On November 19th, Carnegie Senior Associate, Martha Brill Olcott, held a seminar at the Endowment to discuss her recent trip to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. While in Kyrgyzstan, Olcott was able to meet not only President Askar Akayev but his entire Cabinet as well. In Uzbekistan, Olcott met with numerous representatives from the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and took the time to visit the Ferghana Valley, making a tour of its mosques in continuation of a research project on the resurgence of Islam in the region. Her newest book, Kazakhstan: Unfulfilled Promise, will be published by the Endowment early in 2002.
By way of an introduction to her formal remarks, Martha Olcott proposed three different outcomes that the war on terrorism might bring about in Central Asia. The first, and least likely outcome, could be a fundamental rethinking of the problems of the region. The second, and most likely outcome, could be a temporary amelioration of the key challenges facing the region that would produce a tenuous stability. The third and most frightening outcome of the war on terrorism could be a delayed but serious increase in the security challenges facing the area. In this case, the collapse of two or more Central Asian states could be a possibility. In order to avoid such a horrific outcome, Western policy makers must distinguish between actually solving security problems and simply delaying their impact temporarily.
Addressing the issues surrounding the current war on terrorism, Olcott first pointed out that a military defeat of al-Qaeda and the IMU would probably reduce the role of terror in the region but would not destroy its base. According to Olcott, the main source of funding for these organizations is the drug trade. As long as the drug trade remains viable in the region, these organizations will survive. It is this basic fusion of the drug trade with the IMU that has made the Kyrgyz government pessimistic about the ability of the current bombing campaign to eliminate these terrorist organizations. Any nation-specific approach to the problem is doomed to fail as the flow of drugs can be diverted at will to pass through other states in the region.
On the issue of the U.S. military presence in Central Asia, Olcott observed that the security balance of the region has already been altered. She cautioned that a long-term U.S. presence in Uzbekistan could have a polarizing effect, forcing the U.S. to become a de facto guarantor of the present Uzbek regime. Currently, the economic integration of Central Asia has been stymied by the increase in security threats brought about by the rise of terrorism since 1999. Borders have been frozen and trade in the area has become difficult, if not impossible. In this environment, any major U.S. assistance to the Uzbek military would likely fuel the ambitions of this burgeoning regional hegemon; and in the absence of any effort at economic reform, this could destabilize the entire region.
The centrality of economic development to any U.S. policy towards Central Asia is paramount. According to Olcott, the uneven development of the region is one of the greatest latent threats facing these states. This is especially true of Uzbekistan where little to no reform has been enacted. Unlike Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan where there has been at least some development, Uzbekistan remains mired in its Soviet past much like Turkmenistan. The Uzbek countryside is almost devoid of products for sale and the local populace has been impoverished.
At the same time, the structural capacity of the state has increased. The roads of Uzbekistan are better and the police are more effective. But instead of spurring development, these assets have been used to increase the repressive cababilities of the regime. This is evidenced by the severity of the crackdown on religious training and practice. While the pace of the Islamic revival in the Ferghana valley has been slowed, the regime has been unable to stop the spread of fundamentalism.
The increase in international cooperation since September 11th will make the short-term management of the area easier. This is especially true of the U.S.-Russian dialogue. In Olcott's view, U.S. and Russian interests in the region are neither fully compatible nor incompatible. Any other international players will have less of an interest in actively engaging in the area. According to Olcott, China is not interested in long-term engagement beyond a resolution of the situation in Afghanistan, while Turkey and Iran are not really capable of acting on their own. The role of Europe and Japan in developing the region will be dictated by the amount of economic aid they are willing to bring to the table. These states could be a potentially large source of support for the development of Central Asia, but the level of their interest remains to be seen.
In summation, Martha Olcott offered a short checklist of what the United States must do in order to 'get it right'. First and foremost, Olcott stressed the importance of getting it right in Afghanistan. The goal should not simply be a military victory, there must be some plan to deal both with disarmament as well as the production of drugs. In short, as long as there are armed groups in Afghanistan and a viable drug trade exists, instability will continue.
