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Why, and What, You Should Know About Central Asia

Mikhail Klimentyev/ITAR-TASS/Corbis
Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Chinese President Hu Jintao, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Astana, Kazakhstan, June 2011

So far the Chinese have refused to help with peacemaking in Afghanistan or in negotiations with the Taliban—something they could contribute to. They have enormous influence in Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership is based. Nor have they allowed the SCO to get involved in a regional settlement after 2014 when US forces leave Afghanistan. Only China will have the economic strength and political goodwill to make peace, as well as the resources to fill the coming power vacuum—but the question is whether it will be willing to take responsibility.

The US and Russia in Central Asia

The US in Central Asia has been no less myopic than China. Cooley, an American scholar at Columbia University, and Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh, an Iranian-born scholar at Paris’s Sciences Po, are well known as the leading scholars of Central Asia. They do not disappoint. Cooley’s book offers the most lucid and well-written account to date of America’s ten-year involvement in Central Asia. Both he and Tadjbakhsh, who writes for a Norwegian think tank, agree that the US has lacked a strategic direction in Central Asia.

Instead, since 2001, three American administrations including the present one have given priority to military cooperation with Central Asian states in order to assist US and NATO tasks in Afghanistan. This has automatically led Central Asian leaders to ignore and dismiss parallel US demands for political liberalization, respect for human rights, and economic reforms. Central Asia is one more example of how militarized US foreign policy has become since 2001.

In Great Games, Local Rules, Cooley goes much further, investigating how the US Central Command (CENTCOM) has often undermined the State Department and other parts of the US government by continuing to dish out money or favors to the Central Asian leaders and their ubiquitous intelligence services, although the official US line has been to curtail aid. This was especially true after President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan ordered his troops to open fire on a demonstration in Andijan in the Fergana Valley in 2005, killing as many as eight hundred people. CENTCOM continued to fund the Uzbek military even though the State Department had cooled US relations with Karimov. “The Central Asian governments’ commitments to protecting political rights and human rights norms…have been shredded in the name of counterterrorism,” Cooley writes.

The main US and NATO interest has been to maintain bases in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and to do so they have tolerated and even fostered widespread corruption among the ruling elites. According to Cooley, after 2008 substantial payoffs were necessary to get the acquiescence of the Central Asian elites to establish the Northern Distribution Network (NDN)—the road and rail network spanning the Eurasian landmass that provides supplies to Western forces in Afghanistan. This was an alternative to the Pakistan route. “It seems that maintaining US operations in Afghanistan necessitates tolerating and actively contributing to Central Asia’s corruption and governance problems,” Cooley writes. Now that the US needs to move troops and equipment out of Afghanistan, it will become more dependent on the NDN for which the Central Asian states will doubtless extract high fees from it.

Since 2011 the US has tried to promote a much broader vision for the Central Asian region called the “Silk Route strategy,” which involves building large-scale infrastructure projects that could help unite the region. These include the long-awaited gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan across southern Afghanistan, a national railway system for Afghanistan, and the transfer of electricity from Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But such a strategy won’t be carried out for a long time. It depends on making peace with the Taliban and a comprehensive regional settlement with all of Afghanistan’s direct neighbors—China, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan—and significant near neighbors—India, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. None of this looks likely.

Russia has contradictory policies in Central Asia and Afghanistan. It helped the US establish bases in Central Asia but then it tried to force those states to cancel the agreements on those bases. It says it would like the US to leave Afghanistan and is adamant that NATO should not leave behind a residual force after 2014, but at the same time it is fearful of the consequences of the continuing drug trade and Taliban influence and is quietly urging the US not to totally abandon the region. Russia chastises Central Asian states such as Uzbekistan for getting too close to the US, but at the same time it has encouraged them to set up the NDN network and other facilities favored by the US. Whereas twenty years ago Central Asia could not conceive of thwarting Russia’s interests, today the Central Asian states regularly defy and exploit Russia, favoring the US and China.

The Reign of Dictators

By and large the Central Asian states, apart from tiny Kyrgyzstan, remain dictatorships. For twenty years they have failed to carry out the political and economic reforms that have been made in some of the other former Soviet states. Their internal rivalries and fierce competition among their leaders have resulted in a lack of cooperation and led to large-scale failure. On that freezing night in December 1991, the leaders pledged to form an economic union in order to survive, yet nothing of the sort happened. There is no cooperation on desperately important issues such as water distribution, electricity generation and distribution, or controlling drugs and terrorists from Afghanistan.

In “Central Asia and Afghanistan,” Tadjbakhsh shows how each of the Central Asian states has a different solution to the future of Afghanistan, while none of them is willing to relinquish its claims on resources for the betterment of the region. She maintains that the leaders’ rivalries are shaped by the larger geopolitical rivalry between China, Russia, and the US, but that is not entirely true. Local rivalries have worsened during the past two decades as each regime has offered more and more corrupt, power-hungry, visionless leadership rather than hope for change. The ICG report states:

Large parts of Central Asia look more insecure and unstable by the year. Corruption is endemic, criminalisation of the political establishment widespread, social services in dramatic decline and security forces weak.

