No Comment, Six Questions — August 3, 2012, 11:06 am

Great Games, Local Rules: Six Questions for Alex Cooley

acooleyAlex Cooley Through much of modern history, Central Asia has been a borderland between great empires that vied for influence within it. This came to an end with the Soviet period, which plunged the region into isolation. Now, Barnard College professor Alex Cooley has taken a deep look at the post-Soviet era. In Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia, he finds a sometimes hostile, sometimes friendly rivalry, focused on security issues, between the United States, Russia, and China for influence in the region. I put six questions to Cooley about his new book:

1. You draw on the image of the Great Game in talking about how the United States, Russia, and China have vied for influence in Central Asia. But explain how this Great Game is different from the one portrayed by Kipling?

The original Great Game—or at least, how it’s popularly mythologized—was perceived as a zero-sum competition between the Russian and British empires for control over territory and access ways. The current political agendas of the United States, Russia, and China mostly differ from those of Russia and Britain in the nineteenth century, and these three powers can coexist, even in rivalry. But the biggest difference in the contemporary Great Games is that the objects of competition are themselves sovereign states, which allows them to play their external suitors off one another and try to use this economic and political support to consolidate their domestic power bases. The rulers of the Central Asian states have all become experts at brokering the interests and needs of external actors and channeling these actors’ resources to their own pockets and patronage networks.

These “local rules” have been so effective that almost all external actors now play by them, and even values-oriented actors like the United States and European Union now perceive that the region should be measured according to lower standards of democracy, governance, and human rights than, say, the Balkans or Eastern Europe.

2. You suggest that the United States, Russia, and China each approaches the issue of counterterrorism in Central Asia in different ways. Why did the region become such a hub for extraordinary renditions by all three powers, and how have they justified their actions?

For me, on the human rights front, Central Asia represents a region of “norm regression,” where counterterrorism has been cynically and ruthlessly used by the regimes to push back on civil liberties and crack down on all kinds of political opposition—not just Islamic militants. The exact purposes and legal justifications of United States, China, and Russia in cooperating with Central Asian security services have differed.

For the United States, a number of investigative reports suggest that contractors and private-security firms were transporting suspects between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, and that many of these suspects faced torture. But these actions, like the Bush Administration’s broader “war on terror,” remain clouded in secrecy and, as with the detainee camp at Guantánamo Bay and the black sites of Eastern Europe, an attempt was made to place them beyond the purview of international laws that apply to conventional wars.

For China, counterterrorism has focused on restricting the activities of Uighur groups and transferring key suspects back to China, as well as getting Central Asian states to monitor and mute domestic Uighur political and social organizations.

Russia has used the counterterrorism card even more cynically, using it to push for more security and intelligence cooperation with Central Asian states, and rendering political opponents back to Central Asia in order to curry favor with these regimes. Russia has also banned a number of organizations, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, that used to be legal, altering its 1990s status as a relative safe haven for Central Asian political opposition.

Unlike the United States, which, at least in the Bush years, viewed its actions as beyond the reach of the law, China and Russia have justified renditions and other counterterrorism activities with new regional conventions and antiterrorism treaties.

3. Since 2001, Central Asia has been viewed primarily as a logistics challenge for Americans focused on how to get supplies to U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan. How will the United States’ relations with the region change as it prepares to wind down its operations, withdrawing troops and equipment?

In the scandals involving foreign oil companies in Kazakhstan and the Manas fuel deals, external actors turned a blind eye to shadowy schemes and opaque contracts. As long as deals were successfully negotiated or, in the case of the Pentagon, fuel was provided, these principals had little cause to question their underlying arrangements. Local elites profited handsomely from many of these international transactions and invoked geopolitical competition as a means to leverage their position and demand more private goods. Moreover, these transactional forms have allowed U.S., Chinese, and Russian external actors the space to deny allegations that they directly promoted corruption, while giving local elites the means to personally benefit from these deals. They remain the most tangible embodiment of how the great powers and local elites have interfaced and cooperated

—From Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia.
Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, © 2012 Alexander Cooley

I think you already see signs of what withdrawal from Afghanistan will bring. First, we should recognize that the United States will still maintain a support presence in the region beyond 2014, which might prove a short-term boon to the Central Asian states, in terms of both reverse-transit fees and continuing security assistance. You’ll see more emphasis on special forces, border management, and counterterrorism, while border states will continue to wave the scepter of Taliban spillover to justify security and aid requests. The question of Manas remains open, but my guess is that an extension will be worked out with the Kyrgyz government that will alter the official status of the facility to emphasize its logistics role.

4. Uzbekistan is known to be in the market for military assistance from the NATO alliance operating in Afghanistan, and seems to be hoping that it will benefit from equipment left behind as allied forces leave the region. What issues does this desire raise, and how should the allies go about addressing them?

