The language around the war on terror is slowly slipping out of use. Its consequences however, are very much so still part of the contemporary geo-political scene. Whether we are talking about rendition, torture or illegal invasions – the war on terror has, and is still having a major impact on international relations.
In this blog however, I am going to focus on a region of the world that is often ignored in western news coverage, but has a massive influence on our foreign policy – Central Asia. I will briefly track the rise of radical Islam in Central Asia before looking at its impact on the contemporary political scene.
To illustrate Central Asia's geographical significance in world affairs
Soon after independence after the collapse of the USSR, the independent governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan faced opposition from small radical groups. The reason I single out Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is not because their situation was unique to Central Asia, but because of the harsh measures they took to counter this threat. From the early 90’s onwards political engagement was severely restricted. Critics suggest that this helped fuel the more powerful radial groups, who were predominantly Islamic organisations. As they developed in numbers and sophistication, they became inter-connected to what we broadly understand today as part of the “international terror threat” (excuse my use of this misleading crass terminology).
In response to this growing threat, all the Central Asian republics took the extraordinary step of banning any political organisation based on religious or ethnic origins. A number of small Islamic organisations were forcibly dismantled. As such member dispersed, some to seek support abroad, others to work at community levels.
The civil war in Tajikistan (92-97) acted as a calling card for radical Muslims from across the region. After a series of defeats, the mujahedeen (those fighting in the name of their faith) moved across the border to Afghanistan. Approximately 100,000 refuges made their way to Afghanistan, although of course these were predominantly civilians. It was during this period that political activists first made contact with the Taliban and what would later be referred to as Al-Qaeda.
In the late 90’s people start returning home and there was a move throughout the region to organise better structured terrorist Islamic movements. The most prominent at this stage were the Islamic movement for Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb-ut-Tahir. From 1999-2001 the IMU launched a series of attacks on Uzbekistan looking to oust the political regime. These attacks would often be launched from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. They never took any real strong holds as they faced stiff international opposition predominantly from Russia. In 2004 suicide bombings in Uzbekistan were allegedly masterminded by the IMU.
It is from this basis, we can see that post 9/11 Central Asian governments were more than happy to condemn the actions of Al-Qaeda and join the US in their “war on terrorism”. Immediately, all Central Asian republics granted free air-space over their countries to the US and NATO. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan all agreed to host US forces on their territory. The US set up two air bases, one in Kyrgyzstan and the other in Uzbekistan.
Once again, Central Asia is the unspoken stage of world politics. Post the 2003 invasion of Iraq; we can see Russia, China, the EU and the US all fighting it out for influence in the region (for ideological, warfare and energy security reasons). Kazakhstan has sent engineers into Iraq, but the other 4 states have kept their distance.
Issues around energy security have become confused and intermixed with issues around the “war on terror”. In 2005, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran all met up to hold a conference on protecting oil and gas infrastructure from terrorist activity.
Today, we can still see Central Asia’s role as a “feeder channel” to the Al-Qaeda missions fighting the US/NATO operations in Afghanistan. The growth of Islamic extremist and terrorist groups in Central Asia is directly impacting the stability of the Central Asia itself but also, Pakistan and US/NATO interests in Afghanistan. The volatile Afghanistan and Pakistan borderland is being made even more unstable and dangerous by Central Asian insurgents and it is unlikely real progress can occur without dealing with this issue head on. If we simply continue to fight the insurgents in a militaristic sense, I suggest that these “feeder channels” will continue to replace the fallen men. To really go at the problem’s root causes, long-term planning and effective and transparent regional cooperation will be needed. This is easier said than done when dealing with insular regimes such as Turkmenistan (which remember does have a massive border with Afghanistan).
The one thing that can be said for certain, is that Central Asia will remain to be a key geo-political battle ground that will, if trends continue, act as a testing ground for our “fight against terrorism” and global security. The domestic politics of the 5 Central Asian states will continue to have ripple effects on all of our lives and cannot be ignored.