Now some of the leaders would like to see their relatives succeed them.

Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan have each been in power for twenty-three years. According to human rights groups, Karimov has kept some ten thousand political prisoners in jail over the years, and torture by such methods as boiling people alive is well known. Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006, was obsessed with visions of grandeur before his death, accumulating an estimated $2 billion from gas sales in his personal bank accounts. Tajikistan’s elite remains in power, according to some accounts, partly through its involvement in the drug trade from Afghanistan.

The most pressing and dangerous political crisis could be generated by infighting over the battle for succession of the two leaders of the two most powerful states, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Karimov, seventy-five, and Nazarbayev, seventy-three, are old, ill, and frail and it is wholly unclear who will succeed them. Karimov’s powerful, ruthless, and at the same time glamorous daughter Gulnara, forty-one, is tipped as a possible successor although many powerful Uzbeks will oppose her. Disaffection is spreading in Uzbekistan with rising food prices, unemployment, the worsening of education and health services, and widespread corruption.

In Kazakhstan, Dinara Nazarbayeva Kulibaeva, forty-five, one of the president’s three daughters, is married to Timur Kulibaev, a billionaire businessman now head of KazEnergy, who is a favorite of the president and could succeed him. Any battle between competing factions for succession could turn bloody as state security agencies and clans mobilize on different sides.

The weird, the strange, the corrupt, and the grand are all evident in Philip Shishkin’s Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia. He writes primarily about Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan—at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Tiny Kyrgyzstan has a population of just 5.5 million people who live in the highest mountain ranges in the world, with no resources except sheep herding and income from a single gold mine. They have tried hard to become a democratic state—overthrowing two presidents to do so. The result, not surprisingly, has been more misery and much chaos.

Shishkin, an American journalist of Russian origin, captures these events in a far corner of the world with breathless and poetic prose. Unfortunately he is not much interested either in history—something vital to understanding the region—or in Islam, which remains critical to the people of Central Asia despite the seventy years of Soviet atheism. Instead, he relentlessly pursues and then tells the stories of the most corrupt and powerful and also the most sincere and admirable characters who inhabit these mountains. His chapter on the 2005 Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan is particularly fascinating because he was one of the few Western journalists in Uzbekistan at the time, although he was stopped from entering the city until after the stacks of dead bodies had been cleared away.

Tadjbakhsh writes that the Central Asian countries “realize that the situation in Afghanistan remains very unstable, with prospects of renewed conflict, which could bleed into their region in terms of refugees”—as well as warlordism and drug trafficking.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union have grown in size and their ideology has become more radical in their years of exile. The IMU posed a major threat to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 2000. It subsequently joined with both al-Qaeda and the Taliban and its leaders are now, after a twelve-year sojourn in Pakistan’s tribal areas, trying to re-enter Central Asia via Afghanistan. This year alone US and NATO special forces in northern Afghanistan have carried out twelve operations against IMU cells, four of them in the province of Kunduz, which is adjacent to Tajikistan. At least two cell leaders have been captured.

Moreover, the IMU ranks are now largely made up of a variety of Turkic nationalities ranging from Turkmens and Uighurs to ethnic Turks and even Turkish migrants born in Germany. The IMU also recruits from non-Turkic groups such as Tajiks, Pakistanis, and Kashmiris. Elements of the powerful Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba are also close working allies of the IMU.

The Central Asian states’ ability to combat these extremist groups would be more successful if they had a common approach toward peacemaking in Afghanistan, but they do not. “The lack of a common approach towards Afghanistan mirrors the lack of intra-regional cooperation and a common security strategy within [Central Asia] itself,” writes Tadjbakhsh. Every country in Central Asia promotes a different strategy.

Tumultuous changes could well be in store—both internally as the Central Asian states are forced into greater reforms and democratization through pressure from below, and by policies pursued by the regional big powers. That the US is more or less exiting the region, while Russia faces a deep economic and political crisis that is unacknowledged by its leaders, will leave China in an even stronger position in Central Asia and Afghanistan. What, if anything, China, with all its strength, may do in the region is a mystery.

Sir Halford Mackinder, the nineteenth-century political theorist, viewed Central Asia as “the pivot region of the world’s politics” and “the heartland” because, he said, “it is the greatest natural fortress in the world.” He reckoned that whoever controlled Central Asia would exercise enormous power. But no power has achieved control there and the battle for influence will take different directions after 2014. One of the great dangers for the US and other Western powers will be continuing ignorance and neglect of what is happening there.*

  1. *

    Some information for this essay comes from my own two books on Central Asia: The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism? (Zed, 1994) and Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (Yale University Press, 2002; Penguin, 2003). 

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