DOES ANYONE KNOW WHAT'S GOING ON?
It was not reassuring this Thursday to hear the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, articulate his new request for the media on American television: to properly understand the imminent war on Afghanistan, he said, the public will have to "fashion a new vocabulary." It wasn't clear what Rumsfeld meant by this, or that he even knew what he meant; but he seemed to be referring to the very murky and uncharted waters we are about to be immersed in, fighting the first American war on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Indeed, this is a challenge that not even the well-oiled PR machines of Washington and New York are prepared for. Nevertheless, they will have plenty of time to work something out because Operation "Infinite Justice" is now slated to last at least ten years. And this means one thing a permanent, epoch-making American presence in the former Soviet Union.
The pundits agree: there's trouble afoot in Central Asia big trouble. British journalists fret about the potential fallout of any operation there, while their foreign secretary, Jack Straw, is even comparing the growing tension in Central Asia to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The bottom line is that right now, all bets are off, and any attempt to deduce strategy, as if we were playing the board game Risk, seems doomed to failure, especially considering the unpredictable and violent war faction in the US government, led by the inimitable Paul Wolfowitz, which wants to swoop in to Afghanistan in a blaze of glory, take-no-prisoners total attack and why stop there? After all, Iraq is ripe for the picking…
THE PULL OF COMPETING FORCES
For the last decade two competing forces, Russia and radical Islam, have been trying to exert influence over the Central Asian states. The sudden introduction of a third force, the United States, will have unknown and potentially disastrous effects. One well-publicized scenario of a US attack on Afghanistan would be to radicalize and politicize the moderate majority of Muslim populations worldwide, from Malaysia to Morocco. This could bring down governments which are currently pro-Western and not only in Pakistan.
The US Government is well aware of the dangers. The State Department's terrorism review for 2000 should serve as a stark warning about these potential threats. But it is likely that in the heat of the moment, faced with the need to appease the calls for blood coming from the rabid forces of "patriotism" in America, the US is likely to enter a world of pain in attempting a ground invasion of Afghanistan, and by upsetting the balance of power in Central Asia.
With the exception of Kyrgyzstan, which luckily does not touch the Afghan border, there are potentially severe consequences at hand for the various Central Asian nations, and for Russia. A strategic review of the countries involved shows what's at stake.
TURKMENISTAN AND THE KAZAKHS
On the northwest border of Afghanistan lies Turkmenistan. This nation was the staging-post for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and a large airbase left over from those days (in the city of Kuska, near the Afghan border) may be used in the event of any attack on Afghanistan. Just above Turkmenistan lies Kazakhstan. Both countries have a western border with the Caspian Sea, and both are rich in oil and gas. In fact, in Turkmenistan the "economy's lifeline" is its gas exports to Russia. This is one thing for them to think about before they sign up with Uncle Sam: "(Turkmen president) Niyazov has gone against Russian wishes in the past, but doing so in this case could be expensive." However, the same Stratfor analysts believe that Turkmenistan will, in the end, "probably allow the United States to base aircraft and perhaps even special forces operations forces within their borders."
As for mighty Kazakhstan, president Nursultan Nazarbayev has roared to the defense of America, pledging that his country would do "everything necessary" to help "punish the terrorists." He issued a caveat, however, claiming that on many occasions he has urged the UN Security Council to establish peace in Afghanistan, and that no solution would be feasible that did not seek to bring stability to the whole region.
The US would be keen to get bases in Kazakhstan after all, it is the home of one of the world's largest untapped oil fields, Tengiz, of which Chevron is the major developer. A 987-mile pipeline connecting Tengiz to the Russian port of Novorossiysk is scheduled to start pumping in three weeks after numerous postponements, some linked to vandalism and poor security on the Russian end. No doubt about it, America would have an active interest in "securing" the Kazakh flow of oil.
