Central Asia in Geo-Political Transition

-P. Stobdan, Research Fellow, IDSA


After decades of Russian and Soviet domination, Central Asia is once again emerging as a geo-politically critical region in the world politics. Although Central Asia has re-emerged as an unexpected spin-off of the Soviet collapse, the region, due to several crucial factors, assumes strategic significance in its own right, and therefore, it cannot be treated simply in the context of the end of the Cold War. The concept of Central Asia is not merely geographical and political but deeply historical and civilisational, the importance of which, particularly in India, formed the lesson beginning with the ancient times of our history. The region's description as an area of great strategic importance to India had always been a part of Indian consciousness. The region enjoys a unique geo-strategic position not only being in the centre of Asia but also in the heart of Eurasia. The region is located at the intersection of different regions, comprising different civilisations (Persian, Indian, Chinese, European, Turkic and Arabian). The region also forms a link between Russia, China and the Islamic world.

Notwithstanding the region's historical and political background, recent debates remained focussed on the issue of evolving a fresh conceptual framework to reshape the future geo-political orientation in terms of redefining their national and regional identity in relation to the immediate neighbours, as well as in the international context. The debate assumed significance, considering several regional powers have been trying to seek legitimation and affinity with the region along historical, geographical, ethnic and religious terms. Consequently, the political analysts doubted, taking the example of Yugoslavia, that Central Asia would be able to manage the post-Soviet political and economic problems. They particularly envisaged the ethnic, nationalist and religious divisions undermining Central Asian stability, leaving the region vulnerable to outside influence. Some talked about Central Asia as an extension of the Middle East or Turkey; while others visualised the prospects for a coherent Turkistan nationhood on the lines and pattern of Indian nationhood that has emerged in the post-colonial period. Some visualised a possible new "great game" like that of the early 19th century, albeit under very different circumstances. According to this model, Iran and Turkey were to compete for influence in the region. We have also seen various perspectives to include Central Asia into the Islamic Ummah. However, these debates have resulted in the formation of two major distorted notions about Central Asia: (a) a tendency to exaggerate the role of external powers in the region; and (b) a projection of Central Asia as a passive area.

There is no doubt, however, that Central Asian states and the region itself is passing through a transitional stage and is confronted with complex issues, involving a host of diverse problems pertaining to both opportunities and challenges of evolving a national and regional stable order. For them the fundamental issues range from the problem of defining their nationhood to dealing with the economic challenges and ecological crisis, democratisation and human rights, ethno-nationalism and religious revivalism, trans-national crimes and weapons proliferation, territorial integrity and security issues, et al.

One of the biggest challenges for the Central Asian states is the question of national and regional identity. Being one of the world's oldest regions, the question of identity forms a complex problem, deeply rooted, like an onion with centuries of different layers, hence, the process of their re-identification is not going to be easy. In this regard, the questions are being pertinently asked as to whether the seven decades of Soviet control was a divisive colonising drive or a progressive nationalising process. We have already witnessed an intense academic debate on the subject, but what has emerged out of this is that the national profiles bestowed by the Soviets on the distinct ethnic groups in Central Asia (described by some as pseudo-Soviet identities) have not vanished even after the Soviet collapse. Here, the analysts in general tried to underestimate the irreversible changes that had taken place in the Central Asian states during the Soviet period. Similarly, it also needs to be underlined here that the end of the Cold War did not have the same impact on Central Asia as it did on Eastern Europe. The absence of a popular rhetoric for the region's liberation aside, there did not exist any parallel model for political unification--an attraction Western Europe offered to East Europe. Suffice to say that ethnic resurgence in Central Asia was responsible for the Soviet collapse.

Fortunately, no one in India shared the euphoria and analogies instantly applied for Central Asia in the aftermath of Soviet collapse. The historical and political contacts with the region had greatly helped India in terms of making a correct assessment of the new situation in Central Asia, enabling us to adopt a positive national framework for the newly independent states.

The recognition of the new states of Central Asia in their existing national form at the new juncture of their independence was the most important step which helped ensure their smooth nation-building process. Moreover, the steps taken by the Central Asian themselves at the initial stage such as their effort to strengthen the bilateral arrangement with Russia, as well as the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and its Collective Security mechanism significantly helped avoid the negative consequences of the Soviet collapse, particularly forestalling an inevitable civil war, not an unimaginable happening seeing the fate of nationalities in the Caucasus and Yugoslavia.

With the partial exception of Tajikistan, relatively a stable order has emerged in Central Asia. From a transitional process, Central Asia is now entering a new order of peace and prosperity. Today the dynamics of national formation seem stronger than the integration along the trans-national forces. All the states seemed to have managed domestic stability under a political system of power concentration. In fact, the external factors have only become powerful tools for the polarisation of societies along inter-national, inter-ethnic, sectarian and other fault lines. Therefore, the task of balancing the interests of different ethnic groups and managing the delicate balance of their relations with major powers in the region becomes the most pressing security challenge for the Central Asian states, particularly when every one of these regional powers has the capacity and inclination for influencing change in Central Asia, on the ground of either seeking ethnic solidarity or exploiting religious sentiments or taking advantage of the region's economic and security vacuum. However, the social, educational and scientific base inherited by the region as a part of the Soviet legacy seemed to have greatly facilitated the Central Asian states to resist undesirable external pressures.

Strategic Importance of Central Asia

There is absolutely no doubt that Central Asia, whose influence in the past pervaded throughout the Eurasian world may once again become a key to the security to the whole region. However, its significance can no longer be viewed in a purely zero-sum game of who will have control over the region, but must be understood in the context of a wider dynamics of international relations in order to create a healthy security balance that would best serve the interests of regional peace in Asia and the world. Such a perspective for Central Asia is necessary because the region can no longer be seen through the 18th and 19th century prism of maintaining buffer-zones and controlling outlying frontier areas but to perceive these states as equal partners in shaping the future order of peace and security in Asia. We must also emphasise the fact that Central Asian states can neither be forcibly reconquered by another powers nor would it be easy to see the region becoming once again a pawn of the great powers. While it would be perhaps easy to invade a territory, it is extremely difficult to retain it at an affordable cost. The cases of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Kuwait provide sufficient examples of the implications such ventures can have on international peace and stability. However, it is also important to view in the same light the fact that Central Asia can no longer have the same strategic importance for the neighbouring regions as it had during the imperial times.

