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Homeland Security

Committee on International Relations
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515-0128

Radical Islamic Challenges in Central Asia
Professor Stephen Blank
Strategic Studies Institute
US Army War College
Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013

October, 2003



Virtually every writer on Central Asia has postulated that the combination of ubiquitous misrule, corruption, poverty, and repression there runs the risk of encouraging opposition groups to gravitate toward Islamic parties and movements for want of any other option. The lack of an option is therefore allegedly due to the fact that the regimes there have stifled all other opposition movements. Hence Islamist movements, which are generally and inherently underground operations, are left as the only force capable of arousing opposition to this misrule. Alternatively this repression and misrule stimulates this gravitation to Islamic parties because only they have the most coherent and resonant message that the population can assimilate in terms it understands.

This conclusion emerges because it is assumed that all other avenues of political expression are closed off due to repression, socio-economic decline, environmental degradation, the breakdown of social norms through crime, corruption, and drugs, ethnic cleavages, and/or the absence of a genuine civil society. Hence Islamic parties and movements, that supposedly speak to the populace in their own language are left by default as the only alternative. Yet their message, while coherent, is simultaneously an inherently violent, reactionary, anti-Western, and anti-modern alternative. Moreover, their message, though couched in Islamic terms and tropes, is inherently a political one whereby the symbols and vocabulary of the religion are appropriated for political purposes. Inasmuch as every Central Asian regime is characterized by authoritarianism and what Max Manwaring of the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College has called illegitimate governance -- repressive authoritarianism, rent-seeking, crony capitalism, collapse of the social security network, environmental degradation, etc. -- this assertion, if true, has potentially profound consequences. This assertion about the likelihood of Islamic opposition being the only one capable of succeeding also makes certain implicit assumptions about political trends in Central Asia.

Religion and Radicalism

This assertion assumes that a direct correlation exists between the failure of the state to deal adequately with pressing social issues, environmental decay, demographic transformation, mass migration to cities or refugee issues, economic decline, mass unemployment, extremes of wealth and poverty with unusual concentration of wealth, pervasive corruption, criminality, etc. and violent opposition. And it also assumes an ultimate elite helplessness or unwillingness to intervene in the face of this opposition once a certain threshold of state failure has been breached. The correlative element here is the Islamic message which answers the quest for identity at both individual and collective levels that is abused by this pervasive state failure. This pattern of society-state breakdown in an atmosphere of anomie and loss of identity or of ideological anchors of certainty provides recruits for an identity-based politics of opposition and resistance, often violent, based on Islam and/or Islamic appeals to the population.

First, comes the assumption that Islamic oppositionist movements arise from either misrule or economic hardship which is a direct outgrowth of this misrule, i.e. Manwaring’s illegitimate governance. Thus misrule, authoritarianism, etc. almost inevitably breeds not just opposition but Islamic opposition. Second, is the assumption that movements professing an Islamic ideology -- even if the meaning of what that signifies varies wildly with each group -- possess an inherently potent vehicle for political mobilization. It is not clear whether this means successful mass mobilization or simply reaching out to some crucial number of disaffected recruits short of a mass of the population. The third assumption is that radical Islamic movements pose real and serious threats to established governments there.

Even though most of these assumptions are held by outside observers and probably by the local regimes as well, there is simply no empirical proof one way or the other that can validate these assumptions for all five Central Asian governments and for other Muslim regimes as well except perhaps that radical Islamic groups do pose serious threats to stability by virtue of their willingness to resort to crime, brigandage, insurgency, and terrorism. And if they can mobilize a credible movement, then they certainly pose an even greater threat to local regimes. We have seen in Tajikistan’s civil war, in Afghanistan where the Taleban and behind them Pakistan’s ISI and Al-Qaida supported such movements and posed real threats to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that the argument about the danger represented by these groups is incontestable. Yet we have rarely seen that the Islamist parties or movements or their recruits are the result of the kind of poverty and societal degradation that we find in Central Asia. If anything we find the opposite, that these recruits are often from educated upwardly mobile backgrounds whose ascent is somehow blocked or "cramped" by the structure of the existing society. It is by no means clear that they are capable of bringing the masses into politics or into the street to the point where their unrest can topple a regime. Neither is it even certain that they aspire to organize and lead a mass movement even though their will to power is clear.

