Central Asia: Politics, Economics, Religion. Should the U.S. Care?
With the war against terrorism in full force and efforts underway to reconstruct Afghanistan and bring peace to the region, world attention focuses on Central Asia. The difficult social, economic, and political problems of the Central Asian states are compounded by its “arc of instability”—the bounding of the region by Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. The first session examined regional dynamics in Central Asia and how such issues might ameliorate or further destabilize security in the region. The second panel discussed ways in which the United States intends to remain engaged in Central Asia.
While Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are the latest Central Asian states to allow use of their military facilities to the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, their fight against Islamic extremists is not new. Believing that foreign-trained Islamic extremists were responsible for spreading violence and fomenting instability, Central Asian governments have tried a variety of tactics to deal with the radicals, said Kamoludin Abdullaev, a researcher with the Tajikistan Center for Strategic Research in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Such methods are described as the C’s: contest, control or collaborate.
Abdullaev suggested that Tajikistan’s effort to incorporate Islamic political parties into the system is the most promising of the options. Tajikistan's most recent elections brought into office members of the Islamic Renaissance Party, the only openly Islamic party to participate in a Central Asian government coalition. Efforts to suppress Islamic activity and treating groups as dangerous militias might have the unintended consequences of radicalizing more moderate organizations. As an example, he pointed to Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov’s administration has intensified the crackdown against Islamic believers in recent years in response to an armed insurgency conducted by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which operates out of bases in Afghanistan.
Working to stem the flight of Islamic militants from Afghanistan, the Central Asian states have bolstered security along their borders. The post September 11 security threat has resulted in thawing relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as illustrated by the recent visit of Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov's to Uzbekistan, the first such official visit by a Tajik leader in a decade. Such overtures may pave the way for broader regional cooperation, Abdullaev said. Still, he urged that governments encourage pluralism through a reinterpretation of Islam, focusing on moderate voices, instead of imposing models or repressing groups through violence.
Various forms of gender politics ranging from pre Soviet to Soviet to the post Soviet experience have defined women in Central Asia, said Nayereh Tohidi, a research scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center. While women in all Islamic countries are attempting to achieve women’s rights, Central Asian women are struggling to sustain those rights and move forward. Under the Soviet model, universal literacy and life expectancy for women were quite high in the Central Asian states, but she noted that several underlying problems such as the lack of comprehensive civil society and a gap between gender rights and gender attitudes in practice, existed.
Today, while all five Central Asian republics still have secular states, secular public education and equal rights for all citizens, the unrealized market and democratic reforms expected during the post Soviet transition threaten further advances. According to Tohidi, the threat of chaos in the region enabled a reassertion of the most conservative features of Central Asian society. Many people have accepted authoritarian control because they are told it is necessary to protect against the perceived dangers of social and regional fragmentation. In addition, efforts to link to the past include rewriting and reconstructing a historical narrative—manifested in part by symbolic identifications of paternalism or conservative Islamic values. For instance, during the independence movement in Tajikistan in the early 1990s, women were encouraged to replace their Western clothes with “the pride of Tajikistan,” a striped silk dress called an atlas, Tohidi said. As Islam becomes increasingly politicized in Central Asia, fewer spaces exist for liberal, modern voices, portending problems for women of the region.
The increased attention paid to the war on drugs since September 11 offers an opportunity to address seriously the broader societal issue resulting from the trafficking and abuse of drugs, said Nancy Lubin, President of JNA Associates, Inc. and former fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Because it was generally viewed as a secondary or social concern, counter-narcotics trafficking programs received less attention and oversight, although such measures affected civil society, gender, ethnic relations and religious tolerance.
The international community’s indifference persisted even though Afghanistan is generally regarded as the largest exporter of heroin, producing more than 75 percent of the world’s supply of opium. Because Afghan drugs play only a small part in its own narcotics problem, the United States focused elsewhere. Other countries preferred to fund interdiction measures through the United Nations.
Most of the supply passes through Central Asia, causing severe security concerns. As the United States increases its role in the region, it needs to take into account the negative ramifications of the war on drugs. Lubin stressed that some corrupt governments already use the campaign for their own purposes, including targeting certain religious and ethnic groups, limiting civil liberties, tightening political control and harassing opposition groups. In addition, bribes and extortion are the norm, she said.
Her research has found that drugs are planted on political opponents or religious figures to facilitate their arrest, and often target particular ethnic and religious groups. In addition, customs officials and border guards frequently force people to pay enormous bribes. Many people, mostly women, have stopped traveling rather than face the threat of imprisonment or undergo humiliating body searches.
Central Asian women are increasingly both traffickers and victims of the drug war. Originally used because they were unlikely traffickers, the involvement of women is growing. For instance, in Kyrgyzstan, an estimated 30 percent of drug addicts and traffickers are women, while in Tajikistan, the proportion is estimated to be higher, and rising.
In the afternoon's second panel, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lynn Pascoe, the State Department official with primary responsibility for Central Asia, outlined U.S. interests in and policy toward Central Asia. In the case of Central Asia, Pascoe observed, September 11th actually did "change everything," as the cliche about the impact of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington claims. In the four months since then, the United States has dispatched troops to the region, taken over air bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, engaged in joint military training with those two countries, and seen security and terrorism concerns eclipse human rights and energy as the most pressing issues in the U.S. agenda for the region.
Unlike its earlier withdrawal from Afghanistan once the Soviets pulled out in 1988, Pascoe pledged, this time the United States will stay involved in the region after the termination of hostilities. He underscored the importance of the decision by Russian president Vladimir Putin, in the face of considerable domestic opposition, to encourage U.S. involvement in areas that only a decade ago were Soviet territory. Had Russia sought to impede American involvement in Central Asia, Pascoe noted, the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan would have been far more difficult. The United States, he then added, does not seek to displace Russia in the region. Asked about the danger of shoring up undemocratic or repressive regimes by assuming such a visible presence in the region, Pascoe responded that one cannot transform other societies by "standing on the outside and shouting at them, as we did in Afghanistan" in recent years. Perhaps this is accurate; it is also the classic argument for engaging with unsavory regimes.