U.S. Plants Footprint in Shaky Central Asia
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Tue Aug 27 22:09:13 MDT 2002
August 27, 2002
U.S. Plants Footprint in Shaky Central Asia
By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- The American military base in the arid hills of
southwestern Uzbekistan is not imposing. The air-conditioned tents are laid
out on a grid, along streets named for the thoroughfares of New York: Fifth
Avenue, Long Island Expressway, Wall Street. About 1,000 U.S. troops live
and work here, handling tons of supplies for the war in Afghanistan.
But the base, named K2, is a powerful symbol of the United States' arrival
in a region that was once better known as a theater of operations for
armies led by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. In fact, the
U.S. troops here are the first Western soldiers to operate in this corner
of the world since Alexander, who passed nearby in 329 B.C.
Central Asia's leaders consider the U.S. presence here the inauguration of
a new era. Islam Karimov, the uncompromising leader of Uzbekistan, was held
at arm's length by the United States for years because of his authoritarian
policies. He now sees himself as an important U.S. ally. Since his friendly
visit with President Bush last spring and the signing of a formal agreement
committing the United States to respond to "any external threat" to
Uzbekistan, Karimov said in an interview, his country has "a strategic
partnership with the United States."
"The logic of the situation," said Abdulaziz Kamilov, Karimov's foreign
minister, "suggests that the United States has come here with a serious
purpose, and for a long time."
The purpose that brought the United States to Central Asia was the hunt for
Osama bin Laden, his followers and protectors. Once U.S. officials declared
war on bin Laden, they needed strategic assets near his base in
Afghanistan. Uzbek officials signaled their willingness to help, and on
Sept. 28 confirmed to Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton that a U.S.
base could be established on their territory. K2 is just 80 miles from the
Thus did the United States find itself in this exotic and troubled
neighborhood. In the weeks after Sept. 11, four of the five governments in
the region offered military facilities to the United States. All five
welcomed the U.S. deployment. The irony was not lost on any of them: In the
11th year of their independence, former republics of the Soviet Union had
become military partners of the United States. "The world changed,"
Kasymzhomart Tokayev, foreign minister of Kazakhstan, said in an interview.
In the bargain, the United States has acquired new commitments and new
allies in Central Asia that will alter U.S. policy for years to come. But
how? And with what consequences? Five weeks of reporting in the region and
extensive interviews with policymakers in Washington make clear that the
commitments, though real enough and potentially costly, remain vague. Their
full implications may not be understood for years.
The State Department describes U.S. policy in Central Asia since Sept. 11
as "enhanced engagement." In testimony to the Senate earlier this summer,
B. Lynn Pascoe, deputy assistant secretary of state, explained the U.S.
goal: to push the Central Asian states toward free markets and democratic
politics to try to strengthen them against Islamic extremism and
instability. Without political and economic reform, Pascoe said, "they
cannot survive as modern states."
Today, all five countries are encumbered by corrupt and authoritarian
politics and serious social and economic problems. In the view of numerous
academic specialists, the situation is actually deteriorating. Kathleen
Collins, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, in South Bend, Ind.,
wrote recently that these five countries "are not in transition to
democracy, but are heading down a political and economic trajectory that
can only be called sharply negative." Her view is echoed by many Central
Asians. "We have a process of de-civilizing going on," said Murat Auezov, a
Kazakh intellectual who was his country's ambassador to China in the early
None of the leaders in the region permits free politics or fair elections,
and as a result, all lack legitimacy, according to a Bush administration
official. They are all "guys who just were there" as leaders of their
republics when the Soviet Union collapsed or soon afterward, this official
said. They wield highly concentrated personal power in fledgling systems
whose institutions range from weak to utterly ineffectual. The assistant
secretary of state for human rights, Lorne W. Craner, testified to Congress
recently that the human rights situation in the five Central Asian states
was "very poor," "poor" or "extremely poor."
Yet these new allies may be needed for years because the effort to
stabilize Afghanistan will depend on them. Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander
of the U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for Afghanistan, affirmed
this month that U.S. soldiers will be in Afghanistan for "a long, long
time." Describing the sort of commitment Afghanistan will require, Franks
mentioned South Korea, where U.S. troops have been based for more than half
Like Afghanistan, all five of the Central Asian countries -- Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- need serious
"nation-building." George W. Bush said during the 2000 presidential
campaign that this should not be a U.S. avocation, but since last fall it
has become one.