Throughout Central Asia the so called radical Islamist threat has not posed as a mass movement but as an armed insurgency threatening the life of the leader of the regime or the stability of the local government by virtue of its ability to mount armed raids, not its ability to forge a viable mass movement. Thus the threat to those governments is not mass insurgency but rather terrorist coups that could lead to assassination or to state failure over time. Thus the threat to American interests lies in the possibility of state failure which alone opens the door to radical Islamic terrorism on a significant scale, not the terrorism itself. In many cases the violent insurgent movements, often linked to criminal activities as well, frequently look like groups who commit anomic violence for its own sake, not purposeful mass politics. Or else it may be motivated as much by criminal intent as by anything else, e.g. a struggle among opposition movements and drug gangs in Central Asia for control of the routes of the drug trade. Thus, if these parties truly aim to become genuine mass movements as in colonial and post-1954 Vietnam or Kuomintang China they are still at a very early stage of political development. Alternatively their resort to what is old-fashioned brigandage and violence with some modern accretions, i.e. drugs, conspiracy, and terrorism, is their true modus operandi. In the latter case the threat they pose would be no less serious but it would obviously be qualitatively different than the threat of mass uprisings or genuine revolution as in Iran in 1979 or of subsequent examples of "people power".

Likewise, scholars have been citing a religious or Islamic revival in Central Asia for more than a generation. But whatever the dimensions of this religious revival may be, it has yet to translate itself into active mass political opposition or even a mass political movement outside of Iran and perhaps a decade ago in Algeria. Indeed, it is arguable that the resort to terror through Al-Qaida and the reservoir of passive encouragement for it in the Arab world, if not elsewhere, represents a reaction to the utter failure of political Islam to advance its cause through political means and to the dashing of the hopes of yet another ideological movement, imported in no small measure from the West. Even though Islam is the natural language, cultural signifier and religious-ethnic marker for Central Asia it has not yet become a positive force for mass political arousal as opposed to the recruitment of disaffected individuals. Although we would need to distinguish the dimensions of this revival in each Central Asian and perhaps Trans-Caspian state to be sure, it is possible that Islam in certain cases may be a force for quietism, especially if the regime in question, as has been the case with the Soviet regime and the current governments in Central Asia, can co-opt the Muslim clergy and suppress any dissenters. Thus Lyle Goldstein of the Naval War College observes with regard to Central Asia that,

Muslims in Central Asia practice Sufism, a form of moderate Islam, that contrasts directly with Wahhabism, an import from the Arab world. Sufis tend to be alienated by Wahhabi practices, such as unshaven beards and the veil. As opposed to the militant Wahhabi interpretation of jihad, Sufis tend to understand this concept in terms of spiritual self-perfection. Most people in Central Asia are not only Sufis, but Hanafi Sunnis, or followers of the teachings of Imam Abu Hanifa. They take a more accommodating attitude toward political power and do not condone rebellion against established authority. This may help explain why political instability has been relatively rare in post-Soviet Central Asia. Thus it is not very surprising that the IMU threat has been exaggerated and that relatively few fundamentalists have been recruited from Uzbekistan, an alleged hotbed of Islamic radicalism.

There also is survey evidence from Dagestan and Kyrgyzstan that tends to corroborate these findings about the term Wahhabi being understood as signifying a radicalism that many Muslims find unwelcome. Therefore, Goldstein argues, such violence as we find in Central Asia, e.g. Tajikistan’s civil war or ethnic rioting, is largely due to ethnic tensions. Other analysts, to be sure, ascribe violence not only to ethnic cleavages but point also to the consequences of this illegitimate governance and the breakdown of law and order that also finds expression in large-scale criminality.

Obviously a breakdown of governance coupled with ethnic tension can serve by itself to generate mass violence. And equally obviously in other cases, notably the Saudi Wahhabist version of Islam, religious ideology can easily become a revolutionary force. And As Saudi Arabia has poured in large sums of money to post-Soviet Islamic countries poured in to disseminate Wahhabism, we might justifiably be dealing with a revolutionary ideology. But then we have to account for the fact that surveys in both Dagestan and Kyrgyzstan suggest that terms like Wahhabism and appeal to revolt in the name of Islam are perceived as political designations and calls and labels and not primarily as religious ones. Although the language and emotional imagery are theological, in fact religion has been instrumentalized by a mixture of puritanical Islamism and the Tiers-mondialism of the 1960s and 1970s with revolutionary Arab thought and practice dating back to the interwar period. Thus at the roots of these movements we find a commingling of the three anti-democratic or anti-Liberal streams of thought, Leninism, Fascism, and Islam including an Islamicization of Fascism’s cult of heroic death.

