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Afghanistan: Analysis From Washington--An Afghan Scenario For Central Asia?

Washington, 1 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- A Kazakhstan foreign ministry statement yesterday expressing "serious concern" about developments in Afghanistan since a radical Islamic group seized power there reflects a broader and deeper Central Asian worry: the fear that what has happened in Afghanistan could be repeated in one or more of the countries of that region.

Like other governments and peoples around the world, Central Asian officials have watched with horror at the frequently brutal treatment that the Islamic Taliban organization has meted out to officials of the former regime in Kabul.

And this Central Asian distaste for what has happened in Afghanistan has now found its first public form in the reaction of the government of Kazakhstan.

Almaty called on all sides in Afghanistan to enter into peace talks in order to avoid additional civilian deaths and the possible destabilization of the region as a whole. And it urged the international community, up to and including the United Nations Security Council, to take all necessary steps to end the bloodshed.

At one level, of course, such statements merely reflect Almaty's desire to be a good international citizen. But at another, they reflect something more. Indeed, the urgency of this document and its references to the dangers of instability throughout Central Asia indicate that Kazakhstan is worried about more than just the latest violence in war-torn Afghanistan.

As was the case in Afghanistan prior to the victory of Taliban, so too many of the countries in Central Asia have tried to keep radical Islamic groups out of politics in order to attract Western support and to maintain stability. Indeed, several of the governments in the region have justified their repression of the population as the price for keeping out "Islamic fundamentalists."

But the recent events in Afghanistan demonstrate that this strategy -- which many will remember the shah pursued in Iran -- may ultimately prove counterproductive and even make future instability more likely and, when it comes, more violent.

In their efforts to keep Islamic activists out of politics, some of these governments have inadvertently politicized and radicalized Islam. And some of the officials in these regimes are beginning to reflect about what that could mean to them should the Afghan scenario be repeated in their countries.

They have watched the events in Iran. They have watched the events in Tajikistan. And now they see the events in Afghanistan. And this very pattern has clearly disturbed some officials in Central Asia who thought -- often on the advice of Western governments -- that they could escape it by pushing hard for more secular regimes.

Almaty certainly hopes that the international community will come to its aid now by moving to contain and control Taliban in Afghanistan, a movement that appears to the Kazakhstan authorities to have possible resonance in Central Asia proper.

But that community seems unlikely to be willing to act in Afghanistan and seems even more uncertain about just how to counter politicized Islam. Indeed, past Western efforts to prevent the spread of such Islamic movements have almost always proved counterproductive.

As a result, the Central Asian regimes are unlikely to find any easy salvation from the outside, and as a result, their nervousness about an Afghan scenario -- as in the Kazakhstan government statement yesterday -- will only grow as they seek to find a way to contain or co-opt Islamic groups in their own countries.