Central Asia today is a still-uncharted battleground for world powers competing for its vast oil, gas, and mineral resources. Their ambitions collide with those of Islamic fundamentalists who see the region as fertile territory for new holy wars, and with leaders of a hundred or more ethnic groups striving to carve out new fiefdoms. All competitors confront entrenched ruling elites, mostly holdovers from the Soviet era, now bent on clinging to power by crushing all dissent and opposition. The outcome of this contest is of immense importance to the future stability of the Asian heartland, as well as to neighboring Russia, China, Iran, and South Asia.
The recent successes of the extremist Taliban movement in Afghanistan have led to a wave of panic in Central Asia. Yet seen from afar, an understanding of the tangled geopolitics of this region, a replay of the Great Game, the nineteenth-century rivalry between Tsarist Russia and Great Britain, still remains the province of experts rather than the general reader. Untangling Central Asia and providing a primer for the baffled is what this essay attempts to do.
Generalizations about this diverse region are difficult. But it can be credibly said that Central Asia's problems are primarily internal. In all its states, the lack of genuine economic reform or real development, the persistent centralized controls of a Soviet-minded bureaucracy, and the growing cancer of corruption and public cynicism have made its governments increasingly fragile. None of the Central Asian states can claim even a modicum of democracy or a relatively open society. State controls over its people's private lives remain almost as suffocating as they were under communism. Moreover, the ruling elites, with their jealousies and rivalries rooted in the Communist past, have been unable to unite to form a common Central Asian market that could jointly improve their economies and shared security.
No Central Asian state has had a change of leadership since the Communist era ended in 1991, and none are prepared to deal with the obvious issue of readying for a transition to a new generation of leaders. This is an increasingly pressing challenge, since more than 60 percent the region's 50 million people are under the age of 20--a generation restlessly pressing for change that is unlikely to tolerate a continued decline in living standards and lack of rudimentary freedoms. A social and political explosion seems inescapable unless the demands of the young are addressed. Finally, religion remains an intensely combustible issue.
By refusing to accommodate traditional Islam, or to acknowledge the role of Sufism or the liberal Jadids and other traditionally moderate forms of Islam, or to help people rediscover or revive their Islamic heritage, the governments of the region are only fueling the fires of extremism. There is a palpable cultural vacuum at the heart of Central Asia, which cannot be filled with consumerism or imitations of Western culture. By ignoring a heritage that in the past has given much to the Islamic world, Central Asia's rulers are unable to justify their acts of repression and omission, or to give their people the modern but rooted identity that they so badly need. While denigrating Islam, the postcommunist elites have been unable or too frightened to nurture a vibrant multiethnic nationalism.
Today, Islamic militants are recruiting dissidents from all Central Asian ethnic groups, and from among the Muslim Uighurs in China as well, and they are swiftly becoming a transnational group with support across the region. These insurgents fund their military operations through the narcotics and weapons trade from Afghanistan, with support from the Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden, the Taliban movement, and Pakistan's Islamic parties. The rise of these guerrillas suggests all too compellingly how the authoritarian and antidemocratic nature of the Central Asian regimes is driving the opposition into extremist positions. If change does not come quickly from within Central Asia, explosive uprisings will overwhelm these states and plunge the region into chaos.
Central Asia Defined
In the currently accepted definition, Central Asia comprises five independent republics in a sprawling, sparsely populated land mass covering more than a million and a half square miles. The republics, named and demarcated during the Soviet era--Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan--are home to upward of a hundred ethnic groups, among them Germans, Koreans, and Tibetans. By far the largest group are the Uzbeks, forming 72 percent of Uzbekistan's 22 million people; there are substantial Uzbek minorities in all other Central Asian states. Some 10 million ethnic Russians, or a fifth of the population, were living in the region in 1991, but since the Soviet collapse, a large number (about half) have departed, mostly to Russia.
Russian imperialism and Stalin's mass deportations help account for the region's present ethnic diversity, but historically it has long been a lively cultural entrepot. Lying at the heart of the Eurasian continent, the region for more than a millennium linked China and Europe via the old Silk Road, over which caravans carried not only goods but also ideas and religions. Central Asia's geographic advantage then is now its great handicap: it is completely landlocked, bounded by Iran and Afghanistan on the south, China on the east, and Russia to the north and west. The region's vast steppe extends to the Caspian Sea in the west, to the Hindu Kush and the Pamir mountains in the south, and to the Tien Shan range along the border with China. In the north--a matter of abiding strategic importance--the region has no clear boundaries, as the Kazakh steppe merges with Siberia.
Another important matrix is the river system. Central Asia was known to the ancients as the "land between two rivers," both emptying into the Aral Sea. The Oxus, or Amu Darya, originates in the Hindu Kush and its waters skirt Afghanistan and Iran, while the Jaxartes, or Syr Darya, has its source in the Tien Shan mountains and passes through the much coveted Fergana Valley. When Alexander the Great conquered the region in 327 B.C., Central Asia was called Transoxiana, or the land beyond the Oxus. The two rivers have historically constituted political and cultural boundaries: the Oxus formed the frontier between British India and Tsarist Russia, and its waters today separate Central Asia from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The Jaxartes served as a barrier protecting Central Asian kingdoms from periodic invasions out of Mongolia and Siberia.
Set within Central Asia's magnificent landscape of mountain and steppe are two of the world's largest deserts. The Karakum, or "Black Sand Desert," lies to the south, where it spreads over 135,000 desolate square miles, on which rain falls once every decade or so. To the north, in Uzbekistan, is the Kyzyl Kum, or "Red Sand Desert," roughly half the size of Texas. In between are irrigated valleys well suited to oasis-style agriculture, which in former times enabled each oasis to support a self-contained settlement, whose inhabitants traded with local nomads or passing caravans. The Soviets disrupted this traditional system by building massive dams and a web of irrigation channels to grow cotton between the two rivers. Doing so inflicted irretrievable environmental damage, leading to acute water shortages, vanishing lakes and rivers, and desertification.
The hub of Central Asia is its greenest and most celebrated valley, the Fergana, some 115 miles long and 65 miles across at its widest point, with a population of 10 million. Here were born empire builders like Timur (known to the West as Tamerlane) and Babar, the Moghul conqueror of India. Fergana (as it is usually referred to) was and is the political and cultural pivot of Islam in Central Asia, the homeland of learned clergymen and of Muslim warriors who resisted tsarist and Communist armies, who today lead the militant opposition to the region's authoritarian regimes. Aware of this history, Stalin in the 1920s apportioned the valley among newly created Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, ensuring Soviet control at the price of permanent discord.
The Imprint of History
In earlier epochs, the parameters of Central Asian history were fixed by rivalry between Persians to the south and nomadic Turkic tribes to the north, each vying for control of legendary oasis cities while fending off periodic Chinese attacks. Then followed fresh invaders: Alexander's Greeks in the fourth century B.C., the Huns in the third century B.C., the Arabs, beginning in A.D. 651, and the Mongols led by Genghis Khan in A.D. 1220, opening the way for the first indigenous Central Asian empire under Timur. Of Turkic ancestry, born near Samarkand, Timur was an implacable warlord whose victories shaped an empire in the two decades between 1380 and 1400 that stretched from India to Russia and from Persia to Arabia, with its sumptuous capital in Samarkand, one of the architectural marvels of the age.
Central Asia's more recent past carries the ubiquitous imprint of Russia's conquests. By 1650, the tsar's forces had taken Siberia and reached the Pacific Ocean. In the...