The deployment of American military forces in Central Asia brings with it far-reaching obligations that if not upheld by Washington will increase the long-term risks of terrorism. Social and economic conditions in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan Afghanistan's northern neighbors are combustible. Even if the United States conducts the anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan perfectly, social and political conditions are likely to remain unsettled in Central Asia. Fostering stability will require not only a prolonged American or NATO military presence in the region, but also a far-reaching economic assistance initiative.
While radical Islamic beliefs certainly motivate terrorist leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) military commander Juma Namangani, it is Central Asia's social and economic dysfunction that enables terrorist leaders to find recruits for the IMU and other radical groups, including the Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Even if the United States can eliminate today's terrorist groups, containing terrorism over the longer term will require US planners to address broader regional security and economic issues.
Central Asia's vulnerabilities are readily evident. Stability is tenuous in Tajikistan, which is far from recovered from its own ruinous civil war of 1992-97. Tajikistan ranks among the world's poorest countries. Economic desperation is forcing many Tajiks to get involved in drug trafficking. Likewise, the country's social infrastructure is at risk of a total collapse if the country is inundated with refugees from Afghanistan. Turkmenistan, like Tajikistan, could be engulfed in turmoil sparked by the arrival of massive numbers of refugees.
In neighboring Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov has responded to the IMU threat by conducting a massive crackdown that has fueled popular anger. Any Muslim in this traditionally Islamic country who does not worship in a state-sanctioned manner is subject to imprisonment. Officials also are maintaining tight controls on Uzbek media, and are severely restricting freedom of movement. At the same time, the government is taking little action to improve a miserable economy.
Central Asian states are genuinely glad to see the United States mounting a concerted military campaign against terrorist groups in the region. But the entry of US armed forces into the region creates volatile geopolitical dynamic. Russia is the traditional protector of the region, and Moscow, despite its participation in the anti-terrorism struggle, is not happy about the US military deployment in Central Asia.
Once victory over the Taliban is declared, the US must learn from the mistakes of the Gulf War and remain engaged. A hasty withdrawal from the region would create a dangerous security void in Central Asia.
Prolonged outside assistance is needed to ease the economic factors underlying regional instability. At present, anti-American sentiment is low in Central Asia, offering a favorable atmosphere for civil society development. The United States has a chance to seize a rare geopolitical opportunity to advance democratic concepts. The ideals of the American dream especially the component of economic opportunity resonate strongly in the region. Making these concepts more accessible could offer hope. It would be constructive, instead of destructive. It is an idea for which terrorists have no counter-argument.
Perhaps the fastest and safest way for the United States to win the war against terrorism is to treat it also as an economic struggle for market share. The new market is the discontented populations of Central Asia and other impoverished areas of the globe. American military and economic might, acting in tandem, could prove an unbeatable combination.
If such an economic offensive is to succeed, however, the United States must be cautious in its current dealings with Central Asian leaders, especially Karimov. Uzbekistan, which is anxious to distance itself from Russia, arguably now needs the United States as much as Washington needs Tashkent. Thus, the Bush administration should not completely disregard human rights abuses committed by Karimov's government. The United States should help foster not only stability in Uzbekistan, but also encourage the Uzbek government to become more responsive to the needs of the population.
US troops must be prepared for a long stay in Central Asia. Stability in the region may depend on it. Under an ongoing Western military presence, the United States and its allies could, over time, help foster needed political and economic reforms in Uzbekistan, and across Central Asia. If the West can help promote hope for a prosperous future in Central Asia, the current attraction of radical Islamic-inspired terrorism would quickly lose its luster.
Justin Burke is the editor of EurasiaNet.