"A whole region could end up in chaos"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 17 12:59:38 MDT 2001

[Transitions Online is a Czech based NGO funded by George Soros.]

Transitions Online, Week in Review: 11-17 September 2001

Running A Huge Risk

If the United States enlists Central Asian states in likely strikes against
Afghanistan, then a whole region could end up in chaos.

As the United States still reels from the last week's attacks on the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon, in the former Soviet republics of Central
Asia, anxiety is increasing. In the long term, a new U.S.-led military
campaign could only further increase the contradictions within these
societies--eventually leading to their breakdown.

But if the United States does decide to attack Afghanistan it is possible
that its forces-land or air-could use the former Soviet bases that
facilitated the invasion of Afghanistan two decades ago, which are located
in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Most of these bases, such as the air bases in
Tashkent, Termez, Khojand, and Dushanbe, are already operational.

If Central Asian states did rapidly develop into military stations for a
new Afghan war, that would likely bring deep instability to the region,
especially to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Tajikistan--a close ally of Russia--has around 10,000 Russian troops on its
territory guarding the border on Penj river with Afghanistan. The Russian
military is also active in supplying arms and ammunition to the northern
Afghan alliance--which has been fighting the Taliban-- through air fields
in Kulyab, to the alliance-controlled air field in Bagram.

Tajikistan is a country that is still emerging from the collapse of the
Soviet Union and a devastating civil war--with difficulties. Like in its
neighbor, Afghanistan, drought for the second consecutive year has brought
nearly one million people close to famine. On the political level, the
conservative government and the Islamist-dominated opposition signed a
peace agreement in 1997, and in 1999 the opposition took part in
parliamentary elections. A third of governmental positions are attributed
to the former opposition as part  the peace agreement.

But the peace is fragile. A group of the opposition field commanders have
refused to respect the peace agreement, and are still active in the
Karategin Valley in the center of the country. There are numerous press
reports speculating on their relationship with the extremist Islamic
Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) which has close relations with the Taliban.
The country is witnessing a new wave of Islamic radicalization by the
spread of the group Hizb ul-Tahrir. Although this group rejects armed
struggle, its program calls  the creation of a vast Islamic state by
unification of all Muslim lands.

The situation in Uzbekistan is even more delicate. A country of 23 million
inhabitants, it is ruled by the iron fist of President Islam Karimov, where
no public criticism to his rule is tolerated. Since 1997, thousands of
Muslim believers have been imprisoned and hundreds of mosques closed down.
This wave of repression has increased popular support for the IMU, and
other radical Islamic movements. The IMU operates out of bases in
Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and has showed its military capabilities by
launching massive cross border raids on several targets in Uzbekistan and
in Kyrgyzstan. The attacks of the last year led to the death of up to 200
Uzbek army soldiers, and an unidentified number of guerrilla fighters and

Post-Soviet Central Asian states are fragile constructions: ruling elites
have little experience in governance, are seen as corrupt and increasingly
illegitimate by their own populations, and are unable to lead their
countries  economic reconstruction and out of deepening poverty. Any U.S.
(and possibly Russian) intervention in the region might boost these Central
Asian regimes in the short term (by justifying and possibly increasing mass
repression against religious groups) but the long-term impacts on their
societies would be  to bear.

It's also unclear quite what the Russians make of all of this as signals
have been mixed. Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, in a 15 September
declaration to Itar-TASS from Yerevan, has already dismissed the
possibility of a NATO country deploying forces in ex-Soviet Central Asia.
But on the same day, the Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov declared in
Moscow that the use of force could not be ruled out in the fight against
terrorism, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.

Russian hesitation is linked not so much to Cold-War reflexes, but instead
to fear of U.S. forces spreading out into regions formerly under Soviet
control. In 1994, Washington gave the green light to the NATO expansion to
former Soviet satellite countries in Central Europe and still remains vague
about plans for incorporating former Soviet republics such as the Baltic
states and Ukraine into the alliance.

Moscow is also angry about U.S. efforts to decrease Russian influence over
the former Soviet republics in Transcaucasus and Central Asia. The United
States has tried to use financial, economic, and military means, such as
investments in oil projects, new pipeline routes, financial aid, to dampen
Russian presence in the region. Many in Moscow fear that the introduction
of U.S. troops into Central Asia will further decrease its influence there.

The problems of the Middle East is haunting Central Asia today. The risk is
that Washington could repeat the same mistakes there: collaborate with
tyranny and unpopular regimes for short-term gains--thus creating long-term

Louis Proyect
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