Central Asia at the Crossroads
No. 1 2003 January/March

Yevgeny Vassilyev is an Orientalist specializing in
Central Asia. He regularly advises Russian government institutions
on Central Asian issues.

After nearly 18 months since the start of military operations in
Afghanistan, the situation in Central and South Asia has markedly
changed. The Taliban have been removed from power, their military
machine has been destroyed, and the terrorist organizations
throughout Afghanistan have been practically routed.

The shroud of secrecy shadowing the U.S. forces in Afghanistan
obscures the actual military and political situation in the region.
Experts and analysts remain skeptical about the officially reported
figures of American losses, which vary between 40 to 45 casualties.
Other sources indicate that approximately 200 servicemen were
killed, while another 250-300 were injured. Other U.S. military
assets lost in the campaign include 20 helicopters, three to four
aircraft and as many unmanned air vehicles. Furthermore, to all
appearances, the extremist forces who have “picked up the flag” of
the Taliban and Al Qaeda have not been destroyed, but have escaped
to neighboring Pakistan.

Nevertheless, the main geopolitical result of the Afghan
campaign is rather obvious: the U.S. and NATO military presence in
Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and, to a lesser extent, in other Central
Asian countries has become a reality. Analysts who are skeptical
about the West are adamant that the “strange war” in Afghanistan
will be continued until the Americans achieve all of their goals in
Central Asia: guaranteed temporary or permanent military presence
in the region, an established network of military facilities and
respective legal and political infrastructures.

The situation, however, is not exactly what it seems; the stakes
are too high to enact any Machiavellian scenarios with regard to
Afghanistan. Besides, there is presently a new factor on the
political stage – a legitimate Afghan government enjoying
international support and, moreover, one which is not interested in
any further military confrontation in the country. Nor will it
benefit the Bush administration if there is a prolonged delay in
achieving a final military solution in Afghanistan. An early
stabilization in the country is in the interests of the entire
international community. An international conference held in Tokyo
in February 2002 promised to allocate several billion dollars for
the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan. However, the
settlement problem is yet far from being resolved, and the winter
season will only aggravate the situation: hostilities become less
intensive through the winter months, but nevertheless the
inhabitants of the region will have to struggle to survive through
the harsh elements.

There is still much to be done in order to restore the state
institutions of Afghanistan. The only thing that has been revived
is the spirit of broad political community among Afghans ruling
Kabul and the provinces. Pending the convocation of a Loya Jirga
(Grand Council) meeting, Afghanistan’s interim government, led by
Hamid Karzai, ran the country in an admirable way, ensuring
stability in the country and the loyalty of various political
groups. Directives of the central government in any country have
little chance to be implemented if they are not backed financially.
This thesis particularly refers to Afghanistan famous for its
traditions of hyper-individualism and local patriotism, which have
grown over the years of turmoil. (The funds distributed by the
Americans among local governors and field commanders are obviously
not enough for government purposes – they are rather “pocket

It would not be fair, however, to say that foreign donors have
forgotten about Afghanistan. Although the larger part of the $1.8-2
billion already allocated to the country has not yet been used for
reconstruction projects due to tedious bureaucratic procedure –
which incidentally moves no faster in Afghanistan than it does with
other countries that have been provided international aid – much
has already been accomplished: dozens of hospitals, schools and
vocational centers have been rebuilt, while trade networks,
transportation systems, and the centers of higher education and
culture are being restored.

At the same time, the people of Afghanistan and their global
supporters had expected more in terms of international aid. The
reports in the international media on the post-Taliban situation in
Afghanistan in 2001-early 2002 were overoptimistic and produced the
illusion that the problems created by long decades of war and
economic chaos would be quickly resolved since the international
community pledged, within 2-4 years, to allocate funds many times
greater than Afghanistan’s annual budget.

