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Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago

[04.04.23] Iraq War Prompts Most Central Asian Leaders To Reevaluate US Ties

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, most Central Asian countries welcomed stronger strategic ties to the United States, hoping in part that such cooperation would lead to greater US economic assistance. Now, just weeks after the start of the Iraq war, leaders of Central Asian states, with the exception of Uzbekistan, seem to be re-evaluating their relationship with Washington. Concern appears to be growing in Central Asia that US action in Iraq will do more to destabilize the region than to promote prosperity.
Tajikistan offers a case in point. Before the start of the US military campaign to oust Saddam Hussein, Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov was steering government policy increasingly in a pro-American direction, slowly trying to diminish Tajikistan's strategic dependence on Russia. Soon after the start of the US march towards Baghdad, however, Rahmonov's rhetoric began to change"Continued military action in Iraq will result in humanitarian crisis in the region," he said at a news conference in Dushanbe recently Economists say Tajikistan is already facing the first economic implications of war - prices for gasoline have risen as much as 15% since the start of military operations in Iraq
A major concern among many regional officials and experts is that a humanitarian crisis in Iraq will obscure Central Asia's own desperate needs. Iraq's higher profile will naturally give it greater priority, potentially siphoning critical international resources from Central Asia.
Afghanistan remains far from a stable country, and thus continues to pose a major security threat for the entire region. Among the biggest threats is Afghan drug production. The interim Afghan administration of Hamid Karzai has been ineffective in curbing poppy cultivation. As a result, Afghanistan still produces up to 70% of the global share of heroin
At the heart of Central Asian concerns about the future are questions about the reliability of the US commitment to regional security. Many policy makers and political experts say the US approach on the Iraq issue is fuelling an impression that the Bush administration is both arrogant and unpredictable, and therefore potentially harmful to Central Asia's interests. That perception is helping to foster anti-American attitudes across Central Asia.
In Kazakhstan, the Bush administration is coming under severe criticism from some local media outlets. "President Bush is saying loudly that the war will not end until the Iraqi people become free. The export of American-style democracy, on the wings of a laser-guided Tomahawk can only free the people of their lives," said an April 2 commentary posted on the Ekspress-K web site. "Current American aggression does not recognize any international rules or laws."
Meanwhile, Ibragim Rustambek, in a commentary published in Argumenty & Fakty Kyrgyzstan, argued the Bush administration's Iraq policy is likely to culminate in a rise of Islamic radicalism and terrorism. "By unleashing the war in Iraq, the United States comes across as the principle aggressor in the modern world," Rustambek wrote. "Bush and company have involuntarily opened up a 'second front' inside America itself, giving a free hand to new extremists, who may make [Osama] bin Laden's intrigues seem like the pranks of a dilettante."
"The occupation of Iraq will provoke a chain reaction of conflicts in a variety of regions, including Central Asia," Rustambek continued. "The war in Iraq is a challenge to the Muslim world and to states and peoples who do not want the American lifestyle. Iraq may be followed by Iran, North Korea and the countries of the former Soviet Union."
Washington's only steadfast supporter in Central Asia is Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov insists on the need to oust Saddam Hussein from power. "If tomorrow Saddam Hussein gets hold of weapons of mass destruction, who will then stand up to him?" Karimov states.
Regional experts note, however, that Uzbekistan's strategic value for the United States may be diminishing. Stability in Uzbekistan is increasingly threatened by economic contraction, and Karimov's administration has so far refused to implement the needed reformsIn addition, Uzbekistan has implemented unilateral projectionist trade measures that have fueled antagonism with virtually all of its neighbors.
By Konstantin Parshin, Eurasianet, April 04, 2003

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