There is, however, no doubt that the region is regaining its strategic importance albeit in a totally different framework. The vast natural resources, specially natural gas and oil wealth, have fundamentally altered the strategic importance of the region in the international politics. Consequently, the focus of the international attention on the region will inevitably become significant and the "great game" in that sense will be played by major world powers seeking dominance over Central Asian oil. Therefore, as long as oil remains a crucial energy source in the world (there is every indication of oil remaining the prime source of energy for the next 20 to 30 years) Central Asia would undoubtedly become a region of critical strategic importance. Since 1994, the United States and the international consortium of Western oil companies have started to shift their focus away from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian and Central Asian region. The region around the Greater Caspian Sea contains somewhere between 90 billion and 200 billion barrels of oil and about 46 per cent of the world's gas reserves. The struggle among outside powers to tap the vast hydrocarbon resources has already begun. In this new game, the geo-political considerations are becoming crucial factors in winning contracts and routing the gas/oil pipelines. The increasing Western thrust for exploiting the oil and gas deposits in the region has significantly challenged Russia's claims in its traditional sphere of influence. The entry of multinational companies is changing both economic and political dynamics in the region and the US will ultimately manage to establish an independent energy supply system. Consequently, the US would act more geo-politically in order to protect the exporting countries and the supply lines.

The hydrocarbon deposits, on the other hand, entail the greatest hope in economic and political terms for these states, particularly when they are in the infant stage of the nation-building process. The oil revenues in some states may result in widening the economic disparity between the states within, as well as outside the region, and hence, oil could become a cause for insecurity among the Central Asians. In such a situation, the smaller states will inevitably seek a security guarantee from outside which may then lead to large scale outside intervention. The potential revenue from oil may also provide the bigger states with useful means to aggressively pursue their geo-political goals, thereby, excerbating the existing inter-state and inter-ethnic conflicts. The pipelines could contribute to peaceful developments, but they could as well turn into future conflict lines. The security calculations have already become important. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's (NATO's) proposed eastward expansion, the effort by the US and the Europeans to resolve the conflicts in the region within the frame of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or NATO's "Partnership for Peace" (PfP) Programme are linked to the geo-politics of oil. The conflicts in Karabakh, Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Tajikistan and even the Afghan conflict are increasingly getting mixed with oil interests. If one party manages the contracts while courting the leadership, others manoeuvre through the nationalistic Oppositions. The phenomenon of oil being used as a weapon is confined not only to the oil exporting countries but also to the transit states. In the Caucasus, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine are moving ahead to integrate themselves into the European security structure. The recently held military exercise, Centraxbat-97, in which 500 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division of the US Army flew 19 hours and 12,320 km to join week-long joint exercises with 40 airborne troops from three Central Asian states, amply demonstrated the changing geo-political game in Central Asia. Although the exercise, an unprecedented event in the post-Cold War era, was meant to be against the potential rival countries to the south--China, Iran and the Islamic threat from Afghanistan--it also had close linkage with oil politics. Consequently, the powers which will control the production and supply of Central Asian gas/oil will indirectly have control over the rest of the world. If the economic growth in Asia continues at the present rate, the demand for oil will be doubled in the coming decades in countries such as China, Korea, South-East Asia, India and others and thus Central Asia will be a key to the international security. Interestingly, China has also stepped in as a potent player in the struggle for oil in Central Asia. In the last several months, China's state-owned oil companies have won the right to develop two of Kazakhstan's biggest oilfields. China is also planning to construct yet another pipeline to import Central Asian oil to its coastal provinces. China has also signed a $12 billion deal with Russian to build a 3,000-km-long pipeline from Siberia.

Security and the New Era of Ethnicity

The importance of Central Asia must also be viewed in the context of the new phenomenon of ethnicity, which emerged as a direct if not exclusive result of the end of the Cold War. The ethnic issues are more complex than it appears. The Uzbeks are everywhere and every other ethnic group lives in Uzbekistan. There are more Tajiks in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan. Besides the Tajik's' core centres are located in Uzbekistan. There are more Pushtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. Eighty percent of Central Asian national boundaries are said to have been drawn arbitrarily, cutting across ethnic enclaves. The destabilisation process is further exacerbated by intra-tribal confrontations which are likely to be more serious than the inter-tribal and inter-regional rifts. Tajikistan provides a clear example, where clans from distinct regions become enemies and make alliances in the pursuit of power. This is the case in Afghanistan too, where inter and intra-ethnic/tribal conflicts have become the major factor of instability. The end of ideological confrontation between Islam versus Communism has not necessarily brought about peace in that country. The regional and tribal base conflcts have seriously undermined common religious identity. Any destabilising factor in one state will impinge on the others. Conflict within one state could spill across the border, as has already been demonstrated in the case of Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Interestingly, the debate in the West even prior to the Soviet collapse had indicated a larger Western agenda for the Asiatic part of the Soviet space than the immediate goal of containing Communism. If Communism was the only problem then there should have been peace in Afghanistan. Therefore, the significance of the debate perpetuated on the region by the maximalist school in the West becomes important. From the Western perspective, the regional setting of Central Asia has never been confined to the five republics of the former Soviet Union, but included a wider spatial phenomenon, both lands and peoples, traditionally not part of the four major settled regions of EurasiaŚRussia, China, India and Persia. What they termed as "Inner Asia" included a vast nomadic civilisation lying on the fringes of the major settled world. The metaphors of Eurasia, Inner Asia, Greater Central, Silk Route, etc. are being coined to conceptualise and break the region from controlling powers. Already, from two, Afghanistan and Mongolia till 1991, the number of independent states in "Inner Asia" has now increased to seven.

