BACKGROUND: Recent reports from German intelligence, foreign journalists, and the publicly announced preparations and exercises of Russia and the Central Asian states all display the expectation of renewed conflict triggered by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Central Asia. If the IMU or other forces trigger a third straight year of war, they might create an enduring basis for long-term small-scale war or worse. There is already enormous destabilizing potential in Central Asia, and prolonged warfare would only add to it. Governments are likely to become even more repressive and further exalt the role of the ‘power ministries’ beyond present high levels. Government spending would become even more skewed, with large increases going to military and police forces. It is also possible that local paramilitaries, like those that predominated in Yugoslavia’s wars, could appear, converting the wars into an opportunity for loot, particularly vis-à-vis the drug trade or energy and raw materials. Most likely the foreign energy producers and foreign governments would also become entangled in these conflicts.
Like the diamond producers in Africa, foreign energy companies might either opt or be forced to pay for protection by one or another armed force if Central Asia becomes a permanent war zone. Or else, if the fighting becomes bad enough they may simply leave the area and consign the region to the tender mercies of Moscow or of other regional strongmen. Since Moscow is not ready to leave its neighboring perch, it will find itself further drawn in to confront what its leaders, probably wrongly, assert is a Muslim terrorist international from Manila to Sarajevo. In that case Moscow’s announced intention to build a 50,000 man contingent for its southern frontiers, its fear of terrorism, especially of an ‘Islamic’ coloration, or of one that can be made to look like Muslim fundamentalism will lead it to believe its own propaganda and discount specialists’ warnings about intervention in Central Asia. Prolonged warfare in Central Asia could thus tempt Moscow into another ruinous engagement with profound and destabilizing possibilities inside Russia itself. Alternatively insurgents and drug dealers might further fuse into a unified movement, a trend that has already been initiated..
IMPLICATIONS: Protracted warfare in Central Asia will probably intensify international competition for influence and access there. Already in 1999-2000 virtually every foreign regime with an interest in Central Asia upgraded its programs for military assistance to local governments against the threat of such outbreaks of war. It is unlikely that if war were to again occur that further pledges would not be forthcoming. But such pledges could embroil those outside governments more politically in Central Asia while paradoxically contributing to the conditions from which war might emerge: repression, misrule, growing poverty and class differentiation, lack of investment, environmental degradation, etc.
As in so many other cases foreign entities might fight over the spoils but the spoils themselves would steadily decline over time. Certainly prospects for vitally needed foreign investment and the assistance of the international economic and financial institutions would dry up if violence took hold on an enduring, long-term basis. In that respect Central Asia, like Afghanistan, could come to resemble the war-torn states of sub-Saharan Africa. And since many powerful states have interests there, it would be difficult indeed to confine prolonged warfare just to one or more corner of those states. One need not postulate a domino theory of Central Asia to see that states enfeebled by corruption, crime, general misrule, repression etc. could easily become long-term war zones and the site of growing international contestation.
CONCLUSIONS: Unless some other method of dealing with real grievances and issues in Central Asia is found, it is quite likely that this year will again be one of war. Under present circumstances, those wars could likely continue into next year and beyond, especially if alternative ways to address real grievances and issues remain stunted. But the longer these wars go on, the less likely it becomes that Central Asia can achieve any kind of reasonable progress towards modernity. While sub-Saharan Africa or the internal dynamics of the Palestinian Authority need not necessarily be the future of the area, we are already too close to those possibilities to be complacent about regional futures and outcomes.
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