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Central Asia: Six Months After -- Security Still Top Interregional Issue (Part 2)

  • Bruce Pannier

Security issues were a topic of regional concern in Central Asia even before the terrorist attacks of 11 September and the subsequent U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. But as RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports in the second of a four-part series, security concerns are now affecting relations among the five Central Asian states more than ever.

Prague, 12 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ties among the five Central Asian countries have been fractious since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. The region's significant new role in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan have not made relations any easier.

The introduction of foreign coalition troops in three of the Central Asian states -- Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- has altered what was already a tenuous balance of powers within the region. In this way, many analysts say, the war on terrorism has not succeeded in bringing greater security to Central Asia.

Peter Sinnott is a professor of Central Asian studies at New York's Columbia University. Sinnott characterized relations among the five countries before 11 September:

"The sad thing is that for 10 years of independence, the first decade, there are no real allies among the Central Asian states. Not one is really strongly allied with another. This is itself one of the worst problems for the region."

Part of the problem can be understood just by looking at a map. The geographic borders inherited by the five countries in 1991 are the legacy of Soviet cartographers working in the 1920s and 1930s, and do not reflect the ethnic makeup of populations on the ground. Sporadic border disputes have broken out in all five countries.

Sinnott points out that following incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan by Islamic extremists in 1999 and 2000, the Uzbek government placed land mines along its disputed borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Despite complaints from its neighbors, the Uzbek mines remain.

Divisions arose among the Central Asian states from the first days of independence. Uzbekistan moved quickly to distance itself from former colonial master Russia. Turkmenistan moved to isolate itself not only from Russia but from all its regional neighbors, eventually becoming a United Nations-recognized neutral country. Tajikistan collapsed into civil war within months of independence; by the time a peace agreement was signed in 1997 it was almost totally dependent on Russia. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the great regional hopes for democracy in those early days, maintained good ties with Russia while seeking new partners outside the former Communist bloc.

The five, however, do have common interests and -- with the exception of "neutral" Turkmenistan -- have established regional organizations such as the recently rechristened Central Asian Organization of Cooperation, an extension of their earlier economic union. But when facing security threats in the past -- such as the incursion of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the summers of 1999 and 2000 -- the countries, rather than joining forces, chose to take different approaches to the problem.

Ahmed Rashid is the author of several books about the region, including "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia" and the just-released "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia." Rashid said the appearance of the IMU showed the Central Asian states could not unite in times of crisis:

"There has been competition between all of them to try to get U.S. support, U.S. military bases, U.S. aid, so there has been an element of competition. What we have seen in the past, the last two or three years especially, when there were attacks by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the IMU, we've seen cooperation between the states in time of peace, but in times of guerrilla attacks and war this cooperation tends to break down."

The U.S. government has included the IMU on its list of terrorist organizations. In launching its campaign against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the U.S. has also targeted IMU bases in the country. In addition to helping eradicate the IMU threat, the U.S. has also pledged millions of dollars in aid to some of the Central Asian states.

With the security situation appearing to improve and Western aid money incoming, the Central Asian neighbors may be able to enjoy a much-needed period of relative stability. But some analysts say security is not a long-term prospect under current circumstances in the region.

Alex Vatanka, the editor of "Jane's Sentinel: Russia and the CIS," said the threat of Islamic extremism has not yet been eradicated from the region:

"The five Central Asian states all have domestic Islamic movements. And if America is interested in choking Islamic extremism in the region as a whole then they have to remain in the region, because these states have so far been unable to manage that problem themselves."

John Schoeberlein, the director of the Forum for Central Asian Studies at Harvard University, said that Afghanistan, still far from being stable, continues to offer Islamic extremist groups a safe haven to organize:

"It's quite possible that some of these underground movements that have been causing problems in the region could find support under the current leadership in various regions of Afghanistan."

Philip Walters is the head of research at the Oxford-based Keston Institute, an organization which monitors religious freedom in the former Soviet Union. He says there are already signs that one religious group banned in Uzbekistan has become more radical since 11 September:

"The organization Hezbut Takhrir, which until now has been concentrating on leaflet campaigns and generally trying to enlighten the Uzbek population, shows signs of taking a more militant stance now. For example, they are regularly calling the president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, a Jew and a Zionist -- and this is in the context of the perceived new and unwelcome alliance between Uzbekistan and the United States."

Many analysts say the governments of the region have grown more authoritarian since 11 September, but note that the tightening of controls has only served to further radicalize the countries' opposition movements. Another problem is that with the U.S. providing aid and support, the Central Asian states may now be vying for military supremacy in the region -- a position, according to Columbia's Sinnott, that is coveted especially by Uzbekistan, which is now receiving U.S. help in training its military forces.

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