The unravelling of Inner Asian ethnic frontiers reviving cultural contacts and the move towards regional consolidation is going to be the future trend. The growing Uzbek and Tajik factors in Afghanistan, the Kazakh factor in China and Mongolia, the Islamic factor in Chechnya, Tataristan, Booshkoristan, Tajikistan, the Buddhist/Mongol factor in Buryatia, Tuva, Khalmykia, etc. are signs of the emerging geo-political upheaval in Inner Asia.

Many would see this phenomenon as part of the Western strategy to undermine Russia, China and India. Some even suspect it as a conspiracy against Iran which has large ethnic minorities, such as 16 million Azeris, a number more than the population of Azerbaijan itself. People seeking a solution to the Afghanistan imbroglio see the unravelling of ancient divisions, treating northern Afghanistan as an extension of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as the only way out, while recognising Kabul and south of the Hindu-Kush mountains as a thorn in the side of Pakistan.

There are also a host of other non-military problems which will potentially destabilise not only Central Asia but also the neighbouring regions. The ecological imbalances, such as the shrinking of the Aral Sea will have regionwide implications. Disruption in irrigation and the water distribution system could entail a serious destabilising potential. As the Central Asian economy gets diversified, the need for water, as well as the sharing of water resources would become a source of inter-state conflict. Uzbekistan is already a full military power. Whereas hydrocarbon rich Turkmenistan with 4 million people will depend on an outside power like in the case of Kuwait, for its national security. The economic disparity owing to varying resource potentials will widen their differences as well as increase possibilities of intervention by outside powers. The ideological and spiritual disorientation among the people, increasing corruption, moral bankruptcy, problems associated with migration flow, drug trafficking and arms proliferation at el will bring Central Asia onto the central focus of political, economic and military conflict by the beginning of the next century.

Amidst such confusion, the states in the region are adopting their own individual postures on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts. Their security policies are determined by their strategic position. Each one's corresponds to its potential and capacities, intensity of ethnic divide and religious sentiments. The same is also true for their military strength. Kazakhstan's concerns stem from its Russian diaspora in its northern provinces, compelling Nazarbayev to talk about the "third option" based on the European model of integration. Uzbekistan's initiative for a UN supported "permanent seminar" appears more inclined towards limiting Russia's role in the region. For Tajikistan, the choice is either to disappear as a state or to extend its present boundaries to become the most powerful country in the region. Turkmenistan's efforts at distancing itself from the rest is worrisome for the others. Its posture of "positive neutrality" advocates close ties with Russia but does not approve of the CIS. It is close to Turkey but understands the importance of Iran. It is close to Pakistan but sensitive to India's concern. Whereas Kyrgyzstan has a foreign policy of mixed orientation. In the fear of inter-clan rivalries and religious extremism, it is advocating an "open society," inviting diverse elements as a balancing force to contain problems.

As the popular notion of Central Asia falling prey to the Islamic fold remains unfounded, and the capacity of Turkey offering a countervailing model for the region remains unrealistic, the US is gradually forging its own strategic equations as a way of filling the security and political vacuum in the region. Interestingly, after having de-capacitated Kazakhstan's military potentials, the US is now keen to see Uzbekistan as the only candidate for a regional anchor. In fact, Uzbekistan is likely to outpace Pakistan as the key strategic partner of the US. From the US' point of view, Uzbekistan not only historically qualifies to be a complete state but would potentially become the Turkey of Asia. Tashkent has followed a consistent pro-US policy and played up anti-Russian rhetoric. Uzbekistan supports NATO's enlargement, opposes Russian troops' presence. It, along with Israel, supported the US on Cuban terrorism. Recently, Uzbekistan stayed way from the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) Summit held in Tehran.

On the other hand, strategic circumstances makes Russia loath to give up its traditional rights in Central Asia despite all the confusion in Moscow. Russia has been successful in containing the Tajik conflict. Tajikistan needs Russia's continuous support for its security whereas Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan share Russia's concern about NATO's expansion and even support the re-integrative idea of Russia. Turkey is still looking for fraternal ties with the region, although it has lost much of its initial enthusiasm. China has already made enough commercial penetration, fulfilling Central Asia immediate needs. Beijing is no longer defensive about the fear of trouble spilling over into Xinjiang and is instead talking about finding a common strategy to deal with security and other issues with the Central Asians. China has resolved its territorial problems with these states and now talks about constructing large scale land bridges to revive the old "Silk Route." Iran has sought all these years to dispel its image of troubleshooter while talking only in economic language with Central Asians. However, Tehran has suffered much due to the US containment policy. The US has effectively persuaded the Central Asian leadership to maintain a distance from Tehran. Even Turkmenistan which practises a "neutral policy" had to remain cautious about Iran, considering its future needs for cooperation with the US companies, as well as its ultimate aim of tapping the huge Asian market. Considering this point as a major obstacle, Iran, after the recent political changes, has been trying to improve its relations with the US. However, the new regime in Tehran would not compromise with the US beyond a limit. Tehran realises that the geo-economic imperatives will ultimately compel the US, as in the recent case of the Turkmen-Iranian pipeline project, to withdraw objections for investments in Iran. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have shown interest in fostering their own political and sectarian dominance there. The Pakistanis view that the emergence of Central Asia has sharpened the geo-political, geo-economic and geo-strategic potentialities of the Islamic world, as well as Pakistan's own identity. They also advocate that the future orientation and the unity of Central Asia should be based on the inner spring of Islamic faith rather than along the concept of unity and diversity. Many of the Pakistani activities in the region are geared towards the creation of a "Pax Islamica" and are opposed to the spread of Western values. On the other hand, the Western interest in the region is not a homogenous one. The main differences between the US and the European countries are a mix of the commercial and political. The US containment policy has been an obstacle for the Western companies. Similarly, American-owned companies have lost business due to non-participation in the Turkmen-Iranian and Kazakh-Iranian oil swap deals. However, the US seemed to have failed in its containment of Iran policy, which is not supported by Europe, specially by France. The recent US decision to lift objections against participation in a $2 billion project of laying oil pipelines from Turkmenistan through Iran and Turkey appears to be the beginning of a change in the American geo-political thinking. In the recently held World Petroleum Congress in Beijing, the Iranian participants found unanimous US oil-firm support for an Iranian pipeline route for Caspian oil. The change in Washington's attitude also comes in the face of increasing European and Russian interest in the Iranian energy complex. The oil factor has resulted in a modification of unrestricted French support for Armenia on Karabakh. At the same time, other European countries such as Germany are not focussing too much on the oil business but showing interest in grabbing infrastructure projects like telecommunications, water-supply, oil manufacturing and pipeline construction. The major European policy is to finance the Eurasian Transport Corridor with the intention to integrate the Caspian Sea and Central Asia region into the European structure. They are doing this through a number of schemes like the Partnership Cooperation Agreement (PCA) and Partnership for Peace programme. However, the European Parliament has not been able to ratify major schemes due to the poor record of democracy and human rights in these countries. Both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have enormous natural resources but lack political reforms. Nevertheless, Uzbekistan manages to attract a lot of foreign investors because of Karimov's pro-Western and anti-Russian political stance. Whereas, Turkmenistan does the same due to its "neutrality" on foreign policy. On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have relatively better records on human rights but lack the resources to attract foreign investments. In Kazakhstan, foreign investment is high not only because of the rich minerals, but also the strategic reason of being close to China. The US alone contributes 54 per cent of the total foreign investment in Kazakhstan. The European companies are also discouraged by the low defensive potentials of the Central Asian countries. Central Asian security is still dependent on Russian forces, as demonstrated in Tajikistan. European investors also perceive the oil game as risky and dangerous, as it may further exacerbate the ethnic conflicts such as in Afghanistan. The European ultimate strategy is to act as a third force between the growing American influence and the Russian claim to maintain their traditional sphere of influence. On the one hand, Europe would depend on the US for its future energy security strategy; on the other hand, it would helplessly depend on Russia for peace-keeping activities in this volatile region.

