistan as an S.C.O. observer. China has proposed enhancing the role of the S.C.O. during NATO’s drawdown from Afghanistan, but eschews any actual military involvement and is most interested in aiding reconstruction and the training of Afghans to safeguard its own multibillion dollar investments, including a $3.5 billion outlay in the Aynak copper mine in Logar province. 

Russia prefers to use the drawdown to expand the reach of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization in order to reestablish a presence on the Tajik-Afghan border and deepen its control over the Central Asian militaries, all under the mantra of regional counterterrorism and counternarcotic efforts. And S.C.O. member Uzbekistan adamantly resists increasing the roles of either the S.C.O. or the C.S.T.O., preferring its own plan for Afghanistan.

Finally, the thorny question of the S.C.O.’s membership expansion also divides the core members. No new member was admitted at the summit, and none is likely to be in the near future. Russia would prefer to expand the organization so as to dilute Beijing’s leading influence and is especially keen on supporting India’s membership bid. But China is wary of allowing a regional rival full-blown membership and so has devised an elaborate set of accession rules and technical criteria that it will use to stall on Delhi’s request.

These tensions are not voiced in public. Beijing will continue to underscore the S.C.O.’s positive regional role in building mutual trust, while Moscow will speak to the importance of the organization as a counter to Western hegemony in international politics.

Alex’s piece came out within days of a session at the Republic of China’s National Defense University (NDU) in which a presenter underscored at least twice Taipei’s belief that Sino-Russian security cooperation will likely continue for the indefinite future.

These propositions, as Alex’s op-ed makes clear, are not at all exclusive. Indeed, cooperation with Beijing may be Moscow’s only option insofar as it cannot defend its Far East — at least conventionally — even as fears mount concerning China’s ambitions in the region. So while geopolitical pressures, exacerbated by racial stereotypes and other factors, point toward intensifying Sino-Russian rivalry, it isn’t at all clear how Russia will manage intensifying competition. We may see “public alignment” conjoined with “private rivalry” for some time to come.


The Logic of Violence in Counterinsurgency

I have alluded to the work of Jason Lyall on the use of indiscriminate violence in counterinsurgency in the past. Briefly, Lyall’s paper (recently published in JCR) examines how the Russian army used targeted and non-targeted shelling in Chechnya through a pseudo-natural experiment. The paper is fascinating, however, I always had two major issues with it; first, Lyall claims randomization and thus indiscriminate violence through the “harass and interdiction” pattern of shelling used by Russians. With even my limited exposure to US Army protocol, it is difficult to claim that this pattern is truly random. More importantly, though, is Lyall’s always struck me as an extremely useful empirical analysis in search of a theory.

A recent working paper entitled, “The Political Economy of Counterinsurgency Violence,” seeks to fill this void by offering a simple formalization of counterinsurgency strategy. In fact, the author ask an extremely important question in the opening paragraph:

Why are counterinsurgents often so brutal toward civilians if classical counterinsurgency theory is correct in suggesting that successful counterinsurgents must win—not destroy—the hearts and minds of the population?

To understand this dynamic the author models counterinsurgency as a game with three players. First, a coalition bwtween a rebel group and their popular support within a community, and second the counterinsurgent. To achieve its goals, the counterinsurgent seeks to divide this coalition through a mixture of violence and concession, which tempts some side in the coalition to defect on its partner for short-term gains and forgo long-term goals. Formally, the game is played as a public goods game, where each player has some level of “profit” it extracts from the insurgency, which is offset by the cost of participation. Thus the counterinsurgent seeks to short-circuit the profit chain through the threat or execution of violence.

What falls out of this model is an very interesting observation about how insurgency are a function of the active micro-economies where they take place. As the author states:

The rebels’ profit from insurgency increases due to windfall and black market revenue, external aid, natural resources, taxation, remittances, looted property and labor, and the availability and attractiveness of the rebels’ sanctuaries. An increase in the rebels’ accountability to the population and a decrease rebel profit results from restrictive geography, vulnerability to the population’s disloyalty caused by the nature of the rebel group’s organization, and the presence and strength of quasi-judicial institutions with which to sanction rebels’ abusive behavior…Factors negatively and positively affecting the actors’ relative profit during insurgency ought to correlate with the government’s use of indiscriminate violence.

