Posted by: Shaun | May 29, 2008

Silk Road to Ruin

This month marks the third anniversary of a dark chapter in global politics.  In May 2005, hundreds of Uzbek people took to the streets of Andijan to protest the authoritarian government of Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan and a holdover from Soviet times.  The protests followed attacks on several government buildings, including a jail from which several state prisoners were freed.  These events, unfolding in the shadow of neighboring Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution, held the promise of change for people who had been subjected to state fiat since the dawn of the modern era.  Such hopes were shattered by a hail of bullets, leaving some hundreds of Uzbek citizens dead (no ones knows how many-Tashkent claims 187 killed while Western human rights groups put the number around 750).

Certainly the Andijan Massacre, as it has come to be called, was a tragedy, but it only attained global political significance when it became an issue in the new “Great Game” for influence in Central Asia.  The killings rightly prompted a sharp criticism from the United States which, in turn, caused Uzbekistan to eject the U.S. military from its base at Karshi-Khanaba; an event considered a major strategic setback by many commentators, given the base’s role in supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.  President Karimov was embraced by China during a previously planned state visit to Beijing at the end of May and also won the implicit support of regional players in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The Andijan Incident and its aftermath prompts the broader question of how the United States should approach Central Asia given its largely authoritarian politics, powerful neighbors (Russia and China), and geo-strategic importance.  America’s primary interests in the region are two-fold: energy and Islamism (sound familiar?).  According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency’s report on the Caspian Sea region, there are between 12 and 49 billion barrels of oil and about 232 trillion cubic feet of natural gas waiting to be exploited from Central Asia.  All of this essentially makes the region  Eurasia’s energy hub both for petroleum:

And for natural gas:

Moreover, since Central Asia is landlocked and capital starved, it is a tempting target for American investment in energy extraction, refining, and transport.

Its proximity to Afghanistan makes the region an important part of the war effort there.  Though the military has been edged out of Uzbekistan, it still makes use of Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan and has agreements with other countries for overflight rights and expedited transit of war material.  In addition to its supporting role in the American War on Terrorism, Central Asia has, at times, found itself at risk from Islamic extremism.  The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has been responsible for several incidents in the region (as well as making for a convenient scape-goat following Andijan) and militant Islamic forces were present amongst the anti-government opposition in Tajikistan’s five year civil war.

Central Asia is also a tempting piece of real estate for those in the national security establishment who view China and Russia with increasing apprehension and see an American military presence in the region as a hedge against the expanding influence of Eurasia’s giants.  Both countries are deepening their relationships with Central Asia through bilateral diplomacy as well as regional groupings like the SCO and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

With all of this at stake, what is the American Empire to do?  It would be a mistake to ignore Central Asia entirely.  As September 11th clearly demonstrated, turning a blind eye to even the remotest corner of the globe can have serious consequences in the 21st century.  However, I do not believe the United States must kow-tow to Eurasia’s potentates and lavish military aid on their regimes in order to secure permanent basing rights the region.

America’s fundamental interests, increasing energy exports and controlling Islamic terrorism, are already being served by the domestic policies of Central Asia’s states.  The governments therein are searching for the means to develop their energy sectors and they are secular by nature, being descended from the Soviet bureaucracy of old.

As for Russian and Chinese influence, the Soviet legacy has also imparted a keen sense of the dangers entailed by the dominance of powerful outsiders.  No Central Asian country wishes to return to a state of imperial tutelage, whether under the guise of Moscow or Beijing (or Washington, for that matter).  Central Asia’s rulers are, by and large, clever enough to play the competitors in the Great Game off one another, and the United States should facilitate that by offering its diplomatic support as a counterweight to  Russia and China while not seeking undue influence itself.  (This leaves aside the fact that the “threat” from Russia and China is largely a chimera, but that’s a different post…)

In short, America should remain engaged with Central Asia, but not through permanent military bases.  And though we must, as always, recognize the limits of American influence on the internal affairs of others, we should not hesitate to speak out against the injustices committed against the people of Central Asia.  We ought not play the Great Game, for the prize simply isn’t worth the effort.

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