Central Asia Disintegrates

Unfortunately many Western policy commentators still seem look at the present problems of Afghanistan in isolation – probably because that is where NATO and allied countries are most heavily engaged.

1st Jul 2010

Unfortunately many Western policy commentators still seem look at the present problems of Afghanistan in isolation – probably because that is where NATO and allied countries are most heavily engaged. In turn this occupies the attention of politicians and the media. But Afghanistan is only one entity in a vastly complex inter-connected series of countries, regions and failing states in Central Asia.

To put it another way, assessments of the stability of Afghanistan have little meaning in the wider context of increasing ethnic, economic and religious turmoil. The most recent depressing example is Kyrgyztan, where violent inter-ethnic clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz centred on the southern city of Osh have generated hatreds which might take decades to erase. As usual the causes of this conflict are complex and it is highly likely that ousted Kyrgyz President Kulmanbek Bakiyev and his extended family – many with criminal links – had a significant role in starting trouble.

Osh is not just any backward town in Central Asia, it also happens to be a major transshipment point for heroin produced in Afghanistan on its way mainly – but not exclusively – to Russia. Whoever controls the drug trade becomes very wealthy and powerful indeed. By using Kazakh gangs loyal to him personally ex-President Bakiyev has good reason for wanting to assert control over this particular area and jabbing a metaphorical finger in the eye of the interim Government in Bishkek was probably a bonus.

In the meantime most media attention has – as usual – remained focused on Afghanistan and most recently the bizarre public self-destruction of US general Stanley McChrystal. While he has been promptly replaced by the impressive David Petreaus, many allies of the US must be wondering what on earth is going on. The high level instability goes slightly further than events surrounding the dismissal of McChrytal – it also acts as a reminder of the differing levels of influence of US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry (an ex-General and contemporary of Petreaus’) and also of Special Representative Richard Holbrook.

This uncertainty about who exactly is in charge – and remembering that Stanley McChrystal was the only senior US figure with a good personal relationship with Afghan President Harmid Karzai – comes at a time of increasing Western concern about the overall military situation in Afghanistan. Just a few months ago senior military commanders were quietly confident that significant progress was being made in the fight against the Taliban. This optimism is now being toned down and replaced by fresh concerns about the absolutely staggering levels of corruption within the Karzai Government, and whether this means that the administration is damaged beyond repair. It is said that no official transaction now takes place without someone receiving a pay-off. In such a climate it is hardly surprising that attempts to defeat the Taliban seem as distant as ever.

With the US committed to drawing down forces in Afghanistan – following the example of Iraq – one wonders who will fill the vacuum in Central Asia. The region is too important as a source of energy and raw materials – as well as its geopolitical significance – to be entirely neglected by outside powers. The uncomfortable truth is that many people on the ground would prefer the return of the relative stability of the Soviet Union on a least-worst-alternative basis. But Russia is showing marked reluctance to re-engage at a significant level, not least because it has plenty of problems somewhat closer to Moscow in the Caucuses.

Somewhat oddly the United States seems to be striving for a greater role, even as it seeks to extricate itself from Afghanistan. In a series of small decisions which probably slipped under the radar of public discussion, Washington is now funding military training centres in Osh (Kyrgyztan), Karatog (Tajikistan) and a canine training centre and helicopter hangar in Almaty (Kazakhstan). Perhaps these measures are being taken to forestall increasing Chinese influence in the area. Clearly Beijing is interested playing a greater role, though after its heavy-handed dealings with its own Uighur Muslim minority it is unlikely to be enthusiastically welcomed in Central Asia.

Perhaps the country best suited for an increasing role in this troubled area is Turkey. The Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are both Turkmenic people and so there is a great deal of ethnic and linguistic commonality to take advantage of. This is definitely not the case with either the US or China. Turkey is still the sleeping giant of the area with a population about the size of Egypt’s at around 70 million, an economy in reasonable shape and a well equipped military

However at the moment Turkey seems more focused on issues such as the future of the Kurds and what this will mean should Iraq be dismembered. These are not insignificant matters especially with Iraq apparently entering a new stage of political uncertainty as Iyad Allawi and Nuri al-Maliki jostle to figure out who is really running the country. In the meantime sectarian violence continues, despite official denials from Washington and Baghdad that there is any deterioration in the overall situation.

As we look at Iraq and now all of Central Asia it is a good time to reflect on the 2003 claim of then US President George W Bush: “Mission accomplished.”

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