Regional Security: The Afghan Conflict

The post-Cold War changes have fundamentally altered the regional security environment. Although there are no major military threats for the states of Central Asia, they are faced with a host of other conflicting realities, and to cope with those threats on their own is beyond their capability. With the diminishing of overt conventional military threats, the non-conventional security issues such as trans-border environmental degradation, ethnic conflicts, etc. are becoming major challenges. Already, the conflict beyond Central Asia's border such as the Afghan civil war has endangered regional security. In fact, Central Asia's threat perception will depend more on the developments outside the region rather than within the region. Their security concerns emanate from uncertainties in China and Russia. Considering the common border with overlapping of ethnic population with China, unrest in the bordering province of Xinjiang could have a direct bearing on Kazakh, Tajik and Kyrgyz security.

Instability in Afghanistan and the unpredictable future of that country has become a serious security problem for all the Central Asian states. The conflict situation in Afghanistan has taken a new turn following the Soviet collapse. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent unfolding of Central Asia has altered not only the course of political configuration, but also the reasons for the conflict in Afghanistan. Here the termination of the ideological struggle of Communists versus Islamists has not necessarily brought peace to that country. Whereas the post-Soviet changes unravelled the Inner Asian ethnic frontiers, and revived cultural contacts that led to new regional formations. Ironically, it was during their struggle against the Communists that the Pushtuns lost the leadership role, resulting in their search for an alliance across the frontiers in Pakistan. Consequently, the Afghan conflict has redefined the contours of post-Cold War regional realignment and power relationship around South and Central Asia. While Afghanistan's use as a pawn in the East-West conflict had barely ended, the resistance movement of the Mujahideen assumed a useful arena for the narrow sectarian goals of the powerful Islamic states.

Central Asian stakes in Afghanistan's stability are crucial both in terms of regional strategic realignment, as well as from the pratical need to cope with the possible spill-over of turbulence into the region. The rapidly developing situation in Afghanistan coincided at a time when the international environment itself was in the midst of a transitional process.

The phenomenon of the Taliban since late 1994 has also come in the light of increasing international attention on Central Asia's rich hydrocarbon reserves. The new developments in Afghanistan are a part of the emerging geo-political underplay in the triangular region of South, West and Central Asia in the post-Cold War era. For India, the phenomenon had a serious dimension of strategically drawing Afghanistan into a larger conflict between Pakistan and India, though the militia's espousal had more to do with Pakistan's internal political alignment. The Taliban also came in the light of the US effort at rectifying its past policy blunders. Washington's blind support to unsavoury Afghan clients in the 1980s had boomeranged, as they become the biggest source of terrorism, targetting US citizens and establishments. There has been widespread articulation in the American strategic community in the recent years that the US has undoubtedly been the single country most responsible for the current state of affairs in Afghanistan. The way Washington cynically used Afghanistan as a strategic pawn in its struggle against the Soviets, produced disastrous consequences, the impact of which may be felt for very long time to come. For the US, the Taliban comprise the best bet for re-engaging the "Afghanis" within Afghanistan. Moreover, the militia had promised to put an end to opium cultivation and combat international terrorism. The Taliban also offered a new regional dimension for the US to contain Iran, specially after the CIA's debacle in northern Iraq. The Taliban also came in the face of the struggle for routing the Central Asian oil. Their significance was seen in the context of countering the Iranian and Indian moves in the new region, specially after the opening up of the former's port facilities to the region. The Pakistani and Taliban authorities have of late tried to oblige the US or at least sought to fulfil some of their commitments for the US strategic interest by handing over Aimal Kansi to the FBI in June 1997.

On the one hand, the end of the Cold War has brought Iran geographically closer to Central Asia, resulting in raising Iran's strategic importance vis-i-vis the West. The new situation has widened the Iranian access to Central Asian lucrative oil and gas reserves, which could be linked with Iran's own production network. On the other hand, the same situation has also given rise to sectarian and ethno-nationalism with immense implications for Iranian security. These factors have greatly shaped the Iranian policy towards the Afghan conflict in the recent years.