The potentially strongest American ally is Uzbekistan, where the ardently secular government of President Islam Karamov has long been cracking down on Islamic terrorism. Ironically, the best organized and most dangerous separatist group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, has the potential to cause the worst regional chaos. With its stated goal of creating one all-encompassing Islamic state, the IMU is by far the most dangerous threat to regional stability. Karamov accuses the separatists of wanting to "carve out an Islamic state" in the Ferghana Valley area. These Islamic militants were responsible for bombings in 1999, in the capital, Tashkent, and have ties with the Taliban. This may increase support for the Americans; local analysts aver that "last week's events in the United States have touched a chord in Uzbekistan, where many people still recall the 1999 terrorist bombing in their own capital, Tashkent, which killed 16 people."
Preparations continue, and tacticians have eyed the Uzbeks for both their location and vestigial Soviet-era infrastructure. Western officials are delighted about the possibility of an "easy in" here: "a British source with extensive knowledge of the region said: 'the military infrastructure exists in Uzbekistan for the Americans to mount a 24-hour air campaign and even ground operations.'"
Also helping throw the game to the Americans is that relations have been prickly with Russia. Whereas Putin at first declared Central Asia off-limits to American troops, Uzbek spokesman Bakhodyr Umarov pledged, "Uzbekistan is ready to discuss any form of cooperation in the struggle against international terrorism in our region, including the deployment of US forces." As if to make a point, Putin "conspicuously" avoided the Uzbek leadership in a conference call with the other Central Asian leaders to discuss the new security concerns.
TROUBLE FOR TAJIKISTAN
The ramifications of a US attack on Afghanistan are most serious for Tajikistan. Still militarily integrated with Russia, this small and unstable country shares a hot border with Afghanistan. The Tajik government, under the direction of Russia, first rebuffed the US desire for a military presence; the latest news, however, is that American planes have been deployed to Tajikistan. This is sure to upset neighboring China, vexed with a potential Islamic uprising of its own, and it also might have an immediate effect on the increasingly hostile situation with the Taliban. The Washington Post reported on 19 September that daily violations of Tajik airspace by Taliban planes began almost simultaneously with the terrorist strikes in New York, and that tensions may explode:
"More so than its neighbors, Tajikistan already feels like a country on a war footing. The armed forces have been put on high alert and soldiers toting machine guns appear on many streets of this capital. Border crossings have been restricted and the road from the Uzbek line to Khudjand in the north is filled with one checkpoint after another."
US policy-makers have long recognized the inherently volatile nature of life in this, the poorest of former Soviet states:
"In congressional testimony last June, a senior U.S. State Department official, Clifford G. Bond, said: 'Tajikistan's fate is particularly important to the future of the region… Tajikistan's collapse could easily lead to the spread of the radical Islamic, narco-terrorist system in Afghanistan north through Tajikistan to other states in the region.'"
For Tajikistan, devastated by civil war, a refugee crisis and endemic poverty, the timing could not be worse. The power of Islamic militants was such that Tajik president Rakhmanov was forced to form a coalition government with them in 1997. It is believed that both Tajik and Afghan militants maintain secret bases in rugged mountains within the country, but beyond government reach. It comes as no surprise that after the death of a militant Tajik leader this summer, government figures have been targeted the country's culture minister was assassinated on 9 September, the very same day that Taleban terrorists killed the Northern Alliance's General Massoud.
RUSSIAN SENSITIVITY AND THE COMMON POPPY
Russian sensitivity is especially strong in Tajikistan, given that it has over 10,000 troops stationed on the border with Afghanistan. It's not hard to see why the Tajiks have refused to allow American troops access to the country. But military encroachment is only one of Russia's concerns here: American companies have also sought to increase their leverage in the country. For example, the first and until now only mobile phone carrier in Tajikistan was Somoncom owned by the American MCT Corp. St. Petersburg-based Northwest GSM has joined with Tajiktelecom (the national landline owner) to bring competition in this sector. However, considering that MCT had rejected the Tajiktelecom venture, citing "the tremendous amount of work they have to do on their wire system," and that MCT is soon to launch another competing mobile phone provider, it's clear that Russia is on the defensive in its own backyard.
