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Mediterranean Quarterly 14.2 (2003) 95-109

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Central Asian Geopolitics and U.S. Policy in the Region:
The Post-11 September Era

Subodh Atal

The Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Empire in 1991. The region has generated global interest due to its energy potential and geostrategic significance. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan host large energy reserves. The landlocked region is flanked by the volatile Middle East to the west, Russia to the north, China to the east, and the Indian subcontinent to the south. As a result of its geographical location, the region has collected many diverse ethnic, religious, and cultural influences over the centuries. Despite its assets, the Central Asian states face significant challenges of poverty, political repression, and Islamic fundamentalism.

The Russian conquerors of Central Asia were interested primarily in its abundant resources. Stalin carved up the region by drawing arbitrary lines to create the five republics that eventually became independent in the Soviet breakup. The Soviet era also saw a resettling of millions of Russians in the region and the forced adoption of the Russian language. The Soviets preferred to tap into Siberian rather than Central Asian natural fuel resources, and any pipelines coming out of Central Asia traveled north into Russia. Religious-sectarian conflict has centered mainly on the Ferghana Valley and the nations that share the valley's territory: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. After independence, the region was inundated with Muslim clerics, funds, and literature from Islamic countries. This external influence combined with weak economic conditions—a stark rich-poor divide and [End Page 95] political repression—led to a rapid mushrooming of Islamic fundamentalism. Groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Hizb-ut-Tahrir have wide following in the region. 1

The geostrategic significance of the region attracts the intersecting interests of various other powers, including the United States, China, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and India. The United States aims to secure an alternative source for energy, help Central Asia gain autonomy from Russia's hegemony, block Iran's influence, and promote political and economic freedoms. A U.S. military presence has significantly changed the strategic environment in the region. The new regional equations offer opportunities to the United States, but also risks of entanglement in the multidimensional matrix of Central Asia's so-called Great Game.

The Central Asian Nations

Kazakhstan is the largest and the richest of the five countries of Central Asia, with abundant natural resources. There is a significant Russian minority in the northern part; Islamic influence is confined to the south. Post-11 September ties with the United States have strengthened but have not resulted in an easing of the tight dictatorial control of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has perpetuated his rule through electoral manipulationand political repression. 2

With limited oil and natural gas reserves, Kyrgysztan's economic situation is weak, and the nation has been heavily dependent on Russia. At one time Kyrgyzstan was regarded as the most politically and economically progressive of all Central Asian nations. However, the industrial base and economy are shrinking, while President Askar Akaev's relatives enjoy privileged access to business opportunities. 3 The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan [End Page 96] (IMU) and drug traffickers have exploited Kyrgyzstan's weak state apparatus in the Ferghana Valley. Resistance to the government, and repression, have accelerated since spring 1992, when the jailing of an opposition legislator who protested a charitable border deal with China prompted mass demonstrations. 4 Kyrgyzstan came to international attention in 1999, when the IMU kidnapped dozens of people, including several Japanese geologists, and demanded the establishment of a regional Islamic state. Uzbek military planes bombed Kyrgyz hideouts of the IMU, touching off regional tensions. Kyrgyz territory has also been used by Uighur Islamic separatists for incursions. The establishment of a U.S. military base near the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek holds out some promise for reducing Kyrgyz dependence on Russia, but so far, increased U.S. military ties have not led Kyrgyzstan to...


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