Sunday, March 7, 2010

Hunting Central Asia's phantoms

The U.S. is set to open a $5.5 million anti-terror training facility in Kyrgyzstan's Batken province, Eurasianet reports. The center, which will match a similar, extant Russian effort, is a continuation of American policy in supporting the Central Asian state in its crusade against perceived terrorist threats. Yet aid should not have an exclusively anti-terrorist purpose. If conditions in Kyrgyzstan are to improve and terror threats are to be stymied, infrastructure development and government transparency must be focal points.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev raised the specter of an Islamic insurrection following a series of small-scale clashes last year. Tajikistan witnessed similar problems in 2009, although the violence is a far cry from the scale reached during the height of the Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan's raids of the early 2000s. Bakiev, however, must not take a page from Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov's playbook. Karimov, worried about the expansion of the IMU, engaged in an anti-opposition campaign that jailed anyone remotely too Islamic, including members of Hizb ut-Tahir, an international secret society devoted toward establishing a global Sunni caliphate through nonviolent means. Veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid speculated that had Islamic movements been allowed in Uzbekistan's political mainstream instead of actively persecuted, there would have been less room for armed Islamic opposition to be legitimized.

There are signs Bakiev, who was initially hailed as a democratic reformer in the wake of the Tulip Revolutin, may already be doing this. Bakiev has used this specter in part to increase his control over state security apparatuses, while restructuring the government to afford him the power to dissolve parliament as necessary. These have coincided with a spate of violence previously unseen in the republic. Journalists and opposition members have become victims of brutal attacks, some of which have proven fatal. Of recent note is the case of Gennady Pavyluk, an ethnic Russian Kyrgyz journalist who was thrown from the sixth floor of an apartment building in neighboring Kazakhstan.

For its part, the proposed base opening represents no shift in U.S. policy. When Russia's bribes threatened the closure of the Manas Air Base, Obama wrote Bakiev a letter praising his contributions to the war on terror – yet his own domestic abuses are seldom mentioned by the U.S. administration. While State Department officials have acknowledged some human-rights violations, the government has taken few active steps in denouncing them. Even so, pressuring Bakiev to change course through incentives with strings attached would likely just push the nation more toward the Russian sphere of influence.

To complicate matters, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 forced a politically rooted realignment of irrigation channels and power grids in the former Soviet republics, leading to the rapid desertification of the Aral Sea in the 1990s and creating power struggles that have left swaths of people periodically in the dark. Energy woes and water scarcity, compounded by endemic corruption and a lack of basic education and healthcare, could lead to serious destabilization in neighboring Tajikistan, a conclusion recently reached by the International Crisis Group and the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw.

Kyrgyzstan must be prepared to deal with an influx of refugees across its porously bordered Ferghana Valley should that occur, while simultaneously shielding its own populace from the possibility of state failure. Doing this will require constructive foreign aid, government openness and infrastructure improvement, all of which will continue to elude the Central Asian republic should it keep chasing ghosts, be they among its urban civil society or in its rural mosques.

For the benefit of Kyrgyzstan and regional security, international efforts must be made to focus on civilian aid and infrastructure improvement. The U.S. must focus less on countering Russian defensive contributions tit-for-tat, and instead on distributing to Kyrgyzstan the medical, educational and utility-repair and construction resources necessary to ensure a stable civil society. Such improvements will elevate the standard of living while undermining Islamist recruiting clarions. Any long-lasting, significant effort will require government initiative and support. Bakiev must allow for the proliferation of peaceful Islam, which has experienced a noted resurgence in the Central Asian republics since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The democratic entrance of the Islamic Renaissance Party in the political dialog of Tajikistan should be evidence of Islam's possible integration into politics – yet it took a vicious civil war to illustrate this to the Tajik opposition. Hopefully Bakiev will not continue wielding such a heavy hand in coming years, lest his policies provide the breeding ground for an inchoate insurrection.

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