The effect of events in Afghanistan on public opinion in Central Asia is difficult to gauge. Yet this public opinion is already in general either exhausted by economic hardship or increasingly discontent with political repression. That very situation is what presents the danger that the U.S. rapprochement with Central Asian regimes will negatively affect its long-term interests.
Turkmenistan has a long but sparsely populated border with Afghanistan, and there are an estimated one million ethnic Turkmen living in Afghanistan who could possibly pose a refugee problem for Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan has had the best relations with the Taliban of any country in Central Asia; however, it has not experienced significant Islamic militancy and seems unlike to do so. Kyrgyzstan, for its part, lacks a border with Afghanistan. Unlike Turkmenistan, it has no energy resources for export, and is a rather poor country. Kyrgyzstan does not have an Islamic-militant problem of its own, but the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is stepping up its activity in the country, searching for cross-border sanctuaries in Kyrgyzstan and also in Tajikistan, and has targeted neighboring Uzbekistan for its military raids.
Tajikistan, another small energy-poor country, is the frontline with Afghanistan, where the opposition Northern Alliance’s main support base is ethnic Tajiks. Significant refugee flows from Afghanistan into Tajikistan seem unlikely, however, insofar as the battle is likely to be carried south to Kabul rather than north to Tajikistan's border. Because Tajikistan’s border is closed, refugee flows may not pose a directly insurmountable problem to the region at large. To reach the heart of Central Asia the refugees would have to cross at least one mountain range and traverse other unpopulated areas.
The implications of the current events are greatest on Uzbekistan, where one thousand American soldiers have been sent to provide security at an airport to be used for delivering humanitarian aid and search-and-rescue purposes,. The Uzbek government certainly hopes that military cooperation will lead Washington to downplay its traditional concern with human rights. The risk arises if the U.S. becomes too closely identified in the popular mind with the regime's abuses. If that comes to pass, then not only could Washington lose the potential for influence upon any post-Karimov transition, but the more active post-Karimov public opinion in the country may orient the country's foreign policy away from the U.S. and the West in general.
There is nothing in the short term that will affect access to the energy reserves. Since the brunt of any fighting is not likely to take place in northern Afghanistan, and the country's major popular centers are more towards the south and west, direct consequences seem unlikely for Western access to Central Asia energy resources. In the case of Kazakhstan, for example, the major oil-producing regions are a thousand miles away in the northwest of the country, and offshore in the Caspian Sea. The country has no border with Afghanistan, so it is unlikely to bear the brunt of any refugee exodus. Its energy exports, scheduled to start this year through a new pipeline that goes through Russia to the Black Sea, will not be affected by hostilities in Afghanistan.
In the medium term, it is possible that any refugee flows to Central Asia will create (socio-economic) resource constraints, somewhat increasing the potential for domestic instability in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan. Concerning energy, Iran's potential role as supplier to South Asia (overland) and even Southeast Asia (by sea) may be undermined by domestic political instability in several countries, notably Pakistan. This is not because the Pakistani government will come under serious threat, but rather because of the threat of sabotage to pipelines by militants.
Uzbekistan’s reserves of natural gas are important only for the Central Asian energy balance and do not have the potential to be significant on the world market. For two years it has been the subject of sporadic attacks by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is backed by the Taliban. The IMU and like-minded organizations such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir seek to overthrow the secular regimes in Central Asia and replace them with an Islamic Caliphate. Government repression of opposition has given these movements a certain limited popularity. A greater danger to Central Asia than refugee flows is thus the destabilization of the delicate social balance in the region, and particularly in the region’s key country, Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan is the most likely country to be drawn into a possible war with Afghanistan. It is possible that military clashes in the north of country may spill over into Uzbekistan, but the fear of this in Tashkent is likely much higher than the actual probability. A few skirmishes do not make a war. Depending on the political evolution of the country over the winter, it is possible that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan may become more active again next year. However, it is significant that their offensives earlier foreseen for this summer, on the rhythm of the past two years, did not materialize.
The Western search for active assistance against Kabul in Central Asia seeks being seen by authoritarian regimes in the region as a carte blanche to intensify their repression of political and social dissidence. Even without events in Afghanistan, Central Asia suffers from scarce resources and volatile ethnic tensions. It would be useful if the present focus on Afghanistan were to lead international institutions to increase their attention to whole of Central Asia, where economic and political reform have generally lagged over the last decade or, indeed, been entirely retrograde.
A Western-sponsored reconstruction package not only for Afghanistan but that also includes Central Asia may be advisable to avoid longer-term instability. Since the United Nations has lately given attention, in its economic commissions, to Central Asian problems, such a package becomes more likely if Washington decides to hand off post-Taliban Afghanistan to the U.N. In such an instance the country could become a sort of U.N. protectorate on the model of Cambodia, with which the current situation shares some similarities: a lengthy civil war, decimation of intellectuals, and omnipresence of landmines, to name but three.
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First published in Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst, vol. 3, no. 21 (10 October 2001): 9–10.