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Irish Times
June 18, 2003
Central Asia next potential flashpoint for US
As Washington and Moscow, wary of Islamic extremism, jockey for influence in Central Asia, the oil-rich ex-Soviet states in turn hope to play the world powers off against each other, reports Daniel McLaughlin from Moscow

Sandwiched between world powers and "rogue states", resting on huge oil reserves and wary of Islamic extremism, ex-Soviet Central Asia threatens to be the next flashpoint for the US in its war against terror.

More than a century after Russian and British spies fought out the so-called Great Game in Central Asia's desert and mountain khanates, Moscow is again vying for influence over the region, but this time faces competition from the US, China and Iran.

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan made few world headlines in the decade after the Soviet Union's collapse, even when civil war convulsed one of them, a dictator created a bizarre personality cult in another, and an Islamic terror group began kidnapping foreigners in a third.

It was not until Washington began building its anti-terrorist coalition after the September 11th attacks that the world started scouring maps for the five nations, home to about 55 million people, that sprawl south from Russia to Afghanistan, and rub up against China in the east and Iran in the south-west.

Promising largesse and political kudos, Washington quickly persuaded Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to host its troops, and Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to let US planes use their airspace, bringing the US military to the Taliban's northern doorstep. Within weeks of seeing New York's twin towers fall, the White House had sent soldiers to a region that had been Moscow's geopolitical backyard for more than a century.

By giving the Pentagon a green light to use Central Asia's ex-Soviet military bases, President Vladimir Putin proved his commitment to the US "war on terror". He even declined to object when, after ousting the Taliban, the Pentagon made no attempt to reduce its presence in the region.

But then Washington turned its guns on Baghdad, ignoring Moscow's fierce opposition to a war that it said would weaken the fight against terrorism, would let the Taliban regroup and re-establish links with Chechen and Central Asian fundamentalist groups.

And as US-Russian relations soured, so the jockeying between Moscow and Washington for influence over Central Asia intensified.

Last month, Mr Putin and Tajik President Mr Imomali Rakhmonov agreed to increase the 11,000 Russian troops already guarding Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan, and to accelerate work aimed at establishing a permanent Russian base there.

Mr Putin also agreed to create a rapid-reaction force with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Belarus and Armenia, to combat the flow of drugs from the region towards the West, and the potential threat from radical Islamic groups and a resurgent Taliban.

Next month, the force and its Russian attack aircraft will begin operating at the Kant airbase, just 15 miles from the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, where US jets and helicopters are stationed.

Russian officials have publicly warned that US troops are in danger of outstaying their welcome in Central Asia. But the Americans vow to remain for as long as regional security remains shaky.

"The Taliban will reactivate in Afghanistan because the Americans have left it alone to deal with Iraq, and the republics - especially Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - will feel that resurgence immediately," said Mr Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of Moscow's USA-Canada Institute.

"The US has gone to Central Asia because of Afghanistan, but will it leave as it loses interest in Afghanistan?" he said. "That question horrifies Central Asia's leaders."

Their horror stems from fear that the Taliban or their sympathisers will exploit social disquiet in Central Asia to foment revolt against leaders who have been in power since Soviet days and are increasingly autocratic.

Human rights groups accuse all five central Asian leaders of presiding over corruption, restricting free media, persecuting political opponents and, in some cases, allowing arbitrary arrest and torture.

Uzbekistan's President, Mr Islam Karimov, justifies his brutal silencing of critics by claiming to be fighting the threat of Islamic extremism.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan make similar claims, and also have reason to fear social unrest.

Tajikistan collapsed into a five-year, clan-based, civil war after the Soviet Union fell, and the government in Dushanbe has only tenuous control over swathes of the country. Russian forces massed on the border with Afghanistan offer the only effective resistance to smuggling gangs moving opium and heroin towards Russia and the West.

Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have been rocked by attacks they attribute to Islamic terrorists. Government troops have been ambushed in the mountains and parties of American climbers and Japanese geologists were kidnapped in the area in the summers of 1999 and 2000. Recent bombings have prompted official US warnings of increased danger to its citizens in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is the group most often accused of such attacks, of using al-Qaeda funding and of wanting to set up an Islamic caliphate in the Fergana Valley. This is a densely populated region where Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan converge, and which is considered fertile ground for fundamentalism.

Mr Kremenyuk says Central Asia's leaders want to see both Russian and US forces remain in the region, to control smuggling and ward off any danger to their authoritarian regimes, be it from Islamic fundamentalists or domestic opposition.

"They would love to have a choice - to have two cows rather than one, especially a cow as fat as America," he told The Irish Times. "They don't want to be overly dependent on Russia or the US - and would always have independence and leverage if both powers were involved."

Mr Alexei Malashenko, a specialist on Islamic affairs at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, said Washington may value its Central Asian bases as a foothold on the border with emerging superpower China.

"China is of more interest for the US than a social explosion in Central Asia," he said. "I don't think they would want to deal with that." Returning from Russia this month on his first foreign trip as Chinese president, Mr Hu Jintao visited Kazakhstan, as part of Beijing's push for greater political influence in Central Asia and access to its vast Caspian Sea energy resources.

Analysts say China must diversify its oil imports away from the volatile and increasingly US-influenced Middle East to maintain economic growth, and is considering building a pipeline to carry oil from Kazakhstan, which aims to be one of the world's top five oil producers by 2015.

US and Russian geopolitical squabbles have long hampered plans for the huge pipelines needed to get landlocked Caspian oil and gas to foreign markets, and Moscow has exploited the indecision, taking much Kazakh and Turkmen gas at knockdown prices.

But with US giants such as ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco investing billions of dollars in Kazakh oilfields, and Washington keen to reduce its reliance on the Middle East for energy, Russia fears its neighbours' oil and gas will disappear westwards in return for cash that would help them ease free of old master Moscow.

Analysts say the five so-called Stans hope to exploit the economic and political rivalry of the US, Russia, China and potentially powerful neighbour Iran.

Tehran's Foreign Minister visited Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan last week, and the Uzbek and Tajik presidents are in Iran this week. As well as being the strongest local Muslim power, Iran can offer the ex-Soviet states the quickest route to the open sea: the Iranian, Uzbek and Afghan leaders are expected to sign a deal this week on building a 1000 km-road running from Uzbekistan to the Persian Gulf.

In return for closer ties and a pledge to combat Islamic terrorism and the Taliban, Tehran wants assurances that Central Asia will not be a platform for any US attack on Iran, which Washington suspects of trying to develop nuclear arms.

But it is hard to see Central Asia's authoritarian leaders opposing Washington's will, as they seek support in subduing a tide of political opposition that - denied mainstream political outlets - threatens to explode in extremism.

"They (the five states) will be the next flashpoint for Islamic fundamentalism," said Mr Kremenyuk. "They are in a very tough position . . . and without Russia and the US they won't withstand the pressure." Mr Malashenko agreed, highlighting Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as the countries most in danger from a radical backlash to US action in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Sooner or later there will be a reaction, and the problem of Islamic fundamentalism will not be resolved this year or next."

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