Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, most Central Asian countries welcomed stronger strategic ties to the United States, hoping in part that such cooperation would lead to greater US economic assistance. Now, just weeks after the start of the Iraq war, leaders of Central Asian states, with the exception of Uzbekistan, seem to be re-evaluating their relationship with Washington. Concern appears to be growing in Central Asia that US action in Iraq will do more to destabilize the region than to promote prosperity.
Tajikistan offers a case in point. Before the start of the US military campaign to oust Saddam Hussein, Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov was steering government policy increasingly in a pro-American direction, slowly trying to diminish Tajikistan's strategic dependence on Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Soon after the start of the US march towards Baghdad, however, Rahmonov's rhetoric began to change.
On March 26, Rahmonov speaking at a news conference in Dushanbe after returning from Brussels, where he met with NATO and European Union leaders expressed reservations about the US conduct of the war. "Continued military action in Iraq will result in humanitarian crisis in the region," he said.
A major concern among many regional officials and experts is that a humanitarian crisis in Iraq will obscure Central Asia's own desperate needs. Iraq's higher profile will naturally give it greater priority, potentially siphoning critical international resources from Central Asia.
Economists say Tajikistan is already facing the first economic implications of war prices for gasoline have risen as much as 15 percent since the start of military operations in Iraq. Officials at the Tajik Ministry of Economy suggest more substantial consequences may soon be felt. In particular, they worry that the war will impede the effectiveness of two forthcoming international conferences in Dushanbe, held under the auspices of the UN Special Program for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA). The first conference is supposed to focus on Tajik development; the second is designed to bring together delegates and donors from 37 countries to discuss assistance projects. Many of the potential conference participants are now reluctant to attend, citing Tajikistan's relative proximity to Iraq.
Meanwhile, the leader of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party, Said Abdullo Nuri, has voiced concern that developments in Iraq will shift international attention away from the ongoing reconstruction needs in Afghanistan. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. "A lengthy war in Iraq will weaken international control of the situation in Afghanistan. Instability in this country could spill over into Tajikistan," Nuri told Deutsche Welle on March 26.
Afghanistan remains far from a stable country, and thus continues to pose a major security threat for the entire region. Among the biggest, if underestimated, threats concerns Afghan drug production. The interim Afghan administration of Hamid Karzai has been ineffective in curbing poppy cultivation. As a result, Afghanistan still produces up to 70 percent of the global share of heroin. Russian and Tajik border forces have stepped up efforts to contain drug traffickers, who take advantage of the porous Tajik-Afghan border.
UN officials characterize Tajik interdiction efforts over the past three years as among the most successful of any CIS country, resulting in the seizure of roughly 22 tons of drugs, worth $500 million. However, according to the drug prevention agencies' statistics, the amount of seized drugs in any country usually accounts for less than 10 percent of the actual amount of trafficked drugs.
At the heart of Central Asian concerns about the future are questions about the reliability of the US commitment to regional security. Many policy makers and political experts say the US approach on the Iraq issue is fuelling an impression that the Bush administration is both arrogant and unpredictable, and therefore potentially harmful to Central Asia's interests. That perception is helping to foster anti-American attitudes across Central Asia.
In Kazakhstan, the Bush administration is coming under severe criticism from some local media outlets. "President Bush is saying loudly that the war will not end
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance journalist based in Dushanbe.