U.S. aid budgets for this region have increased this year by $200 million,
to a total of $442 million. Americans are helping Central Asians learn to
operate a market economy and teach English, train and deploy modern armed
forces, develop independent news media and establish citizens' groups and a
civil society. The U.S. Agency for International Development employs two
"democracy specialist" positions for the region in the Kazakh city of
Almaty, plus one each in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
For both the leaders of Central Asia and their new U.S. partners, regional
stability is the overriding goal. But they define the term differently. The
Central Asian presidents cite the need for stability to justify their
crackdowns on domestic opponents. American diplomats argue, on the
contrary, that stability will depend on tolerance for opponents and
opportunities for them to compete for power. Ordinary people speak
longingly of a stability accompanied by economic security and a sense of an
orderly future. The powerful nations of the world with interests in the
neighborhood all see stability as the antidote to the tendencies they fear
-- Islamic extremism, violent opposition to sitting regimes, ugly contests
for power and wealth.
A 'Great Game' Renewed
Central Asia has a long history as a venue for geopolitical intrigue. This
was the site for the 19th-century test of strength and influence between
Russia and Britain that Rudyard Kipling immortalized as "the great game."
Then the area was the buffer zone between an eastward-expanding Russian
empire and a nervous Britain that feared the Russians had designs on
British India. Russian armies conquered most of Central Asia during the
19th century, stopping only at the Pamir Mountains and the Afghan border.
In the first years of the 21st century, the collapse of Russian
imperialism, the rise of Muslim fundamentalism and the world's
ever-increasing thirst for oil, have all contributed to a new kind of
strategic significance for Central Asia. Geography is still critical. The
five former Soviet republics and Afghanistan together constitute a zone of
weak states in the middle of a neighborhood that includes Russia, Pakistan,
India, Iran and China, whose western-most province, Xinjiang, borders
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In this setting, what happens in
Central Asia can have wide repercussions.
During the 1990s the United States began to quietly build influence in the
area. Washington established significant military-to-military relationships
with Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Soldiers from those countries
have been trained by Americans. Uzbekistan alone will receive $43 million
in U.S. military aid this year. The militaries of all three have an ongoing
relationship with the National Guard of a U.S. state -- Kazakhstan with
Arizona, Kyrgyzstan with Montana, Uzbekistan with Louisiana. The countries
also participated in NATO's Partnership for Peace program.
"We wanted to extend our influence in the region, and promote American
values, too," said Jeffrey Starr, a Pentagon official who was responsible
for these relationships during the second Clinton administration as deputy
assistant secretary of defense.
Oil and gas have enhanced the region's strategic value. Kazakhstan and
Turkmenistan sit atop vast quantities of both. Geologists keep raising
their estimates of Kazakh oil reserves as more becomes known about the oil
fields beneath the Caspian Sea. The Energy Department now says Kazakhstan
may have as many as 95 billion barrels of oil, or nearly four times
Mexico's proven reserves. Chevron, a U.S. company, was the first to make a
major commitment to the development of Kazakh oil, and the company -- now
Chevron Texaco -- is investing billions of dollars in Kazakhstan.
"We have an enormous economic and energy stake in this country," said a
senior U.S. official in Kazakhstan. "It's part of our national energy
strategy." By 2015 Kazakhstan and its Caspian neighbors could make up one
of the world's most important sources of oil, the official said.
That the people of Central Asia are predominantly Muslim has also become a
geopolitical factor. Throughout the 1990s governments in the region had
been nervous about the rise of Islamic militancy. This anxiety turned into
stark fear after 1998, when a charismatic young Uzbek from the populous
Fergana Valley, using the nom de guerre of Juma Namangani, established the
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) with the stated aim of overthrowing
Karimov's government. In 1999 armed men under the banner of the IMU,
operating from Afghanistan, invaded Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
They failed in their goal to reach the fertile, densely populated Fergana,
but they sent a shudder of fear through these countries. In 2000 the IMU
invaded again, this time reaching the mountains northeast of Tashkent.
It was their safe haven in Afghanistan that made the IMU's exploits
possible. The Afghan connection to Islamic militancy in Kyrgyzstan,
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan alarmed all three governments. But until Sept.
11, their warnings about the threat of the Taliban were mostly ignored by
the rest of the world.
Now the Central Asian governments see an opportunity to remake Afghanistan
as a thriving, secular neighbor that can contribute to stability.
"Afghanistan must be part of this region," said Kamilov, the Uzbek foreign
minister -- and not just for stability. President Imamali Rakhmonov of
Tajikistan and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan both noted in
interviews that an open highway across Afghanistan would bring much of
Central Asia within a day's drive of the Pakistani port of Karachi -- a way
for the landlocked countries to throw off their historic dependence on
Russia for physical connections to the outside world.