Therefore it is not surprising that every regime in Central Asia has branded manifestations of Wahhabism or Salafi Islam as subversive and repressed it. Neither is it surprising that as yet there is no visible mass opposition to America’s presence there. But the key point is that until now none of those manifestations of Islam in the region has sufficed, even in Chechnya, to create a viable mass movement. Therefore it is not sufficient to say that the threat in Central Asia due to the undoubted misrule there must be one of radical Islam even if that ultimately turns out to be the case. It is as likely as not that if mass opposition does arise using the language of Islam, its main purpose is political and it represents a politicization, and hence secularization of Islam behind which new counter-elites can aspire to poser. Religion is at best only one of the factors that will underlie and serious challenge to the status quo. While one short paper cannot settle these questions the purpose here is to raise issues that must be considered in any future analysis.

Central Asian Security Issues

On the other hand, there can be no doubt that the situation in Central Asia is approaching urgency if it is not already urgent. The UN Development Program’s Index shows declines for Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Other forthcoming studies argue that Uzbekistan already is experiencing, if not imminently facing, a major economic crisis that will further devastate its society and economy. Portrayals of Azerbaidzhan also paint a lurid picture of a failing state and society. And the recent elections there cannot inspire too much confidence in the legitimacy or cohesion of Ilham Aliyev’s new regime It also is clear that radical Islamist groups like Hizb-Ut Tahrir and an apparently regenerated IMU and Taleban are waiting in the wings and enjoy considerable outside support. Simultaneously the domestic political situation in many Central Asian and Transcaucasian regimes is precarious and getting worse.

Georgia remains in chaos and its regime has lost any shred of popular support. Politics in Georgia revolves around the question of waiting for President Edvard Shevarnadze to resign. In Azerbaidzhan the resort to a Syrian scenario for the succession to President Heidar Aliyev is has already revealed itself to be fraught with danger. Kazakstan is becoming ever more repressive and corruption trials in America that will surely implicate President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his family will probably further tarnish the regime’s standing and legitimacy. In Uzbekistan widespread rumors allege that President Islam Karimov is suffering from an incurable if slow-acting disease. Yet harsh repression continues with little chance for reform in sight there. And in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan recent trends suggest that local leaders are moving rapidly to get rid of even the minimal opposition they have and make their regimes still more authoritarian thereby. Certainly many of them like Karimov, are in no mood to listen to foreign sermons on democratization. Finally Turkmenistan’s regime has descended into a caricature of Stalinism or what Max Weber called sultanism.

It also is noteworthy that many of these regimes simultaneously depend on outside powers for defending their tenure in office even as they are also at the same time under severe pressure from the same as well as other external actors. The Russian air base at Kant is widely believed to be for training Kyrgyz domestic security and counter-insurgency forces and even for possible use by Russian forces to rebuff President Askar Akayev’s internal and external opponents. Azerbaidzhan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia look to Washington for security and have each tried to obtain binding security guarantees from the United States or NATO. Many of the rulers in these states also simultaneously look to Russia to defend them against both internal and external threats. Turkmenistan’s recent deal on gas with Russia represents its surrender to Russian economic dictation in return for further extension of Niyazov’s powers over the population. Armenia is essentially a Russian client state. Moscow, for its part, has made clear its opposition to "exporting democracy". And it is equally as vocal that fostering these states’ economic or military independence or their ties to other foreign powers clashes with Moscow’s deepest policy goals. Indeed, high Russian officials have made it clear that they want our military presence out of the area as soon as possible and they are also moving to curtail our economic access as well.

At the same time these states are highly suspicious of each other, particularly of Uzbekistan which has unilaterally moved borders, occasionally cut off their power and gas, and which clearly looms as an aspiring regional hegemon vis--vis the other Central Asian states. Thus regional security cooperation, let alone cooperation on vital issues like water, electric power, trade, and energy is elusive and fleeting despite Russian efforts to organize a security system under its auspices. And this disunity continues even as these states are simultaneously menaced by external attempts to unseat their governments. These threats go beyond Pakistan’s and Al-Qaida’s efforts, operating through or with the tolerance of the Taleban. Azerbaidzhan not only fears Russia but also Iran which it accuses of efforts to foment internal unrest as well as to threaten its energy exploration ships.