The Iranian interest in the Afghan conflict has been determined by, firstly, the massive influx of refugees into Iran and, secondly, its concern for the Shias in Afghanistan. So long as these interests were effectively moderated, Tehran's approach to the Afghan conflict did not particularly clash with that of Pakistan. However, in the recent years, the United States and Saudi Arabia in connivance with Pakistan took a series of steps to deny Iran the strategic advantage it had acquired in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. In this respect, the capture of Herat by the Taliban came as a clear message to Tehran. The Pakistani initiative to push the US/Saudi oil companies for a highway and oil/gas pipeline project across Afghanistan via Herat was seen as undermining the Iranian goals in Central Asia.

The emergence of an arc of non-Persian or Turkic states has heightened Iran's fear of an ethnic upsurge among its own minority nationals such as Azeris, Kurdish, Turkmens and others. Such a fear is further compounded by the rise in pan-Arab sentiments against Iran in the southern Persian Gulf. It is in this context that the rise of the Taliban as a Sunni Islamic movement is being seen as going against the Iranian interest. As one analyst put it, "They have already declared women as inferior. Next they might declare that the Shias are kaffirs." The Iranians also fear that the possible disintegration of Afghanistan may only help broaden the prospect of a separate Baluchistan. Such assessments of the Iranians might have been shaped by the sense of being besieged by a hostile US and its allies. The Iranian have claimed that the US Administrations have spared no effort in using US diplomatic and financial influence to frustrate any positive result that may derive from Iran's mediation.

Iran has strongly opposed the Taliban's interpretation of Islam. Tehran has been able to sustain its Afghan policy through active regional and diplomatic initiatives. Following the Mazar-i-Sharif fiasco, Pakistan has sought the Iranian support for a joint initiative to defuse the Afghan crisis. There are, however, enough indications to suggest that the US is willing to make changes in its Iran policy in order to deal with the new leadership in Tehran. In an unprecedented step, Washington announced on July 27, that it will not oppose the construction of a $16 billion gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Turkey via Iranian territory. A possible thaw in the US-Iran relations in the coming years will have a significant impact on the Afghan situation.

The Taliban's victory came as the first direct shock to the Central Asian states in terms of the conflict directly threatening their immediate security. Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan feared that Masood's retreat into Badakhshan area will directly affect their security; therefore, they took a harder view than the others to halt the Taliban advance. Their approach favoured closer coordination with Russia. Whereas the Uzbeks were initially seen as taking a hard line toward the Taliban, advocating support for Dostum, but later took a different view and stayed away from the Tehran meet, indicating support for the Pakistani initiative. Tashkent is wary about the Masood-Rabbani-Rehkmanov equation, particularly on the unity of Tajik people, which threatens the Uzbeks' interest. Turkmenistan, by virtue of not being a member of the CIS, remained neutral on the Afghan conflict. Ashgabat argued that the Taliban has not harmed its interest ever since the two sides shared a direct boundary following the fall of Herat to the militia in September 1995. Turkmenistan's direct stake in routing its oil/gas pipelines across Afghanistan obviously determined its Afghan policy. In general, the Central Asian states are confronted with a strange dilemma on the Afghan issue, particularly when it is increasingly getting linked to the oil factor and foreign investment in their countries. On the other hand, they are painfully aware of the possible threat of the Islamic Opposition, once the Taliban control the whole of Afghanistan. Russia intends to play its own game with these states on the Afghan issue. Moscow by expressing unwillingness to bear the burden of facing such a challenge alone has made itself indispensable for the Central Asians. Therefore, their commonly shared perceptions on the Taliban could not be translated into any serious military commitment to counter the phenomenon, except for an agreement to strengthen the troops bordering Afghanistan by revoking Article 4 of the CIS Collective Security Treaty of 1992. However, in the evolving scenario, the Central Asian states are showing an inclination to function and cooperate within the NATO's Partnership for Peace programme to resolve the conflicts in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

Russia's own position on the Taliban has been a restrained one. Moscow occasionally warned the militia of dire consequences in case of their violation of the CIS border. Moscow's main ambivalence on the Afghan conflict is determined by two major streams of thought--one section advocating a hard line to halt the militia at all cost, while the other cautioning against a repeat of past mistakes. Even though Russia has not de-recognised the Rabbani government, it has shown willingness to deal with the Taliban on various issues. Although Russia's role in the Afghan affairs has been on the decline, it continues to be a pre-eminent power to offset the regional power balance. Central Asia remains indispensable for Russia's composite air-defence and strategic network. Besides its stakes in the region are governed by the presence of almost 10 million Russians living in various republics of Central Asia.

China has been conspicuously silent on the Taliban phenomenon, even though there have been reports of the militia's activities spilling over into Xinjiang province. Beijing has been careful not to cause any suspicion among the Russians and Central Asians while taking a position on the phenomenon widely supported by its close ally, Pakistan. China would not see the containment of Islam as its priority, considering Beijing's close cooperation even on military matters with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. In fact, China would view Afghanistan as another venue where India can be kept engaged with Pakistan.

India and Central Asia

India faced a new reality in its strategic vicinity following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. India shares a contiguous border with Central Asia and Afghanistan (though Pakistan's continued military occupation of Jammu and Kashmir comes in the way) and its stakes in that country's stability aroused concerns both in terms of regional strategic realignment, as well as from the practical need to cope with the possible spill-over of turbulence from the region. The rapidly developing situation in Afghanistan coincided with the time when India's own relationship with the Russian Federation was undergoing fundamental change. The magnitude of uncertainties within Russia and the future of Indo-Russian relations, particularly after Moscow's pronouncement of a de-ideologised relationship with New Delhi, greatly affected India's foreign policy posture.

