Power Shift in Islamic Central Asia

By Eric Walberg | 2002-01-01 12:00:00

Uzbekistan has been thrust into the international limelight as a result of the events of September 11 due to its common border with Afghanistan. It is no stranger to war and violence, devastated the 13th century by Genghis Khan and as the capital of Tamerlane's empire in the 14th century. With a population of 25 million, 80% Uzbek and 90% Muslim, it Central Asia's major power. It is mostly desert, with the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya - Central Asia's two largest rivers - forming its borders in the north and south. The Tien Shan Mountains and the Fergana Valley, which separate Central Asia from China, lie in the east. What is left of the Aral Sea forms part of the western border. As a former Soviet republic, Uzbekistan is struggling with a legacy of serious environmental, economic, and social problems, including the drying up of the Aral Sea, the privatization and restructuring of industry and agriculture, and festering ethnic and religious tensions.


The latter has given rise to Uzbekistan's own homegrown terrorist network, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, headed by Juma Namangani, consisting of 3,000 hardened fighters now based in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. During the past three years, it has spearheaded incursions into the mountains of eastern Uzbekistan. It also carried out terrorist attacks in the capital, Tashkent, killing 20 people in February 1999.

Here the 19th century "Great Game" pitted England against Russia in their desire to claim Central Asia for their respective empires, as they continued to expand toward each other, England from India, and Russia from the Urals. Afghanistan, unfortunately, lies in between, and after three humiliating defeats there, England gave up and left the Central Asian countries beyond to Russia.

Because of the current crisis in Afghanistan today, the players in the latter-day version of this Great Game, Russia, England, and now the United States are, at least for the moment, on the same side. However, the rivalry of Russia and the United States for influence in Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan, is very much alive.


The collapse of the Soviet Union has drastically reduced Moscow's influence, though the close economic ties from Soviet days has forced both countries to try to rebuild them, and trade has expanded rapidly since then, though not to precollapse levels. Trade with Europe and the United States and foreign investment have expanded to fill the void left by a weaker Russia. President Karimov loudly proclaims his goal of economic diversification and self-sufficiency, presumably to reduce reliance not only on Moscow, but on its lesser Central Asian neighbors.

When he came to power at the beginning of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a show of reversing the withering of political relations with Central Asia under Yeltsin, by making Uzbekistan his first official foreign visit. In an interview with Uzbek radio, Putin said that "a threat to Uzbekistan is unequivocally a threat to the Russian Federation," and that "we have common concern in the security sphere." There have been several visits back and forth since then, expanding military and economic cooperation.

At the same time, despite Uzbekistan's deplorable human rights record and lack of substantial political and economic reforms, the United States has also been courting Uzbekistan. President Clinton even received President Karimov in Washington. Although officially denied, there was talk long before September 11 of stationing US troops here to fight not only bin Laden, but Uzbekistan's own terrorists.


In the spirit of playing both Russian and American cards, Karimov announced his decision to allow American military use of the airbase and with a swipe at the Russian press and official Russian concerns said, "They do not like the fact that Uzbekistan is carrying out its own independent policy with regard to this issue. But, let me say once again, when the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979, starting a big war, no one asked for our approval."

On the same day, an editorial appeared in the highly-censored Uzbek press criticizing American hegemony. "After the collapse of the USSR certain politicians in the USA became arrogant and said that they had the final say. They were inclined to not respect others' interests and to lord it over others," wrote Humyat on September 26.

Approximately 2000 US troops have dug in for a long stay at the military airport at Khanabad, 150 kin from the Afghan border. The airport has special underground hangars and was the main staging point for Soviet bombing during its war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

A US-Uzbek joint statement October 12 formalized this new strategic partnership. Karimov demanded and got security guarantees from the United States, presumably in case of attack from Afghanistan. In return, Uzbekistan sanctioned the use of its military facilities by US armed forces for offensive military operations against Afghanistan. Rumsfeld has made about a dozen visits here since September 11. Clearly, US planes and troops would use Uzbekistan as a future launching pad for both military and humanitarian purposes. The bio-terrorism problem also has an Uzbek angle. On October 22, an agreement was struck between the Pentagon and its Uzbek counterpart to clean up the island Vozrozhdemye. A Pentagon official in Tashkent promised $6 million and US scientists to dismantle the former Soviet germ-warfare test site, removing the buried anthrax and decontaminating the island. In addition, Washington has pledged to help Tashkent upgrade security at its research institutes and other sites where deadly germs and toxins are stored.


"American influence is skin deep here," Professor Khidoyatov of the University of World Economy and Diplomacy told me recently, dismissing the prospect that Uzbekistan will fall into the American camp." "There is strong anti-US sentiment throughout Asia and Uzbekistan is no exception." While others have expressed surprise that Putin so readily condoned American access to Central Asia, Khidoyatov explained that Putin is obsessed with Chechnya and its oil resources and wanted a free hand there.

As for Karimov, he gains US support for his regime, plus an easing off on human rights criticisms and IMF pressures. Uzbekistan's neighbors Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan fear that Uzbekistan will increasingly try to throw its weight around on issues ranging from water and energy issues to politics and border negotiations.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2002

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2002, page 27. Some rights reserved.

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