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Five Years After 9/11: Crackdowns Loom Behind Central Asia's War On Terror

U.S. airmen at the Manas air base outside of Bishkek (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) The terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, had a significant impact on Central Asia. Afterward, the region became a U.S. ally in the global war on terror and Western troops were deployed in several Central Asian countries. But five years after 9/11, the region's governments are cracking down on domestic dissent under the pretext of fighting terror.

PRAGUE, September 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Analysts often define two phases in Washington's relations with the Central Asian governments since 9/11.

The first phase began five years ago when all Central Asian countries threw their support behind the United States in the war against terror. The governments of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan allowed U.S. troops to come to their countries, while Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan allowed U.S.-led coalition flights over its territory to combat the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Experts say undemocratic domestic policies make the Central Asian countries' political futures -- as well as their strategic partners -- more precarious.

A New Geopolitical Order?

Some experts in Central Asia saw it as the beginning of a new geopolitical paradigm.

"Was it possible [five years ago] to think that [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov could abruptly cut ties with the White House and [Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek] Bakiev would negotiate the price for use of an air base with the United States?" Sabit Zhusupov, the president of Kazakhstan's Institute for Socioeconomic Information, a nongovernmental organization in Almaty, asks. "I believe the role of Central Asia and the Central Asian states increased significantly after September 11. New vectors of geopolitical developments, in my view, have been fully defined."

But the May 2005 bloodshed in the Uzbek city of Andijon marked a turning point in Washington's relations with Central Asian governments.

The United States and the European Union criticized Uzbekistan for its brutal quelling of the protests, which resulted in hundreds of dead. In response, Washington's strategic ally in the region, Uzbekistan, kicked U.S. troops out of a military base in the country's south and looked to other countries for support.

Tanya Costello is a London-based analyst for Eurasia Group, a political-risk advisory and consulting company.

Changes After Andijon

"[The Andijon events] did spark off increased tension and problems in the relationship [of Central Asian states] with the U.S., as well as Europe," she said. "And, since then, we've seen Uzbekistan look more closely to Russia and China for support and for help in its campaign against what it views as terrorist threats in the country."

Costello tells RFE/RL that, in addition to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan's currently unstable relations with Washington are another example of Russia and China trying to limit the United States' influence in the region.

Victims of the crackdown at Andijon are buried on May 14, 2005.

Kyrgyzstan's postrevolutionary government, which is comprised of pro-Western forces that took over after the March 2005 revolution, demanded more than a token payment from Washington for use of a military base near the capital, Bishkek.

Costello says Kyrgyzstan is facing pressure from Moscow and Beijing to limit its cooperation with the United States.

The first calls on Washington to set a deadline for its overall military presence in Central Asia came at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's (SCO) summit in July 2005. The SCO comprises Russia, China, and four Central Asian states.

Almaty The Preferred Western Partner?

Dosym Satpaev, who heads an Almaty-based think tank called Risk Assessment Group, tells RFE/RL that the Kyrgyz government is also facing pressure from Uzbekistan, and therefore lately stepped up its cooperation against what both governments define as terrorists and religious extremists.

Satpaev says that Kazakhstan, rich with oil and more open than its neighbors, is emerging as Washington's preferred partner in the region.

"Kazakh-American relations haven't had drastic ups and downs, and because of that Washington may value Kazakhstan [more than the others]," Saltpaev said. "It is a more predictable partner, and Americans don't expect unexpected surprises from it as it happened with Uzbekistan. Tashkent used to be very pro-American, but then suddenly changed its foreign policy orientations."

After 9/11, Satpaev says, the Central Asian governments had certain expectations from their cooperation with Washington. They hoped the U.S. engagement in the region would help provide better regional security. But they were somewhat disappointed, as the region continues to face threats and challenges similar to the ones it did five years ago.

"Americans failed to help Central Asians strengthen their stability after the Afghan war," he said. "Drug trafficking remains huge. The level of military instability in Afghanistan is still very high, which affects border problems and the situation there. Therefore, I believe the [U.S.] policy [in Central Asia] became more limited and, to some extent, less effective."

The Eurasia Group's Costello says, however, that there were some benefits from the U.S. presence in Central Asia immediately after 9/11.

Fighting The IMU

She says Washington helped eliminate the threat of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the radical militant group that attacked Uzbek and Kyrgyz territories in 1999 and 2000. The IMU was dismantled, she says, and does not pose an immediate threat, although its remnants are believed to be hiding in remote border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Costello adds that Washington's relations with several of the Central Asian regimes soured because of suspicions among local political elites that the United States had somehow been involved in regime changes and social unrest in the post-Soviet region.

Some regimes in the region have since strengthened domestic repression.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov has used the war against terror as a pretext to crack down on political and religious opposition. The same trend is becoming more visible in Kyrgyzstan -- which has recently greatly stepped up its cooperation with Tashkent.

"Central Asian governments do tend to view the terrorist threats differently to the way the U.S. views it," Costello added. "And that's part of the reason why they have turned more to Russia and China, who tend to share their views on where the terrorist threat is coming from. Some observers in both the U.S. and the EU believe that some of the security threats in Central Asia come not from international Islamist violent groups, for example, but from ostracized social groups in Central Asia who are pushed aside and marginalized by rather authoritarian governments in the region."

Experts say undemocratic domestic policies make the Central Asian countries' political futures -- as well as their strategic partners -- more precarious.

Military Bases In Central Asia

Military Bases In Central Asia

Click on the map for an enlarged image.

PROJECTING POWER: Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the onset of the war on terror, Central Asia has played an important role in military-security issues. At times, Russia and the West have clashed over questions related to military deployments. RFE/RL has provided extensive coverage of this increasingly important geopolitical matter.


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THE COMPLETE STORY: Click on the icon to view a dedicated webpage bringing together all of RFE/RL's coverage of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.