Since the states of Central Asia broke free from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991, U.S. policy toward the region has been focused on promoting political and economic stability among Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The Clinton administration sought to achieve this goal by fostering regional cooperation, relying on multilateral institutions such as NATO's Partnership for Peace and the Central Asian Economic Community (CAEC). Some critics, however, argued instead for a realpolitik-based approach to stability that would promote Uzbekistan as a regional hegemon. This latter vision has now become reality, because the United States has needed Uzbek bases and transit links to wage the war on terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan. But the Bush administration should proceed with caution: its wartime ally may well worsen the very problems Washington needs to tackle.

To wage its war on al Qaeda and the Taliban, the United States has enlisted the support of Uzbekistan and its authoritarian ruler, Islam Karimov. This new relationship involves a direct exchange of strategic resources. Uzbekistan, which has the best transport facilities, air bases, and military capabilities in the region, has allowed the United States to station troops, airplanes, and helicopters at an Uzbek air base and to use Uzbek territory to launch offensive strikes on Afghanistan. The United States, in return, promptly inserted into the emergency appropriations bill passed by Congress in September 2001 a $25 million grant to Uzbekistan for weapons and other military purchases. Then, in January, Washington announced that Uzbekistan will receive $100 million of the $4 billion Congress has allocated for fighting terrorism. That aid is supposed to eventually extend beyond military and security purposes to help Karimov's government resuscitate its economy, which has been strangled by drought, falling cotton prices, and the lowest level of foreign investment per capita in Central Asia.

The rationale for Washington's marriage of convenience to Tashkent is clear and understandable. But inertia and the logic of events may tempt the Bush administration to let a temporary expedient grow into an enduring policy shift. This would be a mistake. Propping up Uzbekistan as a regional hegemon not only would fail to address but would actually exacerbate a key source of Central Asian instability: the domestic political repression that fosters the radicalization of Islamist movements and galvanizes popular support behind them. Moreover, viewing the Islamist threat as primarily a military problem requiring a local strongman will not mitigate the various transnational concerns -- including water-sharing disputes and the flows of drugs, refugees, and weapons -- that plague the region.


Over the past three years, political opponents have used bombings and armed raids in an attempt to topple Karimov's government. These events have drawn widespread attention to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an organization that advocates the use of violence to install an Islamic state. The IMU enjoyed support from the Taliban that included housing, political offices, training camps, and bases for military operations and recruitment; it also has strong ties to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. The roots of the movement, however, lie less in international terrorism than in domestic political repression.

The IMU began as a small group of local imams, known as Adolat (justice), who in 1991 attempted to impose Islamic law to counter widespread corruption in Namangan, a city in the Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan's most fertile, densely populated, and conservative area. But Adolat turned toward extremism and began seeking the overthrow of the government the following year, when an official crackdown forced its members to flee to Tajikistan and Afghanistan. There they trained with Afghan mujahideen and built strong ties to both the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. The movement then gained popular Uzbek support when the state expanded its crackdown to include any practicing Muslims and their extended families; by 1997, for example, Uzbeks could be arrested simply for wearing traditional Muslim clothing, having a beard, or possessing Islamic literature. When bombs were set off in Tashkent in February 1999, allegedly by the IMU, although the charges remain unproven, mass arrests followed. But the state's heavy-handed tactics ended up convincing even moderate Islamists that only further violence could get the regime to change its ways.

The September 11 attacks sent shock waves of horror around the world, but they also proved a major windfall to the Karimov government, which at once became a key player in the Bush administration's war effort. Suddenly, the Islamic threat that Tashkent faced locally was transformed into a global problem, and the primary suspects in the attacks lay just across the Afghan border. This change meant that international and, most important, U.S. military and economic resources would go to fight bin Laden and his Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. Karimov now hopes this campaign will be extended to fight their ideological colleagues on Uzbek soil.

Even if a partnership with Karimov was necessary to the success of the Afghan campaign, however, over the longer term it could intensify rather than reduce the threat of radical Islam. The governments of both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are likely to use the crisis to expand their crackdowns on political opposition in general and on Islamists in particular. They will also expect Washington to be less critical of any human rights violations they commit along the way. As with their previous domestic repression, however, such draconian moves may only contribute to the basic problem. In Uzbekistan in particular, the elimination of all forms of political opposition since 1992 has left Islam as the only viable mechanism for channeling political grievances. Mosques provide the only independent structure for organization and mobilization apart from the state. And continued widespread crackdowns and the multiplication of detention camps for terrorist suspects, combined with growing economic problems, unemployment, and rising poverty, increase popular support for militant Islamist groups and set the stage for greater domestic turmoil.