As regards Central Asia as a whole, according to Olcott, economic development in Uzbekistan is critical. It is economic development that stands the best chance of spurring the sort of institutional reform that many would like to see. Olcott cautioned that human rights should not be forgotten, but that concerns about them may have to take a back seat to economic development. A step by step approach to development in Uzbekistan is necessary, beginning with an emphasis on the economy, pushing for private land ownership and only eventually broadening out to address the issue of human rights.
With this, Martha Olcott concluded her formal remarks and invited questions from the audience. The first of these questions asked Olcott to comment on the relationship between the Northern Alliance and Uzbekistan and, more specifically on perceptions of the Northern Alliance within Uzbekistan itself. In response, Olcott explained that the Northern Alliance and its victory in Afghanistan were not paramount in the thoughts of most Uzbeks. Issues such as the possibility of bombing during Ramadan or the inability of the United States to create a clear distinction between war on the Taliban and war on the Afghan people were of much greater concern. In so much as ethnic rivalry plays a role, Olcott pointed out that the rivalry between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan has been increasing. As Tajiks dominate the Northern Alliance, most Uzbeks remain unsure about how to react to their ascendance to power. For the most part, the Uzbeks desire stability in Afghanistan and realize that Pashtuns will have to be included in any Afghan government in order to achieve this. But more important than ethnic rivalry is the complicity of the Northern Alliance in the cultivation and trade of drugs in Afghanistan. This concerns not only the Uzbek, but also the Kyrgyz government as they fear that a Northern Alliance victory will produce a flood of heroin passing through their states.
Addressing a question on the rise of fundamentalism and militarism in the Ferghana Valley, Olcott admitted that she was at a disadvantage as almost all of the clergy with whom she had cultivated ties in 1992 were no longer there. Most have either been killed, jailed or otherwise repressed by the Uzbek government. But from the contacts that she was able to make during her short stay, Olcott felt that there was a common fear among religious leaders in the valley that the U.S. was getting itself involved in a conflict that it did not fully comprehend. These are not necessarily anti-Western leaders, but there does exist a general perception of struggle between the West and Islam. Olcott also made the point that fundamentalism is not limited to the Ferghana Valley and that Kyrgyzstan, a more open society, felt a much greater degree of concern about the rise of Islamic militancy than Uzbekistan.
In response to a question on the distribution of drug revenues throughout the region, Olcott provided a pointed answer. In Kazakhstan and Russia, the drug trade is the least institutionalized and resides mainly in the hands of organized crime. Corruption is a problem in these countries and official duplicity at some levels is a given, but it is not as wide spread in these countries as elsewhere. Likewise Uzbekistan seems to have effectively kept the drug trade from becoming institutionalized. Kyrgyzstan has not been as successful and its southern regions have become a major problem. Large swaths of territory in the south of Kyrgyztsan have been bought off and have resisted attempts by the central government to reign in drug trafficking activity. The situation is even worse in both Tajikistan, where the drug trade is informally taxed, and Turkmenistan. In point of fact, the former foreign minister of Turkmenistan recently revealed that taxes on the drug trade form a basic part of state revenue and that the Turkmen government had, in the past, maintained an office in Afghanistan in order to collect a percent of the profit on drugs shipped through Turkmenistan. In this environment, the rise of the Northern Alliance could have a multiplier effect, drastically increasing the amount of narcotics flowing through these countries and exacerbating an already pernicious problem.
In conclusion, Olcott was asked to speculate on the positive benefits of a prolonged U.S. presence in the area if, indeed, there could be any. On this point Olcott was quite clear. A U.S. presence in the area would bring positive effects only if accompanied by a co-ordinated economic development plan. As much as it may not want to, the U.S. will have to engage in nation building, this cannot be simply a Department of Defense operation. In carrying out any development, Olcott observed that regional approaches to the issue have been discredited so individual bilateral initiatives with each country must be developed. In essence, separate national recovery programs are needed to bring this region around.
Summary by Karlis Kirsis, Junior Fellow, Russian & Eurasian Program.