Russia has planned coups against Georgia, Azerbaidzhan, and more recently Turkmenistan and is the main bastion of support for all the separatist regimes and movements in the Caucasus except the Chechens. Its earlier relationship with the Islamic Movement for Uzbekistan, a known terrorist group affiliated with Al-Qaida, was extremely suspicious and not at all as hostile as one would expect. And even here the relationship between Russia's special services and various Chechen "terrorists" is not one of unvarnished combat since 1994 but rather one that exhibits considerable and frequent long-standing cooperation and protection. Moscow also has become for Central Asian and Caucasian opposition leaders what Miami is for Latin American opposition movements, namely a home base enjoying foreign support. There also are several reports that Moscow is funding the reestablishment of a "new Taleban" force in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its relationship with Turkmenistan shows that its is perfectly willing to work with organized criminal elements to advance its policies in Central Asia. Thus the possibility of covert or even overt Russian or Iranian support for insurgent groups cannot be discounted.

In Russia’s recent gas deal with Turkmenistan the firm chosen to move gas from Turkmenistan to Russia and Ukraine is Trans-Ural, a firm chartered in a Hungarian village named Csadba and headed by one of the most notorious crime lords in Russian organized crime, Semyon Mogilevich. Mogilevich’s firm stands to make from $320 million to $1 billion on this deal. Thus this raises the most disturbing implications. First it attests to the commingling of government, major energy corporations, and criminal enterprises in Russia and to the mutual enrichment of each of these actors at the expense of the citizens of the CIS, not just Russia. As these firms are already contributing significant sums to President Putin’s reelection it is impossible to pretend that he and his colleagues are unaware of Trans-Ural’s background. And given the long-standing ties between Gazprom and Russia's special services, the widely reported collaboration of these institutions with organized crime and Russian energy and other firms that has been widely reported throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and the involvement of those services in the earlier attempted coup in Turkmenistan in 2002, not to mention earlier ones in Georgia and Azerbaidzhan, the implications of this deal become much more stark for all concerned.

Obviously we are seeing in Central Asia the expansion of the similar kinds of relationships between official organizations, business, and criminal networks described by numerous Central and East European observers and officials. We also see graphic evidence of the criminalization of Russian energy policy, the state, and the special services and their mutual collaboration in efforts to impose neo-colonialist economic and political relationships towards Russia upon Central Asian and presumably other CIS governments as well. And it is also clear that the criminalized Russian elite and the criminals have substantial connections within Central Asia that work to attenuate the possibilities of good government. Given other forms of economic pressure possessed by Moscow, Russian efforts to coerce these states through the instigation of popular unrest, -- as Jane’s recently reported about demonstrations in Georgia -- pressure to join Russian dominated defense arrangements, or to submit to Rusian-led monopolies in the energy, defense industrial, and electricity sectors of the economy and the numerous other pressure points throughout these weak states that Russia can access, it is clear that Moscow is playing a very hard version of the great game using time-tested instruments of Russian policy.

Finally it also is conducting a steady military buildup in the Caspian. A report from 2002 observed that,

In the past five years Moscow has reinforced its Caspian Flotilla with new ships, amphibious aircraft, and patrol ship helicopters. Russia has also finished the construction of a military airfield in Kaspiiisk and has deployed a brigade of marines there. And in July, Russia's Caspian Flotilla received its newly commissioned flagship -- the corvette Tatarstan. The commander of the Russian Naval Forces Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, has additionally assured regional ship-builders that a new "state order" is under consideration. "Several dozen more ships will be commissioned, there will be enough work for more than one five-year plan" said Kuroyedov.

Moscow’s unrelenting efforts to create hegemonic military and economic structures and relationships over Central Asia and its reliance upon subversion, support for separatism and insurgency there, suggest that it could provide a strong base of support for allegedly Islamic regimes or movements. Iran’s backing for such organizations in the Middle East is also well known though its polciies in Central Asia since 1991 have been much more circumspect. Such policies are hardly out of character for a government with a long record of fomenting such internecine struggles among the peoples on its borders and in a situation where the multiple organizations of political police have never experienced true democratic reform. Indeed, Karimov repeatedly charged Moscow in 2000-01 of puffing up the Islamic threat in order to gain a pretext for enhancing its position within Central Asia.