Beyond terrorism, the war in Afghanistan has turned a spotlight on other acute threats to Central Asian stability, including the uninterrupted flows of insurgents, drugs, weapons, and refugees across the region's porous borders. Indeed, although the Soviet Union's collapse brought internationally recognized boundaries to Afghanistan and the Central Asian states, in practice these national borders are extremely permeable. The Soviet successor states in the region have proven incapable of protecting by themselves the boundaries that the Bolsheviks drew. More than 20,000 Russian ground forces and border guards, for example, still guard Tajikistan's southern border with Afghanistan. Kazakhstan's and Kyrgyzstan's failures to prevent the illegal entry of consumer goods from China have led to a flourishing black market across the region.

Some governments have responded to the problem by taking unilateral action. Uzbekistan, in particular, has attempted to reinforce its borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan by introducing much stricter controls, building fences, and laying deadly land mines. The results have been dramatic but unfortunate: the severing of family ties, multiple civilian injuries and deaths, and the destruction of a once-vibrant local economy based on legitimate cross-border trade.

Central Asia's porous borders have already facilitated the penetration of armed insurgents from Afghanistan into Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan over the past three years. Uzbekistan, in turn, has responded to this violation of its sovereignty by violating the sovereignty of its neighbors, especially Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, in attempts to contain the IMU and round up suspected Islamist terrorists. Once Afghanistan is fully stable and able to protect its own borders, this problem may diminish somewhat. But until then it may actually increase. Military cooperation with the United States is likely to make several of the Central Asian states prime targets for terrorists, from both within and outside of the region, and Afghanistan will serve as a convenient staging ground because, at least in the short term, the post-Taliban regime will not have effective control over all of its territory.

The penetrability of the borders, meanwhile, has also partly contributed to Central Asia's emergence as one of the main highways for opium, much of which finds its way across Russia to the streets of Europe. In 2000, Afghanistan accounted for 72 percent of the world's cultivation of opium poppies, the source of heroin. Until the Taliban banned poppy cultivation in July of that year, the opium harvest and drug trafficking provided a substantial portion of the regime's tax revenues. Unlike the Taliban, the Northern Alliance never issued a ban on poppy growing and has continued to support this lucrative enterprise in the areas under its control.

Drug trafficking has led to arms smuggling and corruption, while also providing a key source of funding for Central Asian opposition groups based in Afghanistan. One of the first tasks awaiting the new Afghan government, therefore, is to curtail the opium trade. But doing so will be a daunting challenge, given that the trade is extremely profitable and provides a much needed source of revenue for a war-ravaged population. Indeed, farmers in areas where the Taliban wiped out the poppy crop may now revert to growing poppies, which are much more profitable than food crops.

The drug trade's links to the spread of weapons across the region pose further problems for ending insurgencies and restoring order. Preventing a new civil war in Afghanistan will require collecting and decommissioning weapons from various local factions, but porous borders and the lucrative regional arms market will make this task very difficult. Some weapons are bound to end up in the hands of fringe groups who want to spoil the Afghan peace settlement, and others will find their way to the hands of regional opposition groups and militant Islamists looking to ignite, or reignite, various local conflicts.


An end to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, moreover, is unlikely to stop the influx of refugees from that country into its neighbors. As of the end of 2001, more than 3.6 million Afghans remained outside the country, largely in refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan and India. Another million Afghans have been internally displaced. To get a sense of the scale of the problem, consider that the total populations of Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan are only 4.7 million and 4.6 million, respectively.

Any new exodus of Afghan refugees will therefore impose a significant burden on the impoverished and multiethnic Central Asian states. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are particularly ill prepared to handle large numbers of Afghan migrants. Tajikistan was the poorest country to emerge from the former Soviet Union, and during the early 1990s Kyrgyzstan suffered high inflation and a plummeting GDP -- until large infusions of international aid came to the rescue. Yet the Tajik districts that border Afghanistan (among the poorest in the country) and Kyrgyzstan's southern areas adjacent to Tajikistan (also among its poorest) already serve as refugee havens and thoroughfares for traffic in guns, drugs, and women.

Beyond the humanitarian issues involved, the implications of a refugee crisis in Central Asia are not difficult to imagine. Many of the displaced could be members of militant Islamist groups tied to the Taliban or al Qaeda, and they could use refugee camps as bases to carry out rear-guard actions against the new Afghan government or reprisals against those regional governments that helped the United States defeat their colleagues. Even peaceful refugees could end up competing with locals for water or arable land, triggering a new round of the small-scale resource conflicts that have plagued the region in recent years.

Like drugs, weapons, and refugees, water systems do not respect state boundaries. The two main rivers in Central Asia, the Amu Dar'ya and the Syr Dar'ya, weave in and out of various states before emptying into the Aral Sea. The Amu Dar'ya, in particular, originates in the mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan and then flows across Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Uzbekistan's Karakalpak Autonomous Republic before trickling to its final destination.

