The strategic future of Central Asia: a view from Washington.

Author:Ahrari, Ehsan
Position:Foreign Policies Toward the Region

To avoid the errors of the past, the United States must develop a wide-ranging policy to win the global war on terrorism, while encouraging the evolution of political and economic pluralism in all Central Asian countries.


The tragic events of 11 September 2001 propelled Central Asia into the center court of America's strategic power play, and the United States is now expanding the scope of its military presence in the region. Given President George W. Bush's resolve to defeat global terrorism at any cost, it is anyone's guess how far the United States will go. Central Asia is a haven for tyrants and ruthless dictators and a poster child of acute economic underdevelopment and all the pathologies that go with it, including the popularity of religious radicalism. (1) In the context of the American global war on terrorism, this last variable attracts much of the Bush administration's attention. In a bygone era, "defeating communism at any cost" was the catchphrase behind many U.S. foreign policy decisions, including America's involvement in Vietnam; the Bush administration presently demonstrates a similar resolve to defeat terrorism. But is it heading in the direction of making similar mistakes, coddling dictators to serve its agenda? To avoid the errors of the past, the United States must develop a wide-ranging policy to win the global war on terrorism, while encouraging the evolution of political and economic pluralism in all Central Asian countries. If neglected, the region is likely to remain a fertile ground for transnational terrorism as well as political instability and chaos.


The current U.S. campaign against global terrorism bears a striking resemblance to its policies of another era: its global campaign against communism. From the 1950s through the 1980s, the United States supported tyrants in the Third World to defeat the perceived communist threat. The presence or absence of democracy was not an issue. As long as a Third-World government was determined to fight communism within its own borders and in contiguous areas, the U.S. government supported it unequivocally. President John F. Kennedy's promise of "paying any price and bearing any burden" is emblematic of the motive that drove U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Even under President Jimmy Carter, a champion of human rights, the United States supported Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, infamous for his violations of human rights in Iran. Defeating global communism was also the chief motivation of the United States in supporting then dictator of Pakistan, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who in the late 1970s was nurturing what later became known as the jihadi culture of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which generated the Islamic radicalism that the United States is currently fighting.

A year and a half after September 11th, the passions unleashed by those nefarious acts remain high. The new battle cry is the global war on terrorism, which George W. Bush labeled the "first war of this century." After dismantling the nexus of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the battlefields are shifting to the south and northeast of Afghanistan and into Pakistan. The Al Qaeda terrorist network is weakened, but it remains very much alive. Its leaders vow to fight the American "infidels" until death, and the Bush administration is equally determined to counter their threats.

There is an imminent need to strip this battle of its emotions, which could entangle the United States in a trap similar to the one in which the nation found itself caught in North Vietnam. The tone of the current debate over the global war on terrorism is eerily similar to the one that surrounded the Vietnam War. The president has made fighting terrorism into what he called a "crusade"; he later retracted the public use of that phrase, but the underlying intent of the battle is unaltered. Bush perceives America's war on terrorism as a fight between good and evil, regularly describing the terrorists as evildoers.

Bush's moral rhetoric aside, his war on terrorism is also couched in the strident premise that "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." Neutrality is immoral in this fight, a la John Foster Dulles. The concept of the "axis of evil," lumping Iran, Iraq and North Korea together as threats to the United States, and the dual doctrines of preemption and proactive counter-proliferation that were formally outlined in Bush's National Security Strategy, issued on 20 September 2002, are referred to collectively in this essay as the "Bush doctrine." (2)

The combination of the supercilious overtone of the war on terrorism, strident U.S. foreign policy stances in different regions of the world and George Bush's apparent predilection for unilateralism may embroil the United States in a protracted war in Central Asia to protect the region's tyrannical regimes from being ousted by Islamist groups. Could the shrill rhetoric push the United States and Islamist groups toward a battle whose outcome will not be welcomed by either party involved? A look at the ills plaguing the region is an essential starting point in taking up this question.


Despite--or perhaps because of--Central Asia's acute economic underdevelopment and potential for cataclysmic events in the coming years, it remains one of the most important regions of the world. Central Asia was the home of the Silk Road before the opening of sea lanes to India, China and the Americas. It was from here that the great Timurids and Moguls rose to put their indelible imprints on the history of this vast contiguous area. This was the region where the two great powers of the 19th century, Russia and Great Britain, played their now famous Great Game. The father of modern geopolitics, Sir Halford Mackinder, once said that whoever controlled Central Asia would wield enormous power in the world. However,...

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