Likewise there are pro-Moscow factions who either do or could enjoy support from Moscow if they decided to make a move for power. Those factions go beyond governments in exile in Russia who enjoy the largesse of Russia’s special services. Certainly Russia has frequently tried to install in the "power structures" people loyal to its view of the desired political order. These groups are just the latest manifestation of what the historian of the Tsarist empire John Le Donne calls the client system whereby factions in regimes just over the border attach themselves to Moscow to further their interests as well as Russia’s.

These facts allows us to make certain arguments relating to the question of radical Islamic movements. First of all, regimes all around the Caspian Sea are distinguished by their pervasive misrule in both political and economic issues. This misrule fosters opposition to be sure, but equally, if not importantly, by alienating the population at large, these regimes undermine their own legitimacy and forfeit the possibility of genuine mass support. They also bring about conditions that are all too dangerously conducive to state failure. Second, nationalism may not be as potent a force as was suspected although this remains unproven and a questionable assertion. Third, religion, of its own accord, is also unlikely to be the driver of opposition in Central Asia. And certainly other ideologies of liberation like socialism have long since exhausted their capacity for mobilizing people. As a result there is a profound ideological vacuum which cannot give people a meaningful sense of their social situation or identity, a situation that creates opportunities for insurgent movement since nature abhors a vacuum. This vacuum does create conditions for using traditional Islamic rhetoric to advance a radical political agenda. Third, these regimes therefore attempt to create an invented nationalism or ideological basis for their rule. Uzbekistan’s cult of Tammerlane, Kazakstan’s new nationalism, and Turkmenistan’s cult of personality exemplify this trend toward artificially contrived or imagined nationalisms. But it is unlikely that these ersatz nationalisms overcome the ideological vacuum at the center of all these regimes.

At the same time attempts at religious revival or for the use of Islam for essentially political purposes is another response to this ideological vacuum. Islam may or may not be a vehicle for mass opposition, but it provides at least an alternative ideological framework and language, terms of reference by which opponents may speak to people in terms that still have some resonance in their lives. Thus it is a highly deployable vehicle for identity politics. At least some analysts maintain that for these reasons "Islamism is the most potent ideology of resistance in the world today." Therefore it will remain a threat to the regimes of Central Asia and the Caucasus for a long time even if the issues that may galvanize the Arab world do not have much resonance in Central Asia or Azerbaidzhan, many of whose states welcome Israeli assistance. Moreover, these regimes make clear that in their view Islamic movements are their main enemies. As all the leaders are veteran Communist Apparatchiks who imbibed the viewpoint of "scientific socialism", they have always, and hitherto successfully co-opted religion into the state’s official structure and denuded it of political significance. Accordingly an opposition movement cloaked in Islamic rhetoric and at least the trappings of it may have some limited success in these areas all things being equal.

However such success, if it exists, must be analyzed for each state. The Kazaks and Kyrgyz have never been particularly devout or prone to extremism in the Arab sense. Neither has Azerbaidzhan identified with Arabic culture. Moreover, these peoples look to Turkic models much more than Arab ones. Tajikistan is oriented culturally to Iran, but Iran no longer plays the fundamentalist card and has been outflanked on that issue by the Saudi-inspired Al-Qaida. These facts suggest mass apathy in the struggle to live, not mass mobilization, at least as long as charismatic leaders are absent. But they also suggest that opposition will express itself in the language of traditionalism and find significant resonance among the masses if not active support. Moreover, this opposition is likely to find external support that will make it a constant and real threat to local governments, especially if those governments come into crisis or visibly begin to fail due to succession or other crises. Furthermore, to the extent that evidence suggests that Islamic movements arise where an upward ascent has been checked, it is unlikely that in regimes struggling to survive that Islamism will enjoy mass support.

The Radical threat in Central Asia

Contrary to much of the writing on terrorism, I would argue that these terrorist and insurgent movements cannot flourish without the logistic, financial, intelligence, and military support of external governments, generally neighboring ones, like Pakistan, Iran, or Russia. This was true for Al-Qaida as well. It may be even better for these states if the host regime is weak or even a failing state, but the trappings and shelter provided by a state are of immeasurable value to these organizations. As Ariel Sharon once famously said, terrorism has an address. Nothing in Al-Qaida’s modus operandi has changed that fact for everything it did suggests that it needed either a cooperative or at least oblivious network in a foreign state in order to plan and wait for attacks to materialize. Until now we have seen a greater or lesser readiness of those regimes who have supported terrorist or insurgent movements of "fundamentalist" stripe in and around the Caspian to support various forms of insurgency movements there to leverage their interests. The same holds true for Russia and the Chechens where the relationship between Russia’s police and intelligence agencies and Chechen terrorists which we noted was much more complex and intimate than is reported.

