Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Central Asia's Second Chance by Martha Brill Olcott

Martha Brill Olcott's valuable new survey of Central Asia has appeared at a tricky time. Clearly, the study of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan was started with an optimistic spirit. It looks like a guidebook that could have been used for businesspeople, academics, students, and even tourists to the region that fills the center of the Eurasian land mass, Mackinder's famous "pivot point" of world history.

The Andijan violence of 2005 has clearly been a pivot point for regional geopolitics, and perhaps for President Bush's Global War on Terror. In the aftermath of what the Uzbek government declared was a terrorist attack on a major population center, the US and EU condemned the government for "excessive force," demanding an international investigation. China and Russia, on the other hand, backed authoritarian leader Islam Karimov's decision to fire on armed demonstrators holding hostages, who had earlier seized several government buildings and set fire to movie theatres. To answer riot and rebellion with Napoleon's "whiff of grapeshot" seemed logical to the East, if not to the West.

This split had spillover effects. In its aftermath, Karimov ordered troops out of the US base in Uzbekistan and signed an alliance with Russia. It marked a geopolitical defeat for the United States, and the first instance where Bush's "democracy" policy took precedence over military requirements for the Global War on Terror. Deprived of its base in Uzbekistan, the US was then squeezed by Kyrgyzstan, which asked for some $200 million dollars to keep open Ganci airbase--100 times what the US had been paying previously.

Round One: Russia and China, by a knockout.

Olcott's book is fascinating, as much for what she does not say, as for what she does. For while she states that "Blame Lies with the Region's Leaders," (p.234), the data in her book equally support an alternative hypothesis which goes unstated: American policies have not only harmed Central Asia, they have damanged the strategic interests of the United States.

Evidence for this hypothesis can be found in remarks scattered throughout the text, like clues to a Sherlock Holms mystery. For example:
For a certain group of policy makers, those concerned with monitoring the democratic progress of these governments, the leaders in charge of these states have effectively become the enemy, men whose departure from political life was viewed as a good thing for their populations . . . The US foreign assistance strategy has led to much ill will on all sides, without substantially enhancing the capacity of either government or opposition to govern in a democratic fashion.(240)
Olcott's book seems to end suddenly--without a customary concluding chapter on p. 244. Instead of tying together loose ends, pages 245-387 present is a mass of raw data in appendices containing charts and graphs; footnotes with fascinating tidbits, and a valuable index.

This silence about her key message seems very Central Asian. If one digs through the data sets, one comes up with a picture of a region that is closer to the one presented by its authoritarian leaders than the one found in reports by NGOs such as Human Rights Watch or the International Crisis Group.

Central Asia is not poor. In fact, the region's economies are growing. There is considerable foreign investment, especially in oil, gas, and mining sectors.

Central Asia is not backwards. In fact, the countries enjoy literacy rates higher than the USA.

What is most striking is Oclott's evidence that Central Asian leaders have not invented the extremist Islamist threat in order to maintain power. The threat from extremism is real. Like Thailand during the Vietnam War, these countries have adopted authoritarian policies to prevent conflicts raging around them from exploding among their populations.

And Olcott almost says this--with caveats blaming Uzbek leadership failures--in a section called "Uzbekistan: Central Asia's Frontline State." Where she points out this little reported fact: "Uzbekistan was the only Central Asian state to join the US-led coalition that invaded Iraq, despite the fact that this damaged its relations with Russia and China."(177) In other words, attacks on Uzbekistan--including Andijan--were attacks on the US-led coalition.

There is more detail in Appendix 13, listing both official and unofficial Islamic organizations--some of which have documented ties to Al Qaeda in addition to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, for example the "Jamaat of Central Asia Mujahideen." This group, according to Olcott, "remains focused on terror acts in Central Asia." She also notes that Tajikistan's "Baiat" (covenant) has perpetrated terror attacks against both non-Muslims and "Muslim grops that it considers too moderate."

This is a book that I am sure to turn to again and again. It is a treasure trove of information that is useful to anyone attempting to understand why what is happening in small countries that are far, far away has relevance to the lives of ordinary Americans, and for improving chances for world peace.