India's interest and policy readjustment with regards to post-Soviet Afghanistan and Central Asia, therefore, acquired consideration at three levels. First, was to sustain India's existing political and economic presence in the region, which had developed substantially during the Soviet era. The new economic investments in energy and mineral resources and promotion of trade with the region was given uppermost priority. Secondly, India's interest lay in preventing the region falling into Islamic theocratic policy, while encouraging the nation building process along the principles and values of democracy, secularism and plurality. Thirdly, it was imperative for India to counter negative political trends which tend to isolate India from Central Asia historically, politically and on the grounds of religion and physical access. For example, the extension of the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) to include Central Asian states, and the extensive use of the OIC to focus on the Kashmir issue, the exclusion of India from key political issues like the Tajik and Afghan conflicts, while trying to resolve them within the Islamic framework of the OIC and ECO, the deliberate use and prominence given to metaphors like the "Silk Route" to include Kashmir as a part of Central Asia, and many other sinister designs, particularly initiated by Pakistan to project India in a negative light, posed immediate challenges to Indian policy makers.

Afghanistan as a factor in South Asian politics has been determined by both history and geography. The history of the 19th century "great game" has not receded from our memories, with so many consequences for the South Central Asian political landscape. In the recent times, the superpower involvement in Afghanistan towards the end of the Cold War had further complicated this relationship. From India's point of view, the instability in Afghanistan has had direct negative implications for India's security. The prolonged civil war in that country had not only brought the entire spectre of the Cold War close to India's doorstep, but also made the Afghanistan-Pakistan region volatile. The intense militarisation and nuclearisation of Pakistan, the phenomenal spread of sophisticated small arms and light weapons, and the growth of narcotics manufacture and trafficking, directly linked to the conflict in Afghanistan, had immense implications for the regional balance in South Asia.

In this context, the key factor has been Pakistan's view of Afghanistan and Central Asia as an adjunct to its rivalry with India. Both the political and military leadership of Pakistan had for long considered Afghanistan and Central Asia as territorial enticement to realise the quest for "strategic depth" for Pakistan, primarily for its military rivalry with India. This was a dream of President Zia-ul-Haq, who cleverly used the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan as the strongest pretext to build Pakistan's military to settle scores with India. It was the period when Pakistan sought to acquire the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Because of its interest in the Afghan conflict, the United States turned a blind eye to Pakistan's nuclear programme in the 1980s. The post mortem analysis of the US acquiescence over the Pakistani Afghan policy tends to suggest that it had only served the interest of Pakistan's rivalry with India rather than restoring peace in Afghanistan. Islamabad saw to it that the Soviet forces remained bogged down in Afghanistan for a longer period, the ultimate objective being to draw the spectre of the Cold War closer to the South Asian situation, which in turn would internationalise if not help solve the Kashmir issue. The Mujahideen's victory against the Soviets had also inadvertently given rise to a belief in Pakistan that it can replicate a similar strategy vis-a-vis India. In fact, there has been a corresponding relationship between withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and heightening of the Pakistan: proxy war in the Kashmir Valley. A significant portion of Western supplied weapons for the Afghan Mujahideen were later transferred to the Kashmiri separatist forces in India, sustaining a low-intensity conflict since July 1988.

The post-Soviet changes also made Pakistan project itself as the rightful heir of the Mughal legacy for Islamic legitimacy and as a way of binding itself to Central Asia. The fluid situation in Central Asia offered an irresistible opportunity for Pakistan to foster anti-India programmes and enlist Central Asian support for its regional policies. In order to distract the people, Pakistanis in their virulent anti-India campaign not only accused India of persecuting the Muslims in Kashmir but also clubbed India with the US, European countries and Israel in their crusade against the global "Islamic threat." Such a geo-Islamic thinking was also meant to be against the Western world, whose cultural values were perceived by the Mujahideen and "Afghanis" as the only remaining threat to Islam after the demise of Communism. On several occasions, Pakistan tried in vain to provide such an orientation to organisations like the OIC, ECO and others.

In Afghanistan, Pakistan constantly sought to manipulate the Afghan resistance while pursuing a zero-sum game to install its own puppet regime in Kabul as a way of filling the vacuum left by the Soviet withdrawal. The selective encouragement to the fundamentalist Hekmatyar group, while ignoring the importance of the moderate "Peshawar Seven" by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organisation has greatly strengthened Islamic fundamentalism as an Afghan political force. For the ISI, Hekmatyar qualified as the most suitable candidate, who would fulfil Pakistan's multiple goal of integrating the Afghan territory within the strategic fold of Pakistan. The concept of "strategic depth" for Pakistan was not just to acquire military space, but also a wider political and ideological exercise to dilute and undermine the "Afghan nationalism" that threatened to exacerbate the demand for Pushtunistan.

India's strategic approach has been that of positive engagement with the region, considering the vast opportunities for India to respond and effectively attend to the issues that may challenge its vital interests. The economic dimension of the relationship has been seen as most significant to India's long-term strategic interest. India finds such an approach beneficial because success in consolidating economic bonds would not only help the nation building process of these new states, but would also ward off negative and undesirable trends challenging Central Asian stability, and thereby, help India secure its political objectives in the region on an enduring basis.

As the competing strategic interests among external powers in Central Asia continued, India's attitude and interests generally converged with those of Iran and Russia. This was partly in response to the participation by the US, Pakistan and Turkey in the larger strategic game of neutralising the role of Russia, Iran and India. In the absence of peace in Afghanistan and in the face of the hostile attitude of Pakistan, India has been left with no option but to seek the Iranian help in finding an access to Central Asia. Since 1995, Iran, India and Turkmenistan have been working out a transit and trade route agreement whcih was finally signed in February 1997. The tripartite agreement marked the distinction of being post-Soviet Asia's first positive answer to the collapse the Communist order. A remarkable success in India's quiet diplomacy at the juncture of disquieting developments in Central Asia had been regarded as a coup of sorts which has in fact determined the course of geo-politics in the triangular region of Central, South, and West Asia. However it must be emphasised here that the agreement should by no means be considered as an indication of a strategic partnership between Iran and India, but simply be regarded as a measure to stimulate trade, as well as to facilitate land route access to the Central Asian states. In this regard, any future peace in Afghanistan (which does not affect India's access to Central Asia negatively) will reduce India's dependence on Iran for its interactions with Central Asia.