This would suggest that while these movements pose a threat to governments they do so by virtue, not of their mass support, but rather by virtue of their foreign support and ability to build a network of tightly organized, disciplined, and violent cadres who can exploit state weakness or even state failure in these countries. This assessment does not make those movements any less dangerous but it suggests that they are at a very early stage of any attempt to organize a true mass movement and would probably not be very successful at the patient organization of such movements that characterized Ho Chi Minh or Mao Zedong. Nor is it likely that they are even interested in playing this long-term game. Indeed, political organization as such might not even be on their agenda. Their chosen instrument is apparently the "propaganda of the deed" in order to crate chaos, exploit it, and further attenuate the stability of the target regime. They may hope for their chance in the ensuing chaos, but they do not seem interested in mass political organization, an inherently long-term, and very prosaic kind of activity.

Finally we need to remember that there is virtually no possibility of an "Islamist international" despite Al-Qaeda’s efforts to function as a kind of clearing house for Islamic terrorist groups. While all these movements have common antipathies, often speak a similar language and rhetoric, possess a common psychology, and, as shown in the Israeli case, certainly collaborate with each other for the achievement of tactical gains, they also share an abiding inability to forge effective strategic cooperation, long-term rivalries, and intense nationalism which precludes the attainment of Pan-Islamic or Pan-Arab outcomes. Indeed, the latter movement obviously precludes strategic collaboration with the Turkic or Iranian Central Asians. While a Pan-Islamic movement aiming for the return of the Caliphate may ostensibly cast an appeal to all Muslims, it is unlikely that Muslims who have been so thoroughly secularized as have the Central Asians and the Azeris will be very responsive to a cause that they have forsaken for over a century. Moreover, whatever Al-Qaeda may profess, it clearly focuses on a Saudi, Pakistani agenda and is intensely at odds with Iran or has been until now.

What this means is that there is no true unity among various Muslim communities. They may agree more or less on what they hate and fear, though even this is open to dispute, but they certainly cannot put together a coherent Muslim agenda across the former domain of the Caliphate. Even if Al-Qaida is a kind of clearing house for various terrorist groups to come together and plan their attacks, it does not function as Moscow did for international socialism. And given the constant pressure that it now faces, Al-Qaeda may not be able to take on this coordinating role.

Moreover, given the past history of radical Arab and Muslim regimes if one of these groups should come to power chances are it will pursue a very nationalist policy that exploits the rhetoric of Islamism for rather parochial ends. Iran exemplifies this historical pattern. Undoubtedly this new regime will also soon come into conflict with other regimes, Islamic or otherwise, as did Iran. Indeed, two radical Islamic regimes that are adjacent to each other are more likely than not to enter into long-term conflict with each other. While we will confront numerous violent and dangerous snakes, we will not be facing what used to be called the international Communist conspiracy, i.e. a truly disciplined organization with a real headquarters in a single center, but rather something less organized and hence more plastic and elusive. A Muslim international, though it remains Al-Qaida’s main hope, will be at best a decidedly stunted affair, more a band of trans-national terrorists and gangsters masquerading as holy men, not an organized political movement.

Thus we might suggest that the main reason or reasons for opposition in Central Asia and elsewhere is the pervasive misrule, or illegitimate governance that not only perpetuates different forms of despotism but that also creates perpetual economic crisis, mass corruption, pervasive criminality, and vast disparities of wealth while the social safety network collapses. If the situation becomes bad enough we will then probably see all the symptoms of a failing or failed state. Then, and one is tempted to say only then, will mass opposition arise. However, there is no doubt that other forms of opposition will arise before that time as has already happened. And those forms of opposition include terrorism, drug running, kidnapping and other forms of purely criminal activity for profit, and insurgency. But there can be no denying that to some degree much of this kind of violence is rather anomic and not oriented to a political purpose other than with facilitating further such actions, e.g. drug running. To say this is not to deny that the narcotics trade also provides immense funding resources for political movements and insurgents. But we do have to point out that a number of reports of terrorist activities suggested that at least one motivation for the IMU and other such groups’ attacks of 1999-2001 had to do with rivalry for control over drug routes.

