Wednesday, 16 January 2002


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By Stephen Blank (1/16/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: The attacks on America and the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud in September, 2001 have led to a paradox whereby American presence in Central Asia and the broader Muslim world has grown.  Indeed, U.S.

BACKGROUND: The attacks on America and the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud in September, 2001 have led to a paradox whereby American presence in Central Asia and the broader Muslim world has grown.  Indeed, U.S. officials daily speculate in public about attacking Iraq and/or Somalia that could only further deepen this expanded presence. In Uzbekistan. Here Washington’s three year old military presence has grown to include apparent security guarantees and greater economic assistance to Uzbekistan. Beyond giving America air bases and the right to ship relief overland from Uzbekistan into Afghanistan, Uzbekistan’s ruler Islam Karimov has clearly attempted to get economic assistance, security guarantees, and overall American support for his ambitions to be the regional hegemon in Central Asia. Yet while Washington has hitherto provided material support, it has also attached strings to that aid, namely increased American attention to the defects and failings of Karimov’s dictatorship with respect to both political democracy and economic liberalization. This heightened governmental and NGO attention to domestic Uzbek conditions signifies that if the United States seeks security against Islamic terrorism and insurgency, it will increasingly be compelled to advocate radical changes in the domestic governance of Muslim states.  Meanwhile competition with Russia for influence in the Muslim world and in the CIS is growing, not diminishing. Thus Central Asia’s road to democratization and ultimate security is by no means guaranteed. But the heightened American role also carries major risks for both Washington and Tashkent.  Uzbekistan’s ambitions to be the regional hegemon in Central Asia are well known.  It has seized disputed lands from neighboring states, while hardly concealing its greater political ambitions.  At the same time, it is a ruthless dictatorship beset by immense economic, political, and ethnic challenges which it is meeting mainly through coercion and repression. President Karimov openly opposes and denounces Russian domination, and seeks outside support from Washington for both his regime’s internal security and its more expansive designs. Yet he clearly resists undertaking the economic and political reforms that alone would bring greater liberalization and democracy, and ultimately security to Uzbekistan. 

IMPLICATIONS: Washington is under pressure at home from NGOs and from its own perception that looking the other way, as Uzbek officials hope it will do, is a recipe for disaster throughout Central Asia.  Yet simultaneously, as Moscow’s forceful intervention in Afghanistan and open attempts to maintain its hold on Central Asia show, the Russo-American rivalry in Central Asia is merely entering a new phase of rivalry, and not the hoped for Russo-American cooperation.  Washington will thus be torn between its desires to limit Russian influence on the one hand, and both official Washington’s and NGO’s recognition of the immense potential for violence in a continuing and unchanging Uzbek autocracy on the other. While America’s presence is likely to grow in Uzbekistan and elsewhere, it will also inevitably trigger destabilizing influences because of its foreign cultural and economic penetration that will create more pressure on Karimov to reform. Meanwhile, Karimov is likely to try and resist those pressures as best he can.  For instance, just before Secretary of State Colin Powell came to Tashkent, Karimov pushed through “legislation” extending his term at least to 2007 if not for life. The contradictory pressures on U.S.-Uzbek relations in the long run are thus setting the stage for a tenser long-term relationship than might otherwise be imagined, one whose outcome cannot be reliably foretold anytime soon.

CONCLUSIONS: Many wars involve a paradoxical outcome and this war is no exception.  America’s role in Central Asia and the greater Muslim world will grow.  Washington’s greater stake in the Islamic world in general and in Central Asia in particular will oblige it to increasingly take into account the domestic dynamics of these states and strive ever more for their democratization in order to prevent new terrorist attacks against its soil, people, interests, and allies in the long term. Not only does this expanded and deepened U.S. presence in Muslim countries involve an intensification of the rivalry with Russia, China, and perhaps Iran in the so-called new great game, but it could also easily lead to tensions with these states’ rulers who want to perpetuate their authoritarian regimes and gain outside support for themselves and their regional ambitions.  There is no simple way to resolve all these tensions peacefully and amicably. It is hence unlikely that we can point to or expect true stability in Central Asia anytime soon, even under conditions of American leadership.

Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved

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Book S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell, The Long Game on the Silk Road: US and EU Strategy for Central Asia and the Caucasus, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Article Svante E. Cornell, “Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?,” Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.


The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.


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