The U.S. intervention has been most important for the Central Asians
because it has eliminated the obvious threats to their own security. The
United States and its partners in the international coalition against
terrorism removed the Taliban and all but wiped out al Qaeda and the IMU.
U.S. bombs apparently killed Namangani, the IMU leader, last year.
"From a military point of view, we don't face any threats," said Kodir
Gulomov, Uzbekistan's defense minister. Just a year ago, Uzbekistan was
nervously mining its borders and awaiting new attacks by the IMU.
Afghanistan still presents problems for its neighbors. Water supply is one.
The Amudarya River, an important and already overused source for
Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, demarcates the Tajik-Afghan and
Uzbek-Afghan borders for hundreds of miles. Now that international donors
have promised to rebuild the Afghan economy, including its agriculture,
increased Afghan use of the Amudarya is inevitable, according to officials
in the region.
Drugs are another problem. The IMU, the Northern Alliance (an ethnic Tajik
group that dominated a slice of northern Afghanistan) and the Taliban
turned Afghanistan into a giant drug factory that now provides 90 percent
of the heroin consumed in Europe, according to the United Nations. Drug
commerce makes up a substantial contribution to the economies of all the
Central Asian countries.
But the leaders of Central Asia prefer to notice the great opportunity
presented by the woes of Afghanistan -- holding the United States in their
region. President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, for example, said: "We'll need
15 to 20 years to stabilize Afghanistan now," and he anticipates an
important role for the United States in the effort.
Soviets and Russians
Americans in the neighborhood cannot, however, dispel Central Asia's many
problems. Stability may be the goal, but sources of potential instability
are evident everywhere. All five countries suffer from serious social and
economic problems; all are burdened by an unforgiving history; and none
existed as a nation-state before 1991. The borders that define the
countries, drawn arbitrarily by Joseph Stalin and his comrades in the 1920s
and '30s, bore only scant connection to the historical distribution of
ethnic groups and political power in the region.
The peoples of Central Asia have intermingled and intermarried for
centuries. It's nearly impossible for a visitor to distinguish Uzbeks from
Tajiks or Kazakhs or Kyrgyz, unless they're wearing national garments. Clan
and regional ties have historically been more important than ethnic
identification, according to Olivier Roy, a French scholar who has written
extensively on the region.
None of the republics was psychologically prepared to become an independent
nation 11 years ago, when the Soviet Union suddenly disappeared. This was
something most Central Asians never dreamed of. The republics lacked the
most basic tools of nationhood -- a banking system, for example, or a
defense ministry, or a postal service. Their Soviet-era economies all
collapsed, and none has gotten back to the standard of living their
citizens enjoyed in 1991.
Soviet habits still survive. "There's still a lot Soviet in us -- Soviet
mentality, Soviet methods for reaching decisions," said Joomart Otorbayev,
deputy prime minister of Kyrgyzstan. "The Soviet system of management that
buried the Soviet Union is still with us -- and, unlike Moses, there was no
chance to take everyone into the desert for 40 years to shed the slave's
Today's Central Asians, from political leaders to taxi drivers, are
ambivalent about Russia. Many say that without the Russian empire, they
would all probably be as backward as the Afghans next door. But it is also
easy to find resentment about the way Russians used this region for their
own purposes, depriving its people of dignity and authority -- and often of
Nazarbayev, the Kazakh president, embodies this ambivalence: He made his
career inside the Soviet system, rising to become a full member of the
Politburo. Then he tried to prevent the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Today he casts himself as a Kazakh nationalist, and reports proudly that
the ethnic Kazakh population, just 30 percent of the republic's citizens in
1975, is now 55 percent. An exodus of ethnic Russians -- which has occurred
in all five countries -- explains most of the change. Birth rates are also
high in all of Central Asia.
Central Asians long assumed that Russia would remain their protector, and a
stabilizing force. Seeing the United States move in instead was a surprise;
for some, it was a shock. But Americans can't fully substitute for Russians
here. Millions of Central Asians live and work in Russia; armies in Central
Asian nations use Russian weaponry; Central Asians who follow world affairs
get most of their news through Russia's media. Russia remains an important
market and, for Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, a crucial link for the export
of oil and gas. "I think the future is with Russia," said Azamat
Abdimomunov, 27, director of a staff of young intellectuals who work on
"the future development of our country" in Nazarbayev's presidential apparat.
