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Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia

March 12, 2002
Council on Foreign Relations

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[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

March 12, 2002

On the Record

Speaker: Ahmed Rashid

Presider: Nicholas Platt, President, Asia Society


Ahmed Rashid discussed his new book, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, which charts the spread of militant Islam throughout the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Recent History:

  • Much of the 1917 Russian Revolution was fought in Central Asia; afterward, the Soviets createdfive separate states corresponding to five recreated ethnic groups. These Sovietized ethnic identities, and the version of history that accompanied them, virtually erased Islam from the region’s culture and past.

  • Not until the 1950s and 1960s did an indigenous local elite emerge; because this elite was so late to consolidate, it never experiencedglastnostorperestroika. After the Soviet Union’s disintegration, this elite retained its powers and structures, and underwent little political or economic reform. The “privatization” that did occur amounted to “mafiazation.” No middle class took shape.

  • Over the past decade, many of the region’s professional elite have either left or downgraded to less skilled workin order to survive. The service industries, particularly health and education, have collapsed, andpeople are much worse off than they were in 1991. Unemployment rates are high, and over 60% of the population is under 25.Thesefactors make the regiona breeding ground for fundamentalism.

Lack of political reform:

  • Although Kazakhstan and Kirgizstan nominally allow opposition parties, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan don’t. Overall, the five states provide no outlet for dissidence; in lieu of such an outlet, militant Islamic groups have flourished.

Islam:

  • After 1991, all five states experienced a major Islamic revival, including the import of non-native Islamic ideologies like Wahabbism. The mid-1990s saw further Islamic radicalization, including the formation of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), established in Kabul in 1998 with funding from Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

Relationship with Afghanistan:

  • Weapons and drugs, particularly heroin, are imported from Afghanistan, the region is a major stopping pointfor illegal goods leaving Afghanistan, and there has beena free flow of refugees and militants from Afghanistan into the area.

The U.S. role:

  • The U.S. has presented no coherent aid or economic plan to persuade these societies to reform. Without reform pressure from the U.S., Central Asian states will continue as before—with some cosmetic changes and additionalfunds, but without the legalization of political parties, multiple candidates, or a free press. Any aid introduced into existing channels will only exacerbate the situation.

  • Since 1998, the U.S. has helped train Uzbeks to fight the ISU—but it has not applied any corresponding pressure on Uzbekistan to reform.

  • The U.S. should strategically strengthen weaker powers in the region, particularly Tajikstan and Kirgizstan, so as to prevent Uzbek regional hegemony.

  • Afghanistan’s redevelopmentwill not be successful as long as Central Asia remains a hotbed. The U.S. and its allies should instead pursue abroad, regional redevelopment strategy.

  • The lack of transparency with regard to military base agreements in Central Asia is worrisome; we know comparatively far more about demands the U.S. made to Pakistan, the Philippines, and India.

Russia and China:

  • Russia and China have thus far been silent, but theyaren’t apt to stay silentfor long. The competing interests of Russia, China, and the U.S. could lead to a new, three-cornered Great Game.

  • Sooner or later, Russia’s military, secret service, and oil companies will voice their oppositionto enhanced U.S. presence in Central Assia.

  • China is Central Asia’s largest trading partner, and wants to build oil pipelines from the region. Over time, extended U.S. presence will prove controversial.

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