The United States, carried away by its ongoing confrontation
with Iraq, may soon forget about Afghanistan, despite its
initiatives to set up U.S. aid groups which are intended to peddle
the influence of various U.S. agencies throughout the Afghan
provinces. (These plans are reminiscent of the Soviet practices in
Afghanistan when it was ruled by the People’s Democratic Party: the
governor of each Afghan province had a full staff of Soviet
advisers – military, economic, etc. – from the Communist

Time will tell how efficient the Europeans (specifically, the
Germans and the Dutch) will be when they take over command of the
coalition security forces this year, and whether the move to place
security operations in Afghanistan under the aegis of NATO
headquarters, planned for the summer of 2003, will be of any
assistance to them. Whatever the case may be, the planned
transition raises doubts about its legitimacy since this would
extend NATO’s military activities far beyond its legitimate zone of

Astonishingly, the international coalition has never taken any
resolute measures to eradicate those centers of ‘narco-aggression’
now being exported to Central Asia, Russia and Europe. In private,
officials say that the Western coalition did not even seek to
liquidate the drug trade in Afghanistan, and that the drug
production and drug trafficking channels were simply taken over
from the former drug barons in order to recoup their expenses from
the anti-terrorist operation of 2002-2003. Those countries which
are most affected by this situation must take radical moves in
order to solve the drug trafficking problem. The European market
for narcotics from Afghanistan exceeds U.S. $100 billion, according
to the most moderate estimates. The authorities of Uzbekistan and
Tajikistan, together with the Russian border guards stationed in
Tajikistan, are working hard to halt drug trafficking from
Afghanistan, but their efforts alone are not enough to solve this
growing problem.

Uzbek Outpost

Countries in Central Asia hailed the rout of the Taliban and Al
Qaeda regimes in Afghanistan. The operation even received support
from Turkmenistan’s President, Saparmurat Niyazov, who had
established very liberal rules for Taliban members’ entry into and
stay in his country (apparently under the influence of Boris
Shikhmuradov, who had long worked in Pakistan and who was
Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister before 2001).

For Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, however, the close
proximity of the Taliban was not just a source of worry but a
direct threat to their security. The Taliban, together with
terrorists from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), supported
by them, unveiled sweeping plans for the establishment of an
Islamic caliphate in Central Asia. In 2001, Al Qaeda took an active
part in the creation (although only on paper) of the Islamic
Movement of Turkestan, which was a structure closely linked with
Osama bin Laden’s organization. This group intended to invade, not
just the Fergana Valley or Uzbekistan, but the entire region. In
1999 and 2000, the Taliban and Al Qaeda sent mixed groups of IMU
and non-Central Asian fighters to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. These
groups were controlled from Afghanistan.

During the “strange psychological war” of 2000, foreign and
Russian media (the latter were of particular importance to
Tajikistan) exaggerated the terrorists’ total capabilities and
strengths. These reports played into the hands of the terrorists,
and probably added many gray hairs to the heads of Central Asian
leaders who, on top of everything else, were burdened with the
immediate problems facing their transitional economies.
Understandably, when the United States and the antiterrorist
coalition announced their plans to attack the Taliban and Al Qaeda
inside Afghanistan, it was met with a sigh of relief and statements
of readiness to help.

Uzbekistan was the first Central Asian country to established
contact with the Americans – a mere three to four days after
September 11, 2001. Eventually, it came to pass that U.S. military
ties with Uzbekistan – whether by accident, or otherwise? – were
closer than with the other countries in the region. Washington and
Tashkent already had agreements on military cooperation, and the
United States had been training Uzbekistan’s antiterrorist special
forces for several years.

Uzbekistan, which boasts the region’s largest armed forces as
well as the most stable political situation, became Washington’s
main strategic partner in Central Asia. This status was officially
sealed in 2002. By that time, the two countries already had
agreements regulating the temporary deployment of U.S. troops at
the Khanabad airfield, and a U.S. military presence in the

Uzbekistan hosted the German and French military that came to
support the operations in Afghanistan. Tashkent soon became a mecca
for foreign visitors as U.S. secretaries of state and defense,
Congressmen, the directors of humanitarian foundations, and various
businessmen visited this relatively small Moslem country which
shares a border with Afghanistan. Interest in Uzbekistan was
largely inspired through European initiatives (German Chancellor
Gerhard Schroeder and ministers of other European countries),
international financial organizations (World Bank President James
Wolfensohn, amongst others), and the UN Secretary-General Kofi
Annan. Apart from the anti-terrorist struggle, visitors discussed
financial, economic and technical aid to Uzbekistan – provided that
it made progress in the area of human rights. The promises to
provide aid have been fulfilled only partially, yet Tashkent still
remains hopeful.