To fight the region's desiccation and avert wars over water, the international donor community has provided financial and material assistance to the five Central Asian states since 1993 to devise an appropriate water-sharing regime. When all five states agreed on a water-management strategy in 1996, therefore, it was considered a major accomplishment. But even though Afghanistan controls the sources of much of the region's water flow, it was not included in the program because it had no clear or desirable central political authority with which outsiders could negotiate. The Central Asian states also sought to bar Afghanistan's participation in the water negotiations for fear that it might want to alter the sharing rights they had already secured under arrangements largely inherited from the Soviet Union. As a result, the management strategy has been tenuous at best. Careful handling of water-sharing issues will be crucial for the region's future.

Any plan to rebuild Afghanistan must include agricultural development, which in turn will require increased water usage. Yet any plans to harness the upstream tributaries of the Amu Dar'ya will threaten the viability of the current Central Asian water-management scheme. The Turkmen and Uzbek agricultural economies, for example, are dominated by water-intensive crops such as cotton and rice that rely mainly on the waters of the Amu Dar'ya. Because food production requires more water than does poppy cultivation, the water wars are linked to the drug wars. None of these issues, it should be clear, can be resolved through force or unilateral decree.


As the fighting in Afghanistan recedes and the international community begins to focus its efforts on rebuilding the country, unintended negative consequences of the Bush administration's wartime embrace of the Karimov government in Uzbekistan could surface. The flows of drugs, refugees, weapons, and water across porous borders are regional problems that demand regional solutions. Giving Uzbekistan uncritical support and privileging it as a regional hegemon will embolden the Karimov regime to continue repressing its political opponents and carrying this repression across its neighbors' borders. And by signaling to Uzbekistan's neighbors that they are being sidelined, this policy could further destabilize the already shaky relations among the Central Asian states.

The United States should thus employ a multidimensional policy that strategically engages all the Central Asian states, rather than favor Uzbekistan. First, Washington should make a clear commitment to human rights and democratization in the region. For several reasons, this commitment must begin (but by no means end) with Uzbekistan. Until the war in Afghanistan started, human rights organizations and U.S. government officials had openly and harshly criticized the Karimov regime for its extensive human rights abuses. Closer relations since September 11 have nearly silenced these critics and have also prompted Uzbekistan's rubber-stamp parliament to extend Karimov's presidency without elections. One of the specific ways in which the United States can engage Uzbekistan and the other countries of the region, then, is to insist that they hold free and fair elections for public office -- to be verified by international monitors -- and reward them with comprehensive economic aid for doing so.

In general, the United States should prioritize economic aid over military aid to Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian states. In particular, it must avoid a unilateral military buildup by Uzbekistan. Broad economic aid packages to the region, moreover, must be contingent on these states' achieving real economic reform and regional economic cooperation. Opening their common market to international trade would be one good step. Such aid packages, however, will be effective only if they are long term and if they target the two poorest and weakest states in the region -- Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Regional peace will not be bolstered by creating a "fortress Uzbekistan." Rather, it requires enabling the Central Asian states to address the domestic financial crises that have hindered their ability to protect their own borders, as well as the growing poverty in the region that has promoted popular support for militant Islamist groups.

Washington must also promote multilateral institutions that address a wide range of military, economic, and environmental issues. For example, it should continue to support the Central Asian Battalion (Centrazbat), a regional peacekeeping unit formed in 1995, and Central Asia's participation in the Partnership for Peace. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have participated in U.S.-led military training programs designed to prepare their militaries for peacekeeping missions. Such programs have helped stabilize the situation by providing assurances to weaker states such as Kyrgyzstan that Uzbekistan will not abuse its superior capabilities.

The Bush administration should also continue to support the Central Asian Economic Community, which has served as a coordinating mechanism for economic, security, and water issues. Since independence, Uzbekistan has periodically cut off gas deliveries to Kyrgyzstan during the critical winter months to force the Kyrgyz government to pay its huge arrears for energy shipments. In contrast to such outright coercion, the CAEC with U.S. assistance has hosted meetings among Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan that have enabled them to reach cooperative agreements on energy and water. The use of such regional forums for conflict resolution should be strongly encouraged, and Afghanistan should be invited to participate -- especially when dealing with critical multilateral issues such as water sharing and economic development.

Reconstruction efforts, finally, should be focused on small-scale development projects such as rebuilding irrigation systems and reintroducing food crops. These projects are particularly needed in the border areas, where most of the illicit trade in drugs and weapons takes place and where armed insurgents have sought, and often received, refuge. Targeting these high-risk areas could provide an important victory for a U.S. policy designed to address the local and regional anarchy that allowed al Qaeda to become such a problem in the first place.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Pauline Jones Luong is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University and the author of Institutional Change and Political Continuity in Post-Soviet Central Asia: Power, Perceptions, and Pacts. Erika Weinthal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Tel Aviv University and the author of State Making and Environmental Cooperation: Linking Domestic Politics and International Politics in Central Asia.
  • More By Pauline Jones Luong
  • More By Erika Weinthal