Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why the World Should Be Watching Central Asia

Simply do not believe Iran is a threat to Israel.... How can a country with no bombs (yet) be a danger to another one which has some 200 nukes already ?

Even when Iran does get a bomb eventually, why would they use it first ? An Iranian strike on Israel would hit the Palestinians and some of Islam's holiest sites in Jerusalem as well, but most important of all: Israel would retaliate and Iran would cease to exist....

So, the warmongers among us want us to believe that Iran's leaders hate Israel and Jews so much that they are willing to destroy Islam's third holiest place, commit mass suicide and have their country made inhabitable for a few centuries....?


When Pakistani troops began to pummel Taliban positions in the Swat Valley last month, there were other military advances against insurgent outposts – barely noticed by the global media – taking place in valleys not so far away. In late May, Uzbek soldiers and tanks patrolled parts of the troubled Ferghana Valley following shootouts with suspected Islamist extremists and a suicide bombing in the valley’s main city of Andijan. In neighboring Tajikistan, government forces fanned out across the remote Rasht Valley in a supposed attempt to hunt down a notorious militant commander named Abdullo Rakhimov. The veteran jihadi, according to some local reports, had recently abandoned Taliban allies in Pakistan to resume the struggle in his nearby native land.

While much of the focus of the U.S.-led war on terror now surrounds that theater of operations the Obama administration terms “Af-Pak,” the post-Soviet ‘Stans to the north present their own strategic quagmire. The tactical support of governments in the region is becoming increasingly vital for U.S. plans to bring stability to Afghanistan. Central Asian countries also sit atop a significant chunk of the world’s untapped oil and natural gas reserves, assets which are eyed covetously by both neighboring Russia and China, as well as the West. Yet the region – dominated by corrupt and repressive regimes – is itself precariously poised, home to its own native Islamist insurgencies vulnerable to domestic upheaval. “There is the possibility for really unpredictable change,” says Jeffrey Mankoff, a fellow for Russian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. And

it’s change few Central Asia watchers expect to be positive. While great powers vie for resources and influence, countries that were once seen as a bulwark against more turbulent nations to the south and west are themselves lurching toward crisis. See pictures of the fight for water in Central Asia. Still, Central Asia exists on the periphery for most policy makers in the U.S. When not the illusory realm of Borat or an exotic waypoint of horse markets and mutton skewers, the region has been cast off as a dysfunctional Russian annex, easily manipulated by a Kremlin that still views these young republics as satellite states. From Ashgabat to Astana, the ruling elites are all holdovers from the Soviet era, and sometimes more fluent in Russian than their national tongues. “Their regimes operate,” says Eric McGlinchey, a Central Asia specialist and professor of politics and government at George Mason University, “along almost pathological networks of patronage” – and ones that Moscow knows how to navigate. That close working relationship has been on full display recently in Kyrgyzstan: spurred by a Russian promise of $2 billion in aid, the Kyrgyz government signaled its intent to shut down the U.S.’s pivotal Manas air base there in January, and reaffirmed that pledge this week despite recent overtures from the Obama administration.

Russia may be keen to deter an entrenched American presence in its traditional sphere of influence, but is more muted about China’s expanding role in the region. Resource-hungry Beijing has steadily made inroads west, tying up lucrative energy contracts in Kazakhstan, while committing tens of million dollars to infrastructure and hydropower projects in impoverished Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. China has also become the single largest investor in Afghanistan, building roads through Kabul and setting up a massive $3 billion copper mine. In 2001, China formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a geo-political grouping aimed at improving economic and political relations with Russia and other Central Asian nations – as well as a vehicle for Beijing to quash support for separatists in its restive Xinjiang province, whose Muslim Uighurs share ethnic ties with Central Asia’s Turkic populations. The SCO – which is set to convene at a summit in Yekaterinaburg, Russia this week – also declared in 2005 that there must be a timeline for withdrawing all U.S. military bases in Central Asia, a clear sign of Beijing and Moscow’s intent to limit U.S. influence. “Russia and China are both interested in maintaining the status quo,” says Sean Roberts, a Central Asia expert at George Washington University. See pictures of Chinese investment in Africa.

