Central Asia grew in importance after the fall of the Soviet Union. Islamist insurgents are challenging the weak authoritarian governments in the region.
The United States, China and Russia share a common interest in defeating Islamic militants and developing the regional economy. However, they are unable to agree on the best strategy to do so resulting in wary short-term cooperation and economic developments over access to natural resources deepen rivalries.
Currently, three great powers are engaging in a game of wary cooperation. The Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, understand this situation, and often take advantage of the competition by playing off the three Great Powers. Terrorism is the immediate raison d’etat for interventions, but all parties know that the great parties are seeking footholds in the region for later use. In addition the triangular competition by the great powers prevents any single nation from dominating. This makes this the Modern Great Game.
The original “Great Game” was the great power rivalry between the Russian and British Empires over Central Asia. But this dates back much further. The Chinese, Indians, Iranians, and many others vied for control over Central Asia. The region is a meeting ground between great powers throughout history. It’s too mountainous to directly rule, but trade flows through the area.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, many Central Asian states were set free. The Russians continued to maintain some form of indirect control over these new states. These states joined the Commonwealth of Independent States and Russian border guards and military units remain in the region. The Russians issued what was dubbed the “Monroesky Doctrine” which prohibited other Great Powers from entering this Russian Sphere of Influence.
The authoritarian governments in Central Asia abolished all opposition parties. The only movements which could challenge them were underground radicals. There are a diverse number of Islamic groups. Many are extremist militant organizations which threaten the security and stability of the region and have engaged in terrorist attacks against the China, Russia, and the U.S. Some of the largest radical organizations include the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT). These groups make a common cause against secular governments and the Great Powers, and engage in tactics designed to further destabilize Central Asia. The Taliban, in particular, offered training and territory to various international Islamic terrorist and separatist organizations; the most famous, Al-Qaeda, provoked an American invasion of Afghanistan to eliminate this sanctuary.
The rise of Islamist militant movements destabalized the region. The Taliban emerged in the Pashtun tribal regions of Pakistan and invaded Afghanistan with Pakistani aid. The Pakistanis wanted Afghanistan to be ruled by Islamists rather than nationalists so as to provide Pakistan with a Defense-in-Depth against India. The civil war in Afghanistan killed over 1 million. Other civil wars and insurgencies further destabilized the region.
The three great powers have a common enemy in radical Islamists inside Central Asia. All three came under attack by Islamists and responded by intervening into the region’s politics. With the past exception of the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, all the Central Asian states agree to hunt down and eliminate Islamic militants, cooperation on intelligence and military affairs, and help stabilize the region’s political and economic systems to thwart future generations of radicals.
The US entered the region by eliminating the Taliban in Afghanistan and installing its own client state. The US is also forging an alliance with India to maintain a stronger presence in South Asia.
The Russians continue to exert their authority over the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia, and desire to uproot Islamic separatists in Chechnya. The Russian governments under Yeltsin and Putin wish to retain complete control over a rebellious Chechnya and create a neo-imperialist connection with the Commonwealth of Independent States, including the ‘Near Abroad’ states of Central Asia. There are structural limitations on those goals, due to a weaker military and financial situation since the 1980s. The Russian military has deteriorated resulting in its ineffective campaigns in the rebel province of Chechnya and frequent reliance on extreme violence, such as the bombardment of the capital city Grozny. The Russians face a serious military threat from Chechens and other Islamic separatists.
China’s entry into Central Asian politics fills the post-Soviet power vacuum. China’s Xinjiang province has a restless Muslim population – the Uighurs – who seek independence, so China is moving to eliminate their base of operations outside of Chinese territory. There is also over a half-million Uighurs throughout Central Asia, and some provide assistance to the Xinjiang separatists. The region is also economically valuable for its cotton, oil, gas, and geo-strategic connection with Central Asia, but the Islamists threaten economic development. Following 9/11, China, like Russia, connected its problems with Islamic terrorism with the war in Afghanistan, noting that some Uighur insurgents worked with the Taliban. China continues to crack down on the Muslim religion and colonized the Xinjiang Province with ethnic Han Chinese, who now outnumber the Uighurs.
The Central Asian states are an active force in regional affairs. The largest state, Uzbekistan, resisted strict Russian control and now is the most powerful of the region’s minor states. The dictatorship of President Islam Karimov is amongst the harshest in the region, with severe restraints on practicing the Islamic religion without government approval. They are independent actors seeking the best economic opportunities while gaining military and policing assistance from the great powers to combat local Islamic militants. Uzbekistan for instance, faces the IMU and HT, and was eager for American, Chinese, and Russian assistance, provided it does not depend on one state. The Uzbeks have come into conflict with its neighbors, and its ability to suppress Islamists is questionable.
No matter the motivations of the Islamists and the Great Powers, all are now involved in the complicated region. The United States, Russia, and China all have a common enemy over the short-term, and seek to reduce instabilities that contributed to attacks on their people. All agree that part of the difficulty in the lack of economic development and trade, leaving the region very poor and prone to civil wars that spill over onto the great power’s territory. Stabilizing the region will improve the great powers’ security. This creates an opportunity for multilateral cooperation along with the Central Asian states. Early attempts are being made in combating terrorism, drug smuggling, and frequent civil wars.
And this will not last.
While short-term cooperation against the Islamists is feasible, there are conflicts over the means and ends in the region.