The model is clever, and the author’s keen attention to the work of key counterinsurgency scholars comes through in his incorporation of critical elements of insurgency in the model. What is interesting, however, is how the model does not do a good job of predicting the kind of indiscriminate violence observed by Lyall in his research. The author here uses case studies from Guatemala and Turkey to support his theory, but given the high profile of Lyall’s work it would have been much more satisfactory to get a model that explained those observations. Of course, it is not the job of a modeler to fit data, and it may simply be the case that Lyall’s natural experiment is flawed, and this model requires better data for testing; either way, the article is very engaging and I highly recommend it.

Photo: New Internationalist


Manas no more?

Breaking reports, if true, vindicate a manuscript Alex Cooley and I wrote last year.* Whatever pleasure I get from saying “I told you so,” however, is outweighed by my concern about the complications to US operations posed by the potential loss of Manas.

The AP:

MOSCOW – News agencies are quoting Kyrgyzstan’s president as saying that his country is ending U.S. use of a key airbase that supports military operations in Afghanistan.

A decision to end the U.S. use of the Manas base could have potentially far-reaching consequences for U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan.

Interfax and RIA-Novosti quoted Kurmanbek Bakiyev as making the statement just minutes after Russia announced it was providing the poor Central Asian nation with billions of dollars in aid.

Bakiyev is being quoted as saying that the Kyrgyz government “has made the decision on ending the term for the American base on the territory of Kyrgystan and in the near future, this decision will be announced.”

Kyrgyz government officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

UPDATE: more information continues to come in. US officials say this is just a move to increase rents.

*We’ve only sent it to one journal, which rejected it based on a range of positive to negative reviews. Because I’m a bitter and vindictive person, I am now going to point out that the decisive review rejected our contention that increased exit options for US basing partners and enhanced information about the deals the US cuts with other basing partners might (1) create upward pressure on rent demands and (2) even lead to the US losing some of its “light footprint” bases. This is exactly what has been happening, and may now have come to fruition, at Manas.


Expediency vs. Ideals or Intrinsic vs. Reputational Interests in Uzbekistan?

[Cross posted at “Discord and Elaboration“]

I think Patrick is on to something when he writes that the current dilemma facing the US in Uzbekistan isn’t strictly one of security-vs-morality. Of course, one could (and many have) frame the issue in this way. However I think there is another way to look at the issue. I see the problem as strategy-vs-strategy, or more specifically, intrinsic interests-vs-reputational interests. The Defense Department sees the K2 airbase (K2 is shorthand for Karshi-Khanabad) as an intrinsic interest, one that is vital operationally to fighting the GWOT (Greater War on Terror) and for maintaining the US ability to project power in the region. The State Department on the other hand sees the Andijan massacre and US actions regarding K2 as a reputational interest, one that is important not for its immediate strategic value but rather for the inferences others will draw about the US.

The current situation in Uzbekistan offers a wonderful example of the dilemma that statesmen face from time to time between intrinsic and reputational interests. It also illustrates the difficulties in implementing a grand strategy that includes a component as amorphous as spreading democracy. A little background (if you already read Patrick’s post you can skip this):

Back on May 13th an estimated 200 Uzbek protestors were gunned down by government troops as a result of a massive protest in Andijan’s main square (another 500 reportedly fled across the border into Kyrgstan). The Uzbek government has claimed that less than 200 protestors died and the bulk of those were Islamic militants. However, eyewitness accounts and NGO investigations have put the official account into question. Human Rights Watch issued a report about the incident in which they claim that the protests were in no way connected to Islamic militants or calls for an Islamic theocracy. The report said in part:

Interviews with numerous people present at the demonstrations consistently revealed that the protesters spoke about economic conditions in Andijan, government repression, and unfair trials–and not the creation of an Islamic state. People were shouting ‘Ozodliq!’ [‘Freedom’] and not ‘Allahu Akbar’ [‘God is Great’].