That translates into a somewhat depressing reality for the over 50 million people living in the region. The world’s “freedom rankings” compiled by Freedom House, a Washington D.C.-based human rights NGO, place all five of the post-Soviet ‘Stans near the bottom. Independent media is almost non-existent. Human rights activists are frequently detained and tortured, and many others live in exile. Even in Kyrgyzstan, where a so-called “velvet” revolution toppled the ruling president in 2005, the subsequent government has done little to distinguish itself from the past. “Central Asians tolerate an awful lot,” says Roberts. “They’ve inherited a mentality from the Soviet days where they don’t necessarily believe in politics, or have faith that turning over the government yields a lot of results.”

Yet they are hardly isolated from global events: the impact of the worldwide recession is pushing some Central Asian societies to the brink. Tajikistan, like other poor Central Asian nations, has over the years seen many of its able-bodied men leave to work in the more prosperous cities of Russia and oil-rich Kazakhstan – at least a tenth of the Tajik population of 7 million is migrant labor. Remittances sent home comprise some 40% of the country’s total GDP, according to UN figures, and account for only slightly less in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Now, with the collapse of the Russian economy and the drying up of its construction boom, tens of thousands are returning to rugged homelands that offer few opportunities and to families that depended on their labor abroad. Observers in Tajikistan tell of depressed village after village where groups of unemployed men amble around. The situation “is a potential time bomb,” says the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, in a report earlier this year that labeled the country “on the road to failure.”

Analysts fear that the deteriorating economic climate, a legacy of ineffectual governance, and an increasingly frustrated population may feed into the designs of established militant groups in the region. The Ferghana Valley, the most densely populated pocket of Central Asia, straddles the Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz borders, and is home to the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a State Department listed terror organization. Militants are known to slip easily across the porous 1,300 km boundary between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, which is also a chief thoroughfare for Afghan opium into the markets of the West. According to Pakistani media, the IMU has helped contribute some 4,000 Uzbek and Tajik fighters to the Taliban forces warring with Islamabad.

The specter of an Islamist threat has often worked in favor of the region’s governments. After 9/11, U.S. Central Asian strategy was dictated largely by the Department of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld. Uzbekistan, ruled its entire independent life by the iron-fisted Islam Karimov, was brought into the fold as a staging ground for American operations in Afghanistan, as well as a willing accomplice in the renditions of suspected terrorists. That cozy partnership ended in 2005 when the Uzbek army gunned down hundreds of civilians protesting for reform in the Ferghana Valley under the pretense that it was curbing an Islamist revolt. U.S. and European condemnation only led the government to turn to Moscow’s embrace and throw out numerous international NGOs and foreign aid agencies. The country’s dissidents receded further into the margins; the more pronounced opposition now tends to be radical and violent. “Islamic militancy here,” says McGlinchey, “has almost always more to do with the oppressiveness of the local governments than some kind of trans-national religious calling.”

With the anticipated loss of Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. has again turned to Karimov’s Uzbekistan for logistical assistance. Central Asia watchers in the U.S. say that part of the difficulty Washington now faces in the region stems from its own short-sightedness in engaging governments there. “The U.S. approach was one-dimensional,” says Mankoff of the Council on Foreign Relations. “A lot of attention has been paid to cooperating with military and security forces at the expense of a broader relationship.” The Obama administration has no dedicated Central Asia envoy nor is it willing to pursue a strong agenda for change and reform at the risk of provoking Moscow. “Many think it’s a battle not worth fighting,” says Roberts.

Events may soon outpace that calculus, given the alarming collapse of the region’s economies and spikes in militant violence. It’s unclear, though, what a beefed-up American role in the region could look like, and whether it would be in concert – or at odds – with Moscow or Beijing. Headlines in the international press tout the advent of the new “Great Game” in a region that for centuries has been at the whim of larger forces. Not many locals are that interested, though. “We waited and hoped for democratic change after the influence of America,” says Umida Niyazova, a journalist and prominent Uzbek activist living in exile in Germany. “But the years since have only brought more instability.”