U.S. relations with other Central Asian countries developed in a
rather unpredictable manner, depending on the degree of interest
Washington had for a particular military facility, and not least,
the local governments’ readiness for real cooperation.
Turkmenistan, for example, which shares a large south-eastern
border with Afghanistan, decided to remain neutral and aloof from
the action. Nevertheless, its general attitude toward the U.S.
activities in the region was mostly positive.

The United States has said that it does not plan on staying in
Central Asia for long. However, the meager information now coming
from the military forces in the region gives evidence to the
contrary. All of the facilities where the U.S. or NATO troops have
been deployed are undergoing extensive reconstruction covering a
wide variety of fields – from runways to electronics – all of which
is being switched to NATO standards and codes. New military
barracks are being built from long-lasting materials. These
developments suggest that the military presence in Central Asia
will hardly be reduced, even if the situation in Afghanistan –
which caused the military deployment – stabilizes in 2003-2004.

Alliance Against Terror, Competition In Economy

The news of U.S. plans to deploy troops in Central Asia in the
autumn of 2001 came as a complete surprise to Moscow. Although
Russia sought to establish a new relationship with the West, this
news did not add to the enthusiasm of the moment. Russia kept
opposing NATO’s enlargement into Europe, and now the alliance turns
up at its southern borders, not restricted by any limitations as
were very clearly articulated in the Treaty on Conventional Armed
Forces in Europe, for example. Can the deployment of the U.S.
military force be only a prelude to other, larger-scale U.S.
regional actions in the future that would pose a greater threat to
Russia? Why did the Americans not warn Moscow, – which is not
indifferent about the strategic balance in the region, – about
their deployment plans?

Yet, the Russian government quickly adjusted itself with the new
situation, and avoided any moves that could have undermined its
foreign-policy positions; this seemed equitable, especially since
the antiterrorist coalition had strong motivation for the
deployment of troops in the region. A confrontation with the
coalition forces would have been unwise, and might have caused
complications in many fields. This would have been contrary to
Moscow’s declared policy of pooling efforts with the West in order
to combat international terrorism, and contrary to Russia’s real
interests as well.

Moscow’s tolerance may be explained by its inability to offer an
alternative to the effective U.S. military solution forwarded in
Afghanistan. While Russia is supported by its allies under the
Collective Security Treaty which include, among others, Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Russian troops and secret services are
no longer able to guarantee security in the region. Russia’s
resources are not enough to pursue an active military policy like
that carried out by the United States, which has quickly filled the
vacuum through its collaborative efforts with the armed forces and
secret services of the Central Asian countries. For example, arms
purchases from Russia have become for its Central Asian clients a
subject of long and burdensome negotiations with Moscow, whereas
the United States and NATO resolve such minute issues much faster
and occasionally offer its arms free of charge. The difference in
the sales approach is not in Russia’s favor.

The competition in the arms trade has been extended to other
economic sectors as well. These would include, above all,
agricultural, transportation and water management technologies, as
well as power engineering. Obsolete Soviet-made equipment is being
gradually replaced with Western-made models. Central Asian
governments, for political considerations, tend to give preference
to Western economic projects which, however, often actually inflict
economic losses on their countries.

Western-supplied equipment, including that which is
computerized, often turns out to be outdated. Large-scale projects
invested into by Western companies, and intended to modernize
production, often prove disastrous due to corrupt suppliers who may
deliver wrong technologies. Not infrequently, serious problems
arise from the inability of the Central Asian customer to properly
operate the supplied equipment. Loans to customers have been given
against government guarantees, and now the governments must pay
back the creditors for many of these unprofitable projects.

As a very relevant example, hundreds of tractor-cultivators,
manufactured by the Case company, now stand idle across Central
Asia. The tractors have proved very difficult to operate and,
furthermore, quite unsuitable for operation on Central Asian soils.
Nevertheless, Case regularly receives payments for the idle
tractors: the debtors clench their teeth but keep paying the
company without delay, thus giving it priority over Russian and
other creditors. Apparently, maintaining a good reputation in the
West is more important for them than aggravating the frustration of
potential creditors in the ex-USSR.