There also seems to be no doubt that at least some of this opposition can invoke Islamic rhetoric, symbols, ideologies, etc. even if the aims served thereby have little to do in fact with religion as such but all to do with a rejection of the current status quo including a highly ambivalent view of modernity. Ultimately political Islam drains its message of any but a political context, i.e. violence and power for their own sake. Indeed, at least some commentators on Islamic political movements contend that this has already largely happened in much of the Arab world and that what we are witnessing today arises out of the failure of political Islam.

While opposition groups will arise and at least some of them will assume an Islamic form, they will be limited in their ability to attract mass support and have to depend on continuing foreign backing, criminal activity, terrorism, and violent insurgency in order to accelerate the conditions of state failure which alone might give them an opportunity to seize power. However, it also is possible that if there are disaffected elements in any of these governments with access to the instruments or means by which a coup d’etat can be launched: armies, paramilitary forces, state-run communications, etc. then the possibilities for forging an alliance leading to a coup involving these opposition movements is significant. Lastly, the confluence of external support and ongoing misrule in an environment with little or no concept of Western democracy ensures that these movements will pose a constant danger to local governments because of their propensity to violence and the absence of effective instruments with which to counter them due to that previous misrule.

Thus in the absence of meaningful economic-political change we can expect a continuing amount of opposition expressed often in violent forms and owing as much to internecine struggles among criminal groups, clans, ethnic rivalries and external backers as to terrorists. In actuality it may often be difficult to distinguish between any of these as many people will wear different hats. But the presence of continuing illegitimate governance economic misery, opportunities for violence and criminality, in the form of the drug trade -- which often is an adjunct to or support for corruption of the political process -- and insurgency, and the presence of oppositionist ideologies will ensure ongoing and dangerous threats to local regimes.

The Impact of US Policy and Presence

The American presence in Central Asia constitutes a potential opportunity for radical movements if local governments do indeed fail. Some have opined that in the wake of U.S. deployments to Central Asia that American forces will become the target of Islamic radicals whose motto is death to America or to other similar groups. This has not yet happened and many elites seem to welcome the U.S. presence because it not only prevents terrorism it also offers or seems to promise more economic assistance, represents a check on Russian and Chinese designs, and elevates the importance of the region making these elites feel that their countries are key players at the center of world politics rather than its circumference.

At the same time America has incurred a responsibility due ot its enhanced presence in Central Asia. That presence has obligated U.S. representatives to call more often and more publicly for more democracy and more reforms. But it has also obligated them to balance those calls because this presence in some sense represents and is seen to represent a defense of local governments against terrorism. And since the first priority appears to be the war on terrorism, progress on getting dictators to democratize has been limited. They clearly do not want to do so and see no reason or incentive for doing so. It also must be said that the NGO community pushing for the use of U.S. power to reform Central Asia all too often fails to realize how difficult it is for anyone to persuade these governments to behave differently, especially when they have nearby options of would be protectors like Russia and China who are happy to have them continue in their established ways. Very often major coercion ultimately is the only answer such dictators and thugs understand as in Milosevic’s or Charles Taylor’s cases. And while there are many brave, courageous, attractive and distinguished personages among the opposition movements to these regimes, their future success or commitment to democratic politics is by no means certain. We cannot teach the Central Asians to elect good men or have democracy fall from the sky, especially in current international conditions. Nevertheless the United States is obliged for reasons of interest and conscience to keep advocating reform.

The twin responsibilities of defense and expanded foreign assitance on the one hand and of arguing for reform on the other are facilitated by the opportunities for doing so that U.S. presence gives to America. And it also offers these regimes a chance to pursue options other than that of being Russian or Chinese satellites, an option that consigns them to perpetual backwardness. To be sure, that American presence also facilitates opportunities for U.S. access to Caspian energy and other raw materials, a game in which the United States has so far done well, all things considered.