Economic diplomacy will remain the basic thrust of India's policy towards Central Asia. In the changed circumstances, India sees no clash but rather a compatibility of interest with Central Asia. As India's energy requirements are going to double in the next few years, it will have to find new ways to get access to Central Asian oil and gas reserves. The proposed project for a gas and oil pipeline from Turkmenistan to India through Afghanistan and Pakistan is an attractive option for India. However, the pipeline project will have to confront a number of geo-political and techno-economic issues which are yet to be resolved adequately.

India's security interests are inextricably entwined with the turbulent region of Central Asia. The same is true for many other countries in the region which could not remain indifferent towards the Afghan conflict India's vital security interests are linked to the territorial integrity of Afghanistan. Any prospect of Afghanistan's disintegration or the creation of Pushtunistan or its integration into Pakistan would severely undermine the principle on which India's political and social stability is built. Even during the British Raj, upholding of Afghan independence was considered vital to the Indian state.

Secondly, with the Soviet strategic retreat, it became crucial for India, much more than before, to moderate the changing security relationship across its north-west frontiers. Afghanistan assumed importance for India's Central Asia policy, as well as for the purpose of tempering the Pakistani aggressiveness towards India.

Thirdly, India has been the worst victim of the post-Soviet Afghan imbroglio, which was manifest in the form of widespread small arms proliferation, drug-trafficking and trans-national terrorism. The Pakistanis and Saudis continued to provide funds for Afghan War veterans to recruit and train Muslim volunteers from other Islamic countries in various terrorist training camps opened in several towns of the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontiers. Known as the "Afghanis", (estimated as some 30,000 according to the US sources), they were implicated in terrorist attacks in India and the Western world. Since the summer of 1992, the infiltration into Kashmir of "Afghanis" belonging to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia, increased to about 2,000.

The fall-out of religious fundamentalism pursued by Pakistan as an instrument of regional policy and the subsequent post-Najibullah events in Afghanistan also saw the infusion of several negative patterns with deeper ramifications for South Asian security. The large scale weaponisation of the population in Afghanistan, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the intertwining relationship of weapon production and narcotic trade, lumped together as the "Kalashnikov culture," has set off a fundamentalist drive into Kashmir, Tajikistan, Chechnya, Bosnia and elsewhere. India's vulnerability increased from the growing narcotic trade across border, bringing with it a host of other social and political problems.

India's ability to directly influence the events in Afghanistan as compared to others is limited. India's option in dealing with the Afghan issue may depend on which faction will have the upper hand there. The bewildering twist of events in Afghanistan has sufficiently proved that there can never be a military solution to the Afghan problem, nor would it be a viable option for a durable peace in that country. The US and Pakistan have cynically chosen the engagement of the Afghans in a constant state of warfare as the best solution to keep off a vital security threat for themselves. There has been a corresponding relationship between the rise of the Taliban and the decline in international terrorist activities.

India's option, in the absence of a direct influence, will hinge on regional diplomacy, even though stakes in that country demand autonomous Indian action. Inda's strength perhaps lies in its traditional bonds of friendship and trust among the vast but unorganised majority of the Afghan people. Four critical points are the key to India's future position on the Afghan crisis. Firstly, to the extent possible, Afghanistan's unity and territorial integrity must be kept intact, because any dismemberment of that country would have a negative fall-out in all directions, threatening even the territorial integrity of India. Secondly, India's interest would be served if a broad-based government is formed involving all sections of its people, including the minorities, in the power structure. Thirdly, any external interference must be stopped, allowing all the people of Afghanistan to settle the issue on their own. Fourthly, the moderate, nationalist and secular Afghan forces must be encouraged in order to resist the coercive propagation of any kind of religious extremism.

Despite its relentless effort, Pakistan has so far failed to make Afghanistan a factor in the South Asian conflict. The Pakistani Army has been instrumental in instigating large scale Afghan infiltration into Kashmir Valley. Although the Afghan issue has never been allowed to become a direct source of conflict between India and Pakistan, it had wider implications for generating regional tensions in South Asia. The Taliban phenomenon has a particular dimension of strategically drawing Afghanistan into a larger conflict between Pakistan and India. The divergence of interest on the diplomatically sensitive issues like Afghanistan has significantly marred the prospects of regional cooperation in South Asia. It was in this context that India was keen to make Afghanistan the eighth member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). No Afghan regime in Kabul including the Taliban has taken any particular posture of challenging India's position on the Kashmir issue. On the contrary there has been convergence of interest on vital issues between India and Afghanistan.

The end of the Cold War has not necessarily removed the mutuality of strategic interests between India and the Central Asian states. The convergence of interest on the crucial issue of Afghanistan will always remain the key element determining the Indo-Central Asian relations in future. A stable and peaceful Afghanistan is not only in the interest of India and the Central Asian states, but also desirable for China, Russia and Iran. A military solution and the Taliban's control over the whole of Afghanistan would mean gains for the Pakistani Army to have direct access to the Central Asian borders. This would not only alter the security environment, fostering regional tension but would also pose a serious challenge to India's Central Asian policy. Indian national interests are better served if Central Asia remains devoid of international conflict and away from hegemonism. The Afghan civil war has so far frustrated India's cooperation with the Central Asian states. Therefore, a stable and friendly government in Afghanistan, from New Delhi's point of view, could provide a vital link for mutually beneficial ties with the Central Asian states, and will significantly reduce India's existing dependence on Iran for its cooperation with the region.

India has consistently supported the UN peace effort in the Afghan conflict. However, the UN, though mandated to work for the Afghan reconciliation, had been surprisingly inactive, particularly in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal. The UN representatives have particularly failed to understand the regional complexities which underpin the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. The United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan (UNSMA) finally seems convinced that the "decisive factor" of the Afghan conflict lies not in Afghanistan but elsewhere (foreign interference). The UNSMA chief's decision to focus on the regional countries rather than on the warring factions comes after the UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi's mission to regional countries, including India. The new thinking was long overdue as the countries affected by the Afghan crisis always laid stress on a regional perspective to resolve the Afghan imbroglio. India should support any UN initiative which will fulfil the fundamental interests of the Afghan people. Many of the problems in Afghanistan seem directly related to the breakdown of agriculture and irrigation systems, tribal and social laws, and unless and until those areas are effectively addressed, the return of peace and stability in that country would remain elusive.