For Russian businesses, the present time seems to be a period of
lost opportunities and lost markets. Actually, all of the vehicles
and equipment now used in Central Asia were made in Soviet times in
the Russian Federation. Replacement of this outdated equipment with
modern machinery would bring billions of dollars flowing into
Russia. However, limitations introduced in Russia on trade and
investment, as well as various domestic difficulties in the Central
Asian countries, make the preservation of Russia’s business
position in the region a long-term goal. The economic interests of
both Russia and the West in Central Asia more and more often come
into conflict with each other. The stronger position of the West in
a particular region almost automatically guarantees the weaker
position of Russia.

Yet, the West has been rather slow to invest heavily in the
Central Asian economies, confining itself instead to declarations
about the need to promote the region’s development. The outcome of
the visits to Central Asia from the International Monetary Fund and
the World Bank delegation is still cloudy. We may conclude that the
best chances for Central Asia would be a greater involvement of the
United States and Europe into their fledgling economies, rather
than merely their payment for a military presence in the region.
Such direct involvement could materialize through various projects
(in the oil and gas industries, and in the field of power
engineering, communications, information or water management, for
example), even if these projects do not bring tremendous profit to
Western businesses.

Nevertheless, U.S. and NATO payments for the deployment of their
troops and military equipment in Uzbekistan and, especially, in
Kyrgyzstan, greatly assist these countries. For example, the lease
of their airfields and the payment of several thousand dollars for
every aircraft takeoff or landing, not to mention the purchase of
local goods for the Western troops, brings in an extra 200-400
million U.S. dollars for the Central Asian budgets. But this money
certainly does not solve all of their budgetary problems, nor do
the Central Asian countries always avail themselves of new

Teheran The Next Target?

U.S. official statements notwithstanding, the United States has
come to Central Asia to stay. Afghanistan is still a long way from
achieving true peace and stability, and the U.S. mission there is
far from complete, while their allies in the antiterrorist
coalition can hardly take over command from Washington. Even if all
of the reconstruction programs, mapped out by the Tokyo summit, are
adequately funded, it will take a long time before the
international aid has a real effect on life in the country.
Relaxing the military grip under such conditions would be a risk.
This is why the U.S.-NATO presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia
will, most likely, continue for some years to come – provided
nothing extraordinary happens.

Some experts do not rule out the possibility that there may be a
non-Afghan factor behind the Western presence in the region. They
have suggested that the United States has war plans against Iraq
and then, possibly, Iran. A majority of analysts, though, hold that
air attacks on Iraq from military bases in Central Asia would be
either infeasible or unwise. Hypothetically, this option may be
considered if military operations from bases in close proximity
with Iraq become impossible because of strong opposition from
Turkey, Gulf countries and the Arab world. So far, there have been
no signs of such developments .

Iran is another matter altogether. If the U.S. policy of
confrontation with this country enters an active phase, Central
Asian airfields and other facilities may become an essential factor
in exerting pressure or, if things go that far, in military
operations. Experts do not rule out the possibility that the Iran
factor was among the motives for the deployment of the U.S. forces
in Central Asia. A U.S. military operation against Iraq will hardly
trigger a strong reaction from the Central Asian countries. But a
confrontation with their large neighbor Iran may have far-reaching
consequences for the entire region, and even the most pro-American
politicians in Central Asia will hardly be able to support it.

A U.S. confrontation with Iraq and, especially, Iran will affect
Russia’s position on the U.S. presence in Central Asia. Moscow will
then have a right to tell Washington that its actions obviously go
beyond the goals and parameters it originally declared. But even if
Russia closes its airspace for flights into Central Asia, the
Americans will reach their facilities in the region via Pakistan or
Afghanistan. In any case, any involvement of Central Asian
countries in operations against Iraq and Iran will not improve
Russia’s relations with them, or with the United States. The desire
of the Central Asian elite to establish closer relations with the
West, while maintaining traditional ties with Russia, may not be
possible to realize. There are strong hopes in Central Asia today
that things will not develop in this manner.