That success in achieving a substantial economic foothold in the region does, however, open up constructive opportunities for urging greater economic liberalization in order to create conditions that work against an ultimate explosion due to misrule and lack of opportunity. Specifically that economic success gives us opportunities for arguing for property rights and economic liberalization without which no progress towards democracy is sustainable. While economic liberalization is indispensable, and indeed a necessary condition for democracy, it is not sufficient. Although international experience shows that democracy is inconceivable without property rights; establishing them is only a major step toward democracy, not the culmination of the journey.

Clearly domestic forces are too weak to convince local regimes to launch the necessary transformative measures to set this process in motion. Arguably whatever impetus for democratization, or at least for liberalization that ultimately concludes in some recognizable form of democratization, must inevitably come from abroad as internal forces cannot launch the process without foreign assistance. But whatever external impetus might develop cannot offer genuine democracy of its own. It can only stimulate, support, or at best galvanize existing, even if latent, domestic impulses for reform. However, we must also grasp that the opportunities to pursue the U.S.’ agenda of open markets, open polities, and security against terrorism, not least through domestic reform for which American organizations consistently argue, also bring dangers in their wake.

Many of these dangers are well known. First, a large and visible American presence can make that presence a target for and a goad to insurgents who can then ratchet up the violence in the belief that the U.S. leadership and public cannot stand the casualties and costs of what is admittedly a somewhat peripheral theater. This belief that the U.S. has no stomach for war and casualties, dies hard among authoritarians even though there is no evidence for it. And we can be sure that radicals will try to derail any sign of progress lest it undermine their hopes for power. Paradoxically successful reform may initially create more violence in areas that America has taken upon itself to defend. A second danger is that the United States, even if it tries valiantly to impose reforms, will be seen as a support for and pillar of an increasingly despised and decrepit regime as in Iran in 1978-79. If a Central Asian or Transcaucasian ruler spurns U.S. pleas and arguments for reform yet his country fails further and further, radical insurgents, Islamist or others, will exploit that situation against the United States and the government in power. After all, if America is seen as the exemplar and driving force of the forces of globalization and of a cultural invasion of the world beyond its shores, then the perceived failure of globalization or the reaction against it -- not necessarily the same thing -- will drive opposition to America and to the ruling regime as a symbol of corruption, degradation, etc.

This transformative presence of American culture, mores, sexual standards economics, etc. is not something that is under any government's control. Certainly Washington cannot and will not try to prevent it. But it clearly stimulates diverse, ambivalent, but often strong reactions in host countries and not only in Muslim ones. But to the extent that the manifestations of that economic-social-sexual-cultural presence arouse passions in already overly stressed societies then all things American could serve as a negative antipode for the entrepreneurs of identity-based politics like Political Islam. Thus good governance is ultimately a security issue because it reduces the likelihood that the transforming American presence will place excessive stresses upon a society that cannot bear them.

To some degree these risks are unavoidable. Nobody can control globalization or its manifestations and it simultaneously generates new social patterns of both integration and fragmentation within and between states and societies. But those who represent America in countries so different from it must realize that they are constantly under a rather large magnifying glass with more than enough observers on the other side of that glass to make a real difference in local politics. Thus the conduct of troops abroad also plays into this process if there are reasons for unhappiness over their behavior among their hosts.

The American presence can serve to impel societies and states to undertake the kind of reforms that Americans believe will avert failing states and civil violence. The American presence can also ensure defense of the realm against foreign insurgents, terrorists, etc. Yet on the other hand, and particularly if the regime refuses to grasp the need for reforms, that presence can become simultaneously a symbol of oppression or support for it and a symbol of all those forces that have brought about a social situation where "all that is solid melts into air". We have long known that the whirlpool that is contemporary capitalism and globalization is disorienting in the extreme. When vulnerable personalities are caught up in it the results are often tragic and their behavior often becomes anomic, rootless, even violent.

The Trans-Caspian states as a whole are experiencing that disorienting process and we can see the results in all the myriad pathologies of socio-economic-political life there now. But even if the United States might be blamed for the disappointments of freedom and globalization, it cannot and ultimately will not stand aside from the effort to bring both security and liberty to the area. Ultimately not just its values but its interests demand this. And though it will undoubtedly make mistakes and even frequently fail to rise to the occasion or to understand it, that failure does not absolve local governments from their obligations to their peoples. Ultimately America cannot be more of the Uzbek or Kazakh regime than those leaders are now. While it can pressure, cajole, try to persuade, etc., it must first secure those regimes against violence from without before it can persuade the leaders of those states to secure their people, if not themselves, against violence from within.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias