Beware of Conjuring Up Fresh Afghanistans in Central Asia
International Herald Tribune, 3 October 2001
Military action has a habit of producing unintended and unwanted consequences. There are few places where the risks of this are higher at the moment than Central Asia, as America and its broad supporting coalition gear up for assaults against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban backers in Afghanistan.
Until the attacks on Washington and New York thrust the region into the spotlight, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were a diplomatically neglected backwater. They have now been, for obvious and understandable reasons, embraced as strategic partners in the battle against terrorism.
But the air bases and airspace thus gained may, unless the situation is extremely carefully handled, come at a very unhappy price: more instability, more extremism and more recruits to the terrorist cause.
Each country in the region has its own dynamic: from Tajikistan, still trying to recover from a devastating civil war, to the totally insular and cult-of-personality-dominated Turkmenistan. But some generalizations are possible.
Most of the leaders are Soviet-era holdovers, unenthusiastic about embracing either democracy or meaningful economic reform. And all of them have been inclined in one degree or another to repress even moderate, nonviolent religious groups for fear that they would become significant opposition.
The trouble is that by forcing most political opposition underground, often in the name of anti-terrorism, states like Uzbekistan have been making Islamist extremism more attractive to broader sections of their populations.
The Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, identified by President George W. Bush as working closely with Mr. bin Laden, became radicalized after being driven out of legitimate civic life. It is a reasonable assumption that if Uzbekistan had been more tolerant of legitimate religious practices, and legitimate political opposition, the IMU would not exist today in its present form. These countries continue to struggle with widespread poverty, and their 55 million people have shown themselves increasingly dissatisfied with their political and economic circumstances. It is easy to understand that societies dominated by corruption, crime and mafia-like economic elites might find attractive the message of discipline and order carried by extreme Islamist groups.
It is against this alarming backdrop that their leaderships have, for perfectly understandable reasons, been courted by the United States.
If that courtship results in them becoming even more confident in their authoritarianism, while at the same time other events in the region are rubbing sensitive nerves raw, the risk will be ever more real of extremist movements becoming ever more attractive.
Much obviously depends on what shape a military intervention takes: whether it is of long or short duration, whether it is relatively surgical and precise or produces many innocent casualties and refugees, and whether or to what degree U.S. forces remain in the region after conclusion of their primary mission. Managing the impact and minimizing the risks of instability across the region, however, will have to be a prime consideration. On the straightforward issue of being for or against terrorism, the Central Asian states have given clear enough answers, and the right ones. But the next steps are crucial. Washington must make clear that cooperation in a specific set of military operations will not substitute for a commitment to genuine economic and political reform.
The international community will be making a serious strategic blunder if it allows Central Asian leaders to continue or intensify their autocratic ways as the price for cooperation in the fight against global terrorism.
By limiting a Central Asia component of its military operations to a minimum - such as reconnaissance, search and rescue or direct supply of the Northern Alliance, as contrasted with being the launching point for major offensives - and terminating it as quickly as possible, the United States might limit the costs of doing business with less than savory governments.
The West would then regain - and hopefully use - the freedom and leverage to encourage those governments to undertake badly needed reforms. This will require a delicate balancing act between the demands of authoritarian regional leaders and the aspirations of the people, and involve juggling as well the interests of four nuclear-armed countries - Russia, China, India and Pakistan - as well as Iran.
Any military action by the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition in or from the region needs to be accompanied by long-term efforts to stabilize Central Asia politically and economically. If a coalition against terrorism is allowed to become toleration of authoritarianism, the fight against terrorism could end, tragically, by stimulating even more Afghanistans.