The Uzbeks have been pressing for equipment transfers for many years now, ever since negotiations began on the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). There are two relevant categories of transfers. The first, official arms purchases from the United States, is subject to special restrictions, including vetting procedures. However, what the Uzbeks are mostly pressing for is the other type of transfer: equipment from the Afghanistan theater that is being left behind. They seem especially interested in helicopters, as well as armored personnel carriers and night-vision equipment. As Karl Eikenberry, a former U.S. ambassador in Kabul, stated at a conference at Columbia University in April, the United States intends to leave behind as much as possible so as to cut down on reverse-transit costs. Uzbekistan clearly perceives an opportunity here.

One of the issues this raises relates to transparency. The U.S. military has been more open about what it will transfer to the Afghan National Army than about its negotiations with the Central Asian militaries. Another issue is whether the Uzbek security services genuinely require strengthening. Are they behaving, both within and outside of their borders, in a manner consistent with international standards? I believe it’s best to have these debates now as opposed to in two years time, when the process is a fait accompli.

5. You raise contract corruption as an important issue in the relationships between the great powers and Central Asia, and you present some striking examples involving the United States. Can you propose some “lessons learned” from U.S. contracting operations in the region?

The congressional investigation into the Pentagon’s fuel-contracting process at Manas Air Base found no “smoking gun” of corruption, but it raised important red flags by showing how the Defense Logistics Agency had cozied up to certain mysterious offshore companies with no legal history or public corporate profile, giving them a number of no-bid contract extensions. Some DLA officials have since come to appreciate that the fuel contracts became a much broader symbol of U.S. support for political strongmen and their shady governance practices, and that such perceptions could jeopardize the legal standing of the operations at Manas.

What I take issue with more specifically is when U.S. officials argue that these logistics contracts at Manas or in the Northern Distribution Network, which in fact encourage rent-seeking by elites, are somehow also promoting economic development in the region. In the Giffen case (or “Kazakhgate”), the judge accepted, remarkably, the defendant’s claim that his role in the flow of money from oil companies to Kazakhstani government officials was justified because he was serving as an asset for U.S. intelligence and the State Department. That suggests at least tacit sanctioning of the deals in question.

More broadly, Central Asia is emblematic of the very particular way that we now view international corruption in high-profile commercial contracts—we assume it’s an internal matter located mainly in the primary contracts and the procurement process itself. Yet, as I hope I show in the book, the real corruption opportunities lie in the subcontracts. Moreover, many energy deals involved newly registered offshore companies as vehicles for facilitating payoffs to elites. Unless we take seriously the transnational dimension of money laundering and the problem of offshore vehicles, we won’t make much headway into fighting commercial corruption in this or any other region.

6. You write that in the competition for influence, there are “no losers,” but that China, which has maintained the lowest profile of the three great powers active in Central Asia, has been the “big winner.” Why?


We need to judge the success of the external powers based on their own strategic goals. So the United States has been mostly successful, as it has maintained the logistics networks and supporting cooperative ties necessary for its Afghanistan operations, despite hiccups such as Uzbekistan’s eviction of the United States from the Karshi-Khanabad air base in 2005, or the 2009 bidding war initiated by Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev over the Manas air base. Russia, too, wielded soft power effectively and reemerged as a regional hegemon. Still, it risks the erosion of its prestige if it presses too hard, as it did with Uzbekistan, to curtail the autonomy of states within organizations like the CSTO or the Customs Union.

But China’s emergence in the region has been remarkable. In just over a decade, it has concluded border agreements with its Central Asian neighbors and secured their cooperation in cracking down on regional Uighur-related violence. Economically, it is now the region’s largest trading partner and, for poorer Central Asian countries, the main source of investment and development assistance. It has also completed major new oil and gas pipelines to bring Central Asian energy eastward. Europe has been talking for decades about proposed Asian pipelines, like Nabucco, that might break the Russian transit monopoly. But the Chinese accomplished this quickly and decisively. Moreover, the very fact that the China–Central Asia pipeline consists of three separate joint ventures between the China National Petroleum Corporation and the host governments makes Beijing the clear arbitrator of any future regional pipeline disputes. So overall, while the Chinese would like to see even more economic integration and free trade between the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, they have successfully accomplished a number of strategic goals in the region, all while downplaying their impact by publicly deferring to Russian primacy and jawboning about an alleged strategic partnership. It has been a smart and effective way of operating, and I’m not sure Moscow has an effective response.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada



October 2019


Secrets and Lies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Seeking Asylum·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Out of sight on Leros, the island of the damned

Poem for Harm·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:


A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A solid-gold toilet named “America” was stolen from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in Oxfordshire, England.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today