A further concern of the Tajiks is the extensive drug smuggling network from Afghanistan that has resulted in higher crime and an increasing number of heroin addicts.
"According to the Tajik Ministry of Health, drug addicts… increased fourfold between 1996 and 2000; 74 percent of these reportedly use heroin." Experts say that the real figure must be 10-15 times higher. The number of patients appealing for medical assistance has grown by 10.3 times during the last five years. And General Roustam Nazarov, who runs the state's drug control operation, says stockpiles of surplus heroin await addicts. "According to available data, dozens of warehouses and laboratories producing high-quality heroin meant for transportation abroad, are located along the Afghan-Tajik border."
THE RUSSIAN BEAR GROWLS, THEN STAGGERS OFF, CONFUSED
Russia's reaction to US encroachment in its sphere of influence has been rife with confusion and contradiction. At first, speaking on 14 September from Yerevan, Russian defense minister Ivanov bluntly stated that he did not see "even the hypothetical possibility of NATO military operations on the territory of Central Asian nations that belong to the Commonwealth of Independent States." Yet all of a sudden, Russia seems to have thrown in the towel, giving the "green light" on Thursday to Central Asian nations in their dealings with America. US deployment of air power to Tajikistan is probably only the beginning.
BUT THEY MUST BE GETTING SOMETHING OUT OF IT
For all this sudden capitulating, Russia is still too powerful, and Putin too clever, to just cave in to a show of American strength. It remains to be seen what they will get as a reward. The probability is that this reward will be US acquiescence in Chechnya. Putin realizes, correctly, that it's now or never in this embittered war zone. Either he will enlist American support for, or at least tolerance of, the Russian efforts in the North Caucasus, or else the whole game is over and Russia can kiss its Caspian oil and gas (as well as its sovereignty) good-bye. In the past few weeks, the Chechens have upped their campaign, with the high-profile assassination of two Russian generals and the storming of Chechnya's second city, Gudermes. Russia swiftly retaliated. It was also Chechen rebels who were most likely behind the blowing up of a section of the Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline in the port town of Achisu on 29 August. It's not hard to see why the Chechens would play the sabotage card: if they can control Russia's Caspian coast, and take over Dagestan, they will effectively control Russia's oil pipeline and Caspian reserves.
If the US does decide to stand behind Russia in the same way that Russia is asked to support the US, it will represent a major shift. Digging beneath the "human rights" concerns, it becomes obvious that the US has traditionally used the Chechnya issue to undermine Russian stability and credibility in the Caspian/North Caucasus region. The Clinton administration, against the conventional wisdom of the oilmen involved, sought to build a pipeline that would specifically freeze out Russia. The grand idea of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline was thus hit upon. This pipeline has not yet been built but according to analysts like Alec Rasizade (Contemporary Review, July 1991) "if this pipeline were commercially viable, then it would already have been built." Indeed, since grave concerns continue to block an agreement on the project, a Russian alternative looks much better if it can hold onto Chechnya and Dagestan, that is.
BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Developments in Central Asia change almost by the hour. The above is only an overview of what's at stake and what factors we can expect to influence events to come. We should not forget, however, that despite the very real grieving and sorrow that American officials have shown, at least some factions of the government the Cold War veterans are looking at this as a golden opportunity for us to go where no American has gone before ex-Soviet Central Asia. And the prospect of spill-over violence between Islamic extremists and their governments may be especially enticing to them after all, someone is going to have to keep the peace, and it might as well be America. There are also strategic economic regions to protect. With any luck, we may be "back in the U.S.S.R." yet.
Christopher Deliso is a San Francisco-based travel writer and a journalist with special interest in the Balkans. He received a BA in Philosophy and Greek (Hampshire College, 1997) and M.Phil with distinction in Byzantine Studies (Oxford University, 1999). From 1997-2000 Mr. Deliso lived and worked in Ireland, England, Turkey, Greece, and spent a month in Macedonia in January, 2000. He is currently investigating media and governmental policies regarding the Macedonian crisis, and publishes regularly on European travel destinations.
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