Central Asian Perspectives on 11 September and the Afghan Crisis
In response to the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on 11 September 2001, the United States and a broad though informal coalition of allies and like minded states are building up a military capability in Central Asia that will in all likelihood strike inside Afghanistan. The ruling Taliban and Osama bin Laden, who has taken refuge in Afghanistan since 1996, are expected to be primary targets.
The five Central Asian nations – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are now at the centre of a major diplomatic and military effort against terrorism. This will have an enormous impact on a region that is already showing worsening signs of instability. Precisely what that impact eventually proves to be will depend importantly on a number of factors that cannot yet be adequately weighed. These include whether the anticipated military action proves to be of long or short duration, whether it is relatively surgical and precise in its conduct 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 minimising the risks of instability across the region, however, will have to be a prime consideration of the United States and the other coalition participants.
The leaders of all the Central Asian nations quickly condemned the attacks in America. Anti-terrorism is a concept to which the Central Asian states are sympathetic in principle. Before 11 September, they were already attempting to mobilise against what they considered to be their own regional terrorist threats through a series of summit meetings, international agreements, and even a joint anti-terrorist centre to be established in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The main vehicle for this activity is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which includes both Russia and China as well as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and has as its central platform anti-terrorism and opposition to radical Islam. Authoritarian tendencies in the member governments, however, have given a quality to some of the rhetoric and action taken by SCO states in the name of anti-terrorism and supervision of Islamic activity that is not consistent with the values of the societies that now seek their assistance.
So far the responses to calls for specific cooperation against terrorism have varied. Uzbekistan has been the most enthusiastic as it would welcome a strike at the Afghanistan-based Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which it considers its own deadly enemy and sees the situation as an opportunity to extract economic and political concessions from the West. U.S. aircraft and personnel are reported to be in the country already.
Tajikistan has offered support but remains concerned about the impact on the shaky secular-Islamic coalition that rules the country. Like Uzbekistan, it is anxious about the risk of refugees fleeing across the border with Afghanistan.
Kazakhstan will allow use of its air space but is otherwise somewhat removed from the possible conflict. Kyrgyzstan has been lukewarm about supporting the U.S., again considering the possible impact of refugees on its faltering economy.
Turkmenistan operates under a system of neutrality and isolation that precludes overt cooperation with the West.
Two decades of conflict in Afghanistan have already had a major impact on Central Asia. During the Soviet period, Central Asia bore a heavy burden of casualties from the war in that country. In more recent years, the IMU, which is supported by the Taliban, has carried out incursions into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan from bases in Afghanistan. Refugees from the Afghan civil war have been a major problem for Tajikistan. Indeed, all the countries are concerned that war may spill over into their territory. Moreover, much of Afghanistan’s drug production flows to Europe through Central Asia.
While Central Asian cooperation in the current highest priority efforts against terrorism is welcome, the political, social and economic situation in these countries suggests that the international community should consider carefully the long-term impact of its diplomatic and military efforts in the region. These nations were in a precarious state even before the current crisis. Economic development has lagged, democratic reforms have been mostly stillborn, and the governments are often viewed by their overwhelmingly Islamic populations as deeply corrupt, unrepresentative, and repressive. The region has been dangerously destabilised by drug trafficking, is riven with ethnic rivalries and divided by disputes over borders and resources.
Central Asian governments have been inclined to repress even moderate and non-violent religious groups for fear that they will become a significant source of opposition. By forcing most political opposition underground, however, nations like Uzbekistan have made extremism more attractive to broader sections of their populations. It is also 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 Islamist groups.
All of these countries continue to struggle with widespread poverty and difficulties in implementing market reforms. The 55 million people of Central Asia have shown themselves increasingly dissatisfied with their political and economic circumstances. In this environment, strategic partnerships between the international community and the current governments in the region may produce dangerous and unintended consequences.
Any military action by the United States-led anti-terrorism coalition in or from the region thus needs to be accompanied by concerted long-term efforts to stabilise Central Asia politically and economically. This will require a delicate balancing act between the demands of authoritarian regional leaders and the aspirations of the people. It will also involve juggling the interests of the four nuclear-armed countries – Russia, China, India and Pakistan – that surround the region as well as other players such as Iran. It will certainly require considerably more diplomatic and financial resources than have been committed in the decade since these countries became independent from the Soviet Union.
This briefing considers regional concerns and, in particular, the individual perspectives of each of the five states and the potential impact of the current crisis on their societies. Consideration is also given to the role of Russia in the region, its take on dealing with the current terrorism challenge, its strategic stake in Central Asia and how it has responded to U.S. efforts to more closely engage the Central Asian states in a military response against Afghanistan.