At last week’s meeting of defense ministers in Brussels, Russia and the United States collaborated to kill any joint demand by NATO for an international probe into the events in Andijan. Several sources told the Washington Post that the eventual wording of the joint communique regarding the meeting (which merely stated that “issues of security and stability in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan” had been discussed) was the result of a fierce battle between “U.S. defense officials, who emphasized the importance of the base, and others, including State Department representatives at NATO headquarters, who favored language calling for a transparent, independent and international probe into the killings of Uzbekistan civilians by police and soldiers”. There was some debate as to whether Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was openly opposing stated US and State Department policy towards the Andijan massacre (as Secretary Rice and President Bush have both openly denounced the action and called for an investigation) or simply being noncommittal because he was not involved in recent high-level discussions regarding the issue.

In either case it is clear that the US faces a dilemma in Uzbekistan specifically and with the democratization strategy in
general. The Washington Post has a nice quote that sums up the problem:

It’s like the dilemma we have in the democracy agenda in many places. We have to both press the democracy agenda and still, for example, cooperate when we need to on the war on terror,” another senior U.S. official said.

Patrick is right when he notes that the debate within the Administration is not between ‘narrow defenders of the national interest’ and ‘idealistic proponents of a normative consensus’. Both are in fact making value-judgements regarding security policy. The way I see it is that each side is, for whatever reason, placing a greater emphasis on one of two interests—either instrinsic or reputational—both of which are critical to US grand strategy.

What is the exact difference between these two types of interests? First espoused by Glenn Snyder and Paul Deising in Conflict Among Nations (and echoed by Robert Jervis), intrinsic interests are defined as those that are valued for their inherent and immediate material/military quality (e.g. a strategically located airbase, energy resources, high ground, etc.). Reputational interests differ from intrinsic interests in that they are valued not for their immediate value but for how they affect an actor’s later bargaining position and the image that other actors will have of a state (e.g. a resolved, powerful actor that cannot be threatened).

An example of a reputational interest is the US concern over Taiwan. Most observers agree that the US gains little strategic (i.e. military) advantage by maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Straight. Some have noted that we might value our informal alliance with a relatively (if not juridically) independent Taiwan because it allows us to develop naval choke points against the Chinese, but this is not a view that is widely held. Maintaining Taiwan’s present status is viewed as a reputational interest because of what inferences we believe others draw from our behavior on this issue. The US believes that other actors (including the Chinese, but also other potential adversaries and current allies) use Taiwan as an index or metric from which to deduce information about the US–our resolve, commitment to allies, credibility, etc. If we were to abandon or sell-out Taiwan in the face of Chinese threats the belief is that others would draw the inference that the US lacks resolve in the face of threats and that we are not reliable allies.

So how does this apply to the current case of Uzbekistan? In my estimation the Defense Department views the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in Uzbekistan as a critical logistical hub in the region for both NATO and US operations. In this sense, DOD views the situation as one were the immediate strategic (i.e. military) value of K2 is of utmost importance. In contrast, a group of US Senators (including John McCain who wrote an opinion piece in the FT yesterday on this very topic), the State Department, and probably a number of other foreign policy officials within the administration view our response to the massacre in Andijan as pertaining to our reputational interests.

Reputation matters a great deal for our current grand strategy because of our stated commitment to democratization. Rhetorically and strategically, the administration’s grand strategy views the spread of democracy as a critical component (as I have argued here). The key word is “spread”. Actors in the second camp are concerned about the inferences current and potential allies (as well as those regimes we are trying to coerce into democratizing) will draw about our commitment to democracy depending upon our response to Andijan. Morality does not have to play a role in the State Department’s calls for an open, international investigation into the massacre. Rather, it is how the State Department conceptualizes the interests that are at stake that is most likely determining its position on this issue.

The inferences others draw about our commitment to democracy are of critical importance for a number of reasons. First, if the US is going to convince citizens in target countries that it is committed to democracy above all else. Ignoring the massacre in Andijan because of our intrinsic interest in K2 will certainly work against that goal. The conclusion citizens will (or may) draw is that the US is only committed to democracy in those countries where our strategic/military interests are minimal or that we deem immediate security threats (i.e. Iran and North Korea—cite post article from this morning). Second, despotic rulers who do not wish to democratize may draw the same inference. These rulers may decide that one way to maintain their rule without being pressured to democratize is to provide some vital strategic “good” (such as military basing or intelligence) to the US. Third, appearing to be uncommitted to the spread of democracy may disrupt support from existing allies (and potentially recruiting new ones), especially if those allies have legitimized their aid to the US to their citizens in terms of democratization. If US actions seem to signal that they are only rhetorically committed to democratization allies may have to cut off support.