Russia's economic importance is largely a consequence of Central Asia's
economic failures. Unemployment is staggeringly high in these five
countries, though no one knows exactly how high. In Uzbekistan people say
flatly that young men who don't have political connections simply cannot
find a job. Poverty is a huge problem everywhere, even in relatively
wealthy Kazakhstan. Poverty scares the politicians, partly because they
can't alleviate it, partly because they're afraid of its consequences.
"Where does the threat [of international terrorism] come from?" asked
Rakhmonov, the Tajik president. "Why does it come from this region? Because
of . . . poverty, joblessness." Bin Laden picked Afghanistan as a base of
operations "because that's just what the terrorists needed -- a poor,
backward country" where they could recruit followers and buy the support
they needed, Rakhmonov said.
He warned that the United States and other developed countries had to do
more to improve desperate economic conditions in the region. "The people of
Central Asia have a moral right to a better life," he said.
One beneficiary of poverty is Islamic militancy, according to numerous
Central Asians. The fact that young men can't find jobs created recruiting
opportunities for the IMU. Leaders in the region express their anxiety
about Islam by trying to control it. In Uzbekistan, a state committee has
complete control of religious practice in the country. The grand mufti of
Tashkent has a large portrait of President Karimov in his office. His staff
distributes the sermon read in every mosque in the country on Friday.
Economists and experts from the international financial institutions blame
the governments for failing to reform their economies, support
entrepreneurship and develop the regional economy. The utter failure of
these five governments to work together on important issues since
independence is a particularly sore spot. "I'd call it a children's
disease," said Otorbayev, the deputy prime minister of Kyrgyzstan,
discussing the rivalries that have blocked regional cooperation. "We've
been independent for eleven years, a child's age."
Old Ways in New Nations
Corruption in Central Asia is seen as both a symptom and cause of the
region's problems. Residents of all five countries say it has gotten worse
since independence, but it is an ancient curse. From presidents to traffic
policemen, Central Asians in positions of authority use their positions to
So the family of President Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan has become enormously
wealthy, and the police of Dushanbe, Tajikistan, routinely flag down
drivers who have done nothing wrong to demand a payoff. The president of
Turkmenistan has put the country's oil revenue into an offshore bank
account that only he controls. Physicians in underfunded clinics expect
bribes to provide treatment. Fuel for the American and French fighter jets
flying out of Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan is provided by a firm owned by
President Askar Akayev's son-in-law.
Though all five governments have embraced the outward symbols of democracy
-- elections, legislatures, courts of law and constitutions -- none
practices authentic democracy. All have preserved powerful, KGB-like
political police forces. When elections are held, presidents win nearly all
the votes, and serious opposition candidates are routinely banned. American
diplomats have tried to convince Central Asian presidents that "winning an
election with 60 percent of the vote is just as good as winning with 90
percent," one senior official said, but "they just can't internalize that
point. They are complete control freaks."
There's been just one change of leadership in these five countries during
11 years of independence, and it came 10 years ago, when Rakhmonov replaced
the hapless first president of Tajikistan. Akayev, the president of
Kyrgyzstan, has announced his intention to retire at the end of 2004; none
of the others has shown any sign of contemplating retirement. Asked about
this in interviews, Karimov, Nazarbayev and Rakhmonov all said they had no
intention of being permanent presidents, but none hinted when he might give
up the job. Saparmurad Niyazov is president for life in Turkmenistan.
Central Asian leaders have yielded to U.S. pressure on some occasions, but
they have ignored it on many others. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell
sent a private letter this spring to Akayev, urging him to take steps to
restore his early reputation as a democrat in Kyrgyzstan, with little
evident result. Nazarbayev has ignored a series of public and private U.S.
protests this year about his continuing crackdown on political opposition
and independent news media in Kazakhstan, sticking with policies the United
States specifically criticized.
"We're pushing harder than we've ever pushed before," a senior American
diplomat said. Can the Americans reform Central Asia? Can the region's
leaders change their ways? Will these economies ever prosper? The future is
a risky subject in Central Asia, because it looks so uncertain. Nargiza
Abraeva, a 26-year-old who lives in Tashkent, put it succinctly: "When you
speak about the future, people start to shake."
But whatever the future, at the U.S. base in Uzbekistan, K2, the first
permanent buildings are replacing tents. A headquarters building and a post
office are being completed this summer; other structures will follow.
Staff photographer Lois Raimondo and researcher Robert Thomason in
Washington contributed to this report.
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