With the exception of Afghanistan, no geo-political area has had more significant changes since September 11, 2002 than that of Central Asia.
As a result of the full-scale attack on Afghanistan, and perception of it as a “legitimate” threat to the free world after September 11, the global status of Central Asia has been irrevocably altered. Never before has its position been so sensitive and integral to global security strategies. No longer is Central Asia seen as a “traditional land of the Russian Empire,” nor used as an energy base for the United States or indeed as a market proliferated by Chinese commerce. In the aftermath of September 11, Central Asia now plays host to a global war against terrorism, the areas of conflict of major powers’ interests and the strategic game playing of global geo-politics.
The first of the changes that have impacted on Central Asia since September 11 has been the rise in status of the geo-political, economic and military importance of an area that links major powers of the east with those of Europe and the Arab World, and that has historically been regarded for its mineral resources and oil and gas reserves. Now, the attention of the world on this area continues to be interested in the oil and gas resources of the Caspian Sea as well as the plight of Afghanistan but also because it is the focal point of a global war against terrorism.
The second of these changes is due to the fact that the United States has taken strategic military and political control of Central Asia. As little time as one year ago, the United States admitted that Russian “traditional influence and dominance” in this area was significant but this did not stop US troops entering the area with ease after September 11. They did so, with global support, by acting on behalf of the “free-world” against terrorism. On July 10 of this year, the United States and Kazakhstan signed a memorandum in Astana on the use of Aktau International airport, in an alliance with all Central Asian countries except Turkmenistan, enabling members of the Collective Security Treaty, led by Russia, to be the military base of the United States and NATO.
The third change to occur has been the transfer of regional power in Central Asia from Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Owing to the integrationist mindset of the Kazakhstan President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, this seat of power had for the last decade belonged to Kazakhstan.
For Uzbekistan, however, its withdrawal from the Collective Security Treaty indicated how distant relations between Moscow and Tashkent had become. Faced with the growing threat of international terrorism based in Afghanistan, religious extremism and the fundamental Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Tashkent felt overwhelmed both day and night. Later with Vladimir Putin in office, its relations with Russia were repaired even though it is understood to be difficult for Uzbekistan to ask for help from Moscow.
But it was September 11 attacks and the US-led war against terrorism that provided a golden opportunity for Uzbekistan. Just as US troops were badly in need of air force bases in favorable geographic positions, Uzbekistan was in urgent need of major power protection. Thus, Uzbekistan shifted its foreign policy and became the first country in Central Asia in military coalition with the United States. In so doing, Uzbekistan was to raise its international status with little effort.
In December this year, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimor hosted the Central Asian Summit and also put forward the suggestion that the Central Asian Economy be changed to the Asian Cooperation Organization. It is widely believed that Uzbekistan seized this regional position of power from Kazakhstan through strategic American partnership.
The fourth and final significant change for Central Asia has been the improvement of its regional security through the elimination of its outside enemies. However with the reduction of threat from outside, internal worries have escalated.
Although Central Asia was beginning to feel secure for the first time in a decade, there is a belief that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), along with other radical Islamic organizations, are regrouping and rearming. Although Central Asia did consider that the elimination of the Taliban, and its special detachment, the IMU, would lead to a climate of some peacemaking, officials in Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have warned of the threat of an armed incursion.
It is understood that these warnings are pre-emptive but also an attempt to shape public opinion on the presence of US troops in Central Asia. It is certain that while the presence, military activity and political influence of the United States temporarily helped to remove danger from Central Asia, it has contributed to the socio-political confrontations in this region. Both the political crisis in Kyrgystan at the end of last year and the current volatile political climate can find as their source an American value system and Western democracy.
One Kazakhstan senior official has made public the fact that so-called elites wished to support the left wing party, The Kazakhstan Democratic Movement, and that this would cause all-round crisis, followed by chaos, and inevitably the collapse of Kazakstan.
Finally, no matter if it is considered a wise or just thing, or indeed simply bad, the military and political existence and power of the United States and the West clearly divides opinion over Central Asia.
(china.org.cn, translated by Zheng Guihong, October 9, 2002)