Although Central Asia's future orientation is being realised within a number of concentric circles, it is highly doubtful whether extra-regional models would gain compatibility in this sensitive geo-political region. On the other hand, it would become increasingly important for these states to evolve a Central Asian regional integration rather than a trans-national framework. At the same time, any monolithic treatment of the region or an approach such as pan-Islamic and pan-Turkic etc., would conflict with the individual identities of each state. Regional integration, on the other hand, is gradually becoming a pre-condition for the smooth management of nation building, at both domestic and global levels. Moreover, they do not have much option, either to cooperate regionally or to confront problems individually. Regional integration is also important because none of these states is strong enough to join the global system individually. Whereas these states have got all the ingredients to come up as a viable and prosperous regional entity. The region enjoys tremendous natural resources, and inherited common scientific and technical workforce. Neither can these states be treated as differentiated units. A certain amount of structural differences existed even during the Soviet era, but there are common features which would make the integrative process smoother. They enjoy the same level of socio-economic development, common level of literacy rate, agriculture still constitutes a large share in their GNP, they share the common Russian language and a common pool of skilled manpower (see Table 1). Besides, regional cooperation is also necessary because even the internal problems of the states are trans-national in nature. For example, the ecological, environmental and security problems are regional in dimension. More importantly, there is a certain complementarity of resources among the five states. Unlike Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the other two states of the region, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are not endowed with oil and gas resources, but have water resources instead, which the former lack. The management of water is going to be the key issue and it is already a source of conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Thus, it would be important for them to forge their own positive and creative diplomacy in order to give a new sense of direction to regional peace and stability instead of seeking trans-regional solutions. Such a perspective will enable the Central Asian states to implement a measure for the survival of their old unique civilisation and initiate steps to ensure durable peace and prosperity for the region. Moreover, they should make efforts to synthesise their traditional values, for example, the nomadic pastoralism with modern industrial society to build new forms of multilateral economic and political cooperation. Central Asia could well become a "green zone" of economic development that absorbs hi-tech features and production skills in a modernisation process. Central Asia at present is devoid of problems which exist in other Islamic countries. Nor do they share a particular rhetoric against the Western or against any other culture.

Table 1. Development Indicators in Central Asia

Indicators Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan Tajikistan Turkmenistan Uzbekistan

Population (mil) 17.0 4.6 5.8 3.9 21.9


Area (thousand 2.717 199 143 488 477

of sq km)

Ethnicity % 42 Kz 52 Kgr 69 Taj 79 Turk 79 Uz

37 Rus 13 Uz 25 Uz 10 Rus 5 Taj

21 Rus 9 Taj

Literacy % 95.5 97.0 96.7 97.7 97.2


Per Capita in 3,300 2,100 1,500 3,700 2,900

in US$ 1995

GNP (million 24,728 3,915 2,520 20,425

US$ in 1993)

Share of Agri 29 43 33 32 23

in GNP % 1993

Labour in Indust 22 24 19 NA 20

in % 1990-92

Labour in Agri 20 16 19 NA 20

in % 1990-92

Services in % 58 60 67 NA 63

Source: World Development Report, 1995.

1. The historical and civilisational aspects of Central Asia should propel the present states in the region to revive their sense of geo-political responsibilities towards a cohesive regional integration. Instead of focussing on the diverse and divisive issues they will have to lay stress on the commonalities of their socio-economic life such as the common Russian language and common techno-economic skills to foster regional integration. It would be highly pragmatic on their part to build their future on the existing common ethos which is highly unifying in nature, for a regional integration.

2. The overlapping of areas of ethnic settlement within the region should be considered as an asset rather than a obstacle. Any form of homogeneity, ethnic, racial, religious, etc. is neither possible nor reasonable in the present era of globalisation.

3. Their geo-strategic position as a bridge between Europe and Asia, as well as at the cross-junction of West Asia, South Asia, Russia and China should allow the Central Asian states to play a pivotal in the world politics in the next decade.

4. Central Asia will continue to have a moderating political influence on the relations among major powers, as well as on the relations among regional powers. The growing strategic proximity between Russia and China, by no means removes the contradiction on their frontiers. The forays of Chinese immigration into the Russian Far East has already begun to threaten Russian security. The Chinese are going to score more long-term benefits than Russia out of the present strategic axis. Besides, the Sino-Indian relations and Sino-Pakistan relations will be significantly shaped by the developments in Central Asia.

5. On the other hand, Central Asia's own future challenge may emanate from the enormous political uncertainties in the neighbouring countries, specially in China and Russia. Any kind of political diffusion in the two neighbouring countries will entail circumstances that could nurture a pan-Turkic movement across Inner Asia.

6. The evolving relations between the US and the Central Asian states will provide the former with some degree of political influence to moderate its relations with Russia, Iran and China. The US also may be interested in finding a Central Asian solution to the Afghan problem.

7. As China rises to the position of a superpower, the confrontation between it and the dominant power, the United States, is bound to increase. The role of some Central Asian states in moderating conflicts between the two will become significant. Both internally and from the external point of view, changes in the coming years will demand that Central Asians make a major shift from their Russia-centric policies to China-oriented policies.

8. Consequently, Central Asian states will also play a balancing role even in the security situation of South Asia.

9. Central Asia's location in the vicinity of resource-rich Siberia and Caspian Sea region will enhance its strategic importance for the outside powers to have benign political and economic presence.

10. The export of natural resources must, in return, enable the Central Asian states to acquire sustainable sources for balanced socio-economic development. In fact, the choice for the Central Asia states is not between Turkish or Iranian variants of socio-political development, but between economic policies geared towards selling off natural resources without local development (the Gulf experience) or to process their resources and participate in the global economy (the newly industrialising countries' experience).