The End Game In Central Asia

by Kathleen Collins

In the war against terrorism, the Bush administration has so far focused on Osama bin Laden, his al Qaeda terrorist organization and the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the U.S. must now begin preparing for a potentially larger problem. Afghanistan is surrounded by weak states, and a durable peace in Central Asia must contain not only the conflict within Afghanistan but also bolster that country’s faltering neighbors, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The U.S. end game must therefore include long-term policies that promote stable democracies and economic prosperity.p. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are fragile, authoritarian states long plagued by Islamic opposition groups, guerrilla insurgencies, Taliban threats and dubious Russian interventions. These states are fertile ground for Islamic extremism and region-wide instability. And they will feel the tremors of U.S. action in Afghanistan in at least three ways.p. First, in the covert movement of Taliban or pro-Taliban terrorist groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), north across the Uzbek and Tajik borders, and their positioning for future terrorist acts against those governments. Second, via attacks by Taliban fighters on the Afghan-Uzbek border in retaliation for Uzbek support of U.S. military forces. And third, in a massive flow of refugees into Tajikistan and from there to Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan.p. These strongly secular Central Asian regimes have battled periodic IMU military incursions and terrorist attacks for more than five years. The Taliban has threatened Uzbekistan’s borders since coming to power in 1996, and Uzbek President Islam Karimov has long accused the Taliban of harboring IMU terrorists. Although Uzbekistan has built the strongest military in former Soviet Central Asia, it is not clear that its untried troops could effectively suppress a larger, more organized guerrilla insurgency.p. Emerging from a five-year civil war, Tajikistan’s army is fragmented, poorly supplied and ineffective. Tajikistan therefore relies on an estimated 20,000 Russian guards to secure its Afghan border, and thousands more to curb insurgencies inside Tajikistan.p. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently claimed that Russia might support the war against terrorism by sending troops from Chechnya to fortify the former Soviet region. Yet Uzbekistan is unlikely to cede such power to Russian troops, which have been a double-edged sword in Tajikistan. Minimal stability for Tajikistan has come at the price of sovereignty. Moreover, Russian troops, demoralized by a second war against the Chechen “jihad,” are unlikely to prove an adequate match for Taliban forces. The U.S. and its European allies should be skeptical of Russian intentions.p. The anti-Taliban forces of the Northern Alliance may be the beneficiary of Western support and will no doubt move quickly to retake strategic regions south of the Uzbek border. But it is not clear the Alliance’s fractured, out-numbered and ill-equipped army will be able to either invade or hold Taliban-controlled territory. Even if they can, it is doubtful they can prevent members of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network from scattering into the neighboring Central Asian republics, where they could go underground and continue carrying out their operations.p. Nor should the Northern Alliance be expected to prevent a flood of hungry and potentially armed refugees to the north. A few thousand of the estimated tens of thousands of refugees displaced by war could lead to social unrest in already economically strained Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.p. In the face of such a recipe for further conflict, how can the U.S. ensure stability in Central Asia? First, the U.S. should provide Uzbekistan with military aid. The Uzbek government has complained for several years about the U.S.‘s lack of interest in regional security and in Uzbekistan’s strategic importance. The U.S. should increase military-to-military collaboration that will help Uzbekistan fortify its borders and become a stronger, more independent ally.p. Second, the U.S. needs nothing less than a Marshall Plan to spur economic growth in Central Asia. Not just Afghanistan, but all the Central Asian states have experienced a precipitous and devastating economic and social decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1991, this predominately Muslim region boasted decent standards of living and a 99% literacy rate. Now more than 80% of the population lives in poverty, of which increasing numbers are young men with no opportunities for education or employment. Many of the villages of Tajikistan are no better provisioned than their Afghan counterparts. The entire region has suffered four years of drought, and several million Tajik, Uzbek and Kyrgyz citizens are now facing food shortages or famine.p. However, military support and economic aid must come with clear political conditions. These should include strengthening democracy, implementing free-market economic reforms and improvements in human rights. Indeed, the U.S. must use every lever to pry open Central Asia’s increasingly autocratic but brittle regimes.p. Despite Mr. Karimov’s emergence as a crucial ally in the U.S. fight against international terrorism, he is an infamous hard-liner who has stifled dissent, driven political rivals into exile and locked up thousands of Islamic activists, of whom only a tiny minority have engaged in terrorism. It is this kind of relentless state repression that is radicalizing some Muslims in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and, to a lesser extent, Kyrgyzstan. The IMU is but one such group.p. Only by tackling the underlying political causes of disaffection and extremism can the U.S. and its allies prevent the Afghanization of the rest of Central Asia.p. For a decade, U.S. policies in Central Asia have been inconsistent and self-defeating; Washington’s focus has been the balance of power and Caspian Sea oil rather than the causes of the region’s civil wars, human rights abuses and economic crises. The Bush administration now has a historic opportunity to reverse these policies.p. What does the U.S. get in return? The preemption of conflict, humanitarian crises and potential state collapse bodes well for better relations with Muslims in Central Asia and the larger Islamic world. Constraining Russian hegemony should continue to be a U.S. strategic objective. Moreover, a stable, economically open Central Asia, which contains one of the world’s fastest-growing populations, offers the promise of large markets for U.S. goods and services.p. The U.S. war against terrorism in Afghanistan, and the humanitarian assistance that will accompany it, is a crucial first phase in the construction of a stable Central Asia. The U.S. left much unfinished business in Afghanistan during and after the 1979-1989 Soviet-Afghan war. This time America must be prepared for a long and relentless campaign, not only against terrorism but for peace and democracy as well.

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