Central Asia: Games and gamesmanship in the Heartland

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By Sol Sanders

Sol W. Sanders

October 28, 2003

The galactic plates are crunching in Central Asia, a sideshow to crises in Iraq and North Korea. But as 9/11 proved, these exotic lands could again be deciding the nature if not the pace of future geopolitical events.

At the center of U.S. concerns is Afghanistan. As attention shifted to Iraq, progress toward America’s goals there has been even slowed beyond President Bush’s pessimistic predictions. Osama Bin Ladin may no longer be a terrorist plotter, cut off as he must be in some tribal retreat along the Afghan-Pakistan border. But his continuing cat and mouse game is one of Washington’s problems, and, indeed, provides a heroic myth for the bad guys throughout the whole Arab-Moslem world.

The forces of reaction which sponsored him, the Taliban, are trying to make a comeback with the help of tribals in the border areas, challenging not always cooperative Pakistan’s Gen.-President Musharraf and Afghanistan President Karzai. The multinational force supposed to give Afghanistan stability is only now tentatively moving beyond the capital. The target is not only remnants of the old regime, but warlords who defy the central government. The irony is, of course, the current German command is being tested, brought there under the NATO shield. This under a German Chancellor who said the very idea of sending German troops to Iraq made him vomit! Berlin’s threats to withdraw its elite units, apparently to leave the Americans in their separate command to carry the burden of chasing the Osama ghosts, may not help. Nor does the fact that the Europeans, who pledged so generously to give reconstruction aid under a multilateral cover they say was the sine qua non for Iraq, keep saying the check is in the mail.

Old issues have resurfaced. A recent public meeting called for uniting the Pushtu-speaking peoples on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border where Islamicists dominate local regional assemblies. Pakistan has charged recently reopened Indian consulates feed anti-Pak activity, not unexpected given the long history of New Delhi intrigue in Afghanistan [sometimes in collaboration with the Soviets] and the continuing terrorist infiltration from Pakistan into Indian-held Kashmir. Heroin smuggling has skyrocketed, probably funding the terrorist networks.

North and west of Afghanistan there is other new strategic testing. The Russians have just opened Ý if on a shoestring Ý a new forward base in Kirghistan, only a few air miles from one of the U.S. bases [and on a disputed border with China]. Public debate has broken out over continuing Russian officers commanding Tajikistan’s border guards, once intended to protect its secular ex-Communist leadership from the Taliban. And the Russian 201 Division sitting in Tajikistan is said to be among the best in Moscow’s decrepit army, a model for Russian military “transformation” promised for so long by President Putin.

Whatever the Russians lack in firepower they have made up for in bellicosity. When Defense Secretary Ivanov met NATO defense ministers in Colorado recently, he laid down ambitious goals: Russia reserves the right to intervene in any of the former Soviet republics to protect the interests of the 17 million ethnic Russians, most of them in Central Asia, Ukraine, and the Baltic states. Ivanov warned, too, Moscow sees Central Asian U.S. bases as only temporary.

That certainly is the wish of the Chinese to the east. President Bush tossed Beijing a bone by labeling indigenous Uighur in revolt against their Han Chinese rulers as terrorists. Their homeland in the huge neighboring Singkiang is not only testing site for Chinese nukes and missiles, but has good petroleum prospects Ýhowever distant from China’s industry.

Energy is a principle interest, too, in Turkmenistan with some of the world’s largest gas deposits an American company wants to pipe out to Pakistan and the Indian Ocean. Azerbaijan, principle owner of vast deposits in the Caspian Sea, has just held troubled elections. A dynastic heir to terminally ill old Soviet politburo member Haidar Aliev isn’t what democrats wanted. But the real issue may be whether his son can hold his own against subversion from his southern neighbor, Iran, his old suzerain, Moscow, and inevitably, the effects of petroleum-poisoning that overtakes Third World producers.

The U.S. had hoped the Central Asian oil and gas reserves would not only bolster these countries against a return of Russian imperialism, but provide an alternate source to the unstable Middle East. The Chinese, now a thirsty net importer, and Japan, long the second largest market in the world, are competing to tap new Russian western and northeast Siberia fields. The Chinese, pushing their line against American hegemony, have set up a permanent secretariat for the so-called Shanghai Six Ý Central Asian states, China and Russia Ýsupposedly with the common interest in limiting U.S. encroachment.

It probably isn’t as colorful as the old 18th and 19th century Great Game between the Russian and British empires. But its outcome could be even more historically decisive in the fight against terrorism.

Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World

October 28, 2003

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