This certainly isn’t the first intrinsic/reputational dilemma a state has found itself in. In fact, one could argue the US is perpetually facing such choices. My guess is that this one will be resolved more by the actions being taken by the Uzbek government than by the US. In response to recent criticism by Secretary Rice about the incident the Uzbekistan government has limited US access to K2. The US has already began re-routing air traffic to Bagram airbase in Kabul (post article). Additionally, the US today issued a statement denying that the Pentagon was trying to obstruct an investigation in order to maintain access to K2 and noting that $11 million of US assistance was being witheld from Uzbekistan. My guess is that the longer the Uzbekistan government refuses to allow an investigation as well as restricts access to K2 the US will simply adjust its logistic needs and thereby sink costs into some of these other (more sub-optimal at the moment) bases. But don’t quote me on that…

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Security vs. morality?

The Washington Post reports today on the recent NATO-Russia joint communique, which among other points stated that “issues of security and stability in Central Asia, including the recent tragic events in Uzbekistan, was also discussed.” According to the Post, this rather bland language papered over an intra-agency dispute within the US government about how best to handle the situation stemming from the 13 May crackdown against a failed uprising in the city of Andijon. The crackdown, which Human Rights Watch has labeled a “massacre,” involved the deployment of armed troops to respond to an antigovernment protest; witnesses reported numerous human rights violations, including a systematic effort to kill wounded survivors of the initial clash.

The intra-agency dispute here is a rather traditional tug-of-war between the State and Defense Departments, with the State Department pressing for an international investigation into the events in Andijon while the Defense Department, worried about preserving US access to Uzbek air bases, is less willing to antagonize the Uzbek government and thus endanger current US military strategy and tactics in the region. Given this split, and the reluctance of Russia to assent to any kind of international inquiry about human rights violations on its borders, the NATO-Russia communique couldn’t very well take a stronger stance.

It would be tempting to regard this disagreement as a case of national security versus global morality, with the Defense Department playing the role of the narrow defender of the national interest and the State Department playing the role of the expansive, idealistic proponent of a normative consensus. But this would be a mistake, I think. Especially given that the Defense Department’s position is intimately tied up with the prosecution of the War on Terror — a project that is certainly some distance removed from a clear-cut defense of the territorial integrity and physical security of the United States.

What we have here instead is a disagreement about conceptions of security, and not a clash between a security orientation and a morality orientation. Defense’s position is that prosecuting the War on Terror justifies paying somewhat less attention to an event that seems very much like an egregious violation of human rights, while State seems to be arguing instead that security is achievable primarily by insisting on uniform standards of conduct for all US countries. The people at State are not starry-eyed idealists, and the people at Defense are not hard-nosed realists; both are acting with a complex mix of ideological and practical considerations at hand.

This ought not to be surprising, especially if we keep in mind Arnold Wolfers’ 1949 observation that

The “necessities” in international politics, and for that matter in all spheres of life, do not push decision and action beyond the realm of moral judgment; they rest on moral choice themselves. If a statesman decides that the dangers to the security of his country are so great as to make necessary a course of action that may lead to war, he has placed an exceedingly high value on an increment of national security.

Appealing to security considerations, as the Defense Department seems to have done in opposing a more thorough and invasive investigation of the Andijon situation, is just as much a value-laden stance as an appeal to human rights. Neither are an ultimate trump card in the debate, and neither should be able to silence their opposition definitively. Unfortunately, appeals to “national security” often have this effect, and lead us to ignore the real moral choices that they obscure.

The point here is that security is one value among others. We have to be careful not to allow that value to supersede all others by fiat, and not to forget that in acting so as to advance security concerns in this case we would be in effect condoning violent repression. I’m not sure whether we should or shouldn’t be pressing harder for an international investigation, but in either case we should be honest about what we are doing. We should take responsibility for the choice, and not hide behind protestations of “strategic necessity.”

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