America Discovers Central Asia

Courtesy Reuters


Prior to September 11, 2001, the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- might as well have been on the other side of the moon as far as U.S. policy was concerned. They were and are everything the United States is not: landlocked, poor, peripheral, fearful, defenseless, Muslim, and undemocratic. Today, however, they are high on the U.S. foreign policy agenda, and America once again finds itself engaged militarily in an area about which its key officials know little. Almost none speak the critical languages of Central Asia; all too few have relevant experience there.

Curiously, as different and remote as the United States and the Central Asian countries are from one another, their fates have intersected at least twice before. During the U.S. Civil War, the North's tight trade blockade on the South had an unexpected consequence for Russian textile manufacturers: they suddenly found that they could no longer buy American cotton for their rapidly expanding plants. On learning of their plight, expansion-minded Russian officials developed a new rationale for pushing the borders of their empire south: conquering Central Asia, where cotton could grow, would assist the industrialization of modern Russia.

The fate of Central Asia next intersected with the United States a century later, when, during the Cold War, American policymakers realized that Moscow was locating its nuclear testing and missile- launch sites in the region, as far away from prying American eyes as possible. This prompted renewed U.S. interest in the region. The United States sought military facilities in Iran and Pakistan to monitor Soviet activities in Central Asia. Many pressing for U.S. support of radical Islamic forces during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan hoped the religious fervor would spread into Soviet Central Asia, as indeed it did. After the fall of the Soviet Union, America's main objective in the region seemed to be to help the Central Asian states gain sufficient

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