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Uzbekistan, about the size of California, is the most heavily populated of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, with a population of twenty-five million. It is also the only one that borders on each of the other former Soviet republics in the region, and has a short, eighty-mile border with Afghanistan as well. Some 80 percent of the population is ethnic Uzbek, and eighty-eight percent profess Sunni Islam.

Uzbekistan is a key Central Asian state for several reasons. It too shares the Fergana valley, but with a population more than twice as large as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan together, it clearly is the dominant partner. At the same time, that large population, including as it does many potentially devout Muslims, makes the Uzbek government particularly concerned about Islamic fundamentalism. In fact, an armed Islamic fundamentalist opposition has been active in the Fergana area since 1998. News that Juma Namangani, the leader of that opposition, was killed in the battle for Mazar-i-Sharif was undoubtedly greeted with relief in Tashkent.

Tashkent was the administrative center of Soviet Central Asia, and at independence Uzbekistan had more experienced people, particularly in its armed forces, than any other Central Asian state. Since independence the Uzbek government has been in the forefront of those former Soviet states resisting continued Russian influence and has both sought a "strategic" relationship with the United States and been an active participant in NATO’s "Partnership for Peace." So it’s not surprising that Uzbekistan has become the most active Central Asian partner in the struggle against the Taliban.

The Uzbeks also have numerous ethnic brethren in northern Afghanistan, particularly around Mazar-i-Sharif. The Northern Alliance warlord now in control there, Abdul Rashid Dostum, a general in the Soviet-backed Afghan army until he defected to the Mujahedeen, is an ethnic Uzbek, although his ties in the years since his expulsion by the Taliban have largely been with Turkey. Like the Tajiks, the Uzbeks will support an Afghan solution that protects their ethnic cousins. However, unlike the other former Soviet republics in the region, which are primarily interested in preserving their own independence, the Uzbeks may have broader ambitions. The country’s national hero is Tamerlane, honored as the ostensible founder of an expansive Uzbek empire. Not surprisingly, that image and the specter of resurgent, aggressive Uzbek nationalism are not viewed with equanimity by the country’s neighbors.

Turkmenistan is in many ways the odd man out of Central Asia. Just a little larger in area than Uzbekistan, its population is about 4.5 million, a majority of whom still live on cooperativeformerly collective or statefarms. Turkmenistan shares a 600-mile border with Iran and a 450-mile border with Afghanistan.

Above:Amb. Mike Cotter and His Excellency Saparmurat Niyazov, President of Turkmenistan.
The Turkmen, notoriously aggressive nomads through much of their history, were the last groups to be conquered by the Russians during their expansion in Central Asia, not succumbing until 1880. Seventy-seven percent of the population is ethnic Turkmen and another twelve percent ethnic Uzbek. Although eighty-nine percent profess Islam, the Turkmen government does not appear concerned about the potential impact of fundamentalism. The nomadic Turkmen were never very devout Muslims, and, in fact, retain much Zoroastrianism in their beliefs. They are, therefore, much less susceptible to fundamentalist blandishments than their more devout, sedentary neighbors in and around the Fergana Valley. Unlike Uzbekistan, whose major cities of Samarkand and Bokhara have great historical significance for Muslims and other countries in the region that might harbor imperial dreams, Turkmenistan’s arid, lightly populated territory is much less attractive to either fundamentalists or would-be imperialists.

Nonetheless, surrounded by larger, more populous countries that might covet its energy resources, and left with a weak, poorly-led military after independence, in 1996 the Turkmen Government declared the country to be neutral and gained UN General Assembly endorsement of that status. The Turkmen have maintained their neutral status quite successfully. They insisted all along that the Taliban did not represent a security threat, and Turkmenistan was the only country in the area that enjoyed good working relationships with both the Taliban and the northern alliance, trading openly with both.

A park in Ashgabat
The Turkmen do have interests in a stable, peaceful Afghanistan. An estimated 1.5 million of their ethnic brethren live there, although in most Western media they are lumped together with the Uzbeks (since the Persian Tajiks and the Pashtun see both simply as "Turks"). Western Afghanistan is also the best route for the export of Turkmenistan’s significant natural gas reserves to Pakistan and India. The same route would provide a short, cheap way to get Kazakhstani oil to markets in East Asia.

The Turkmen have maintained a friendly, but largely arms-length relationship with the United States. While they nominally support the anti-Taliban coalition, they have not offered much in the way of concrete support in spite of their long border with Afghanistan. However, the Turkmen are more likely to offer their capital, Ashgabat, as a neutral site acceptable to all factions for discussions to work out a new government for Afghanistan.

Iran will be a key player in any Afghan solution. In fact, although Americans tend to see Iran as a Middle-Eastern country because of its role in oil production as well as its tendentious relations with Iraq and Israel, Iran is preeminently a Central Asian country. The size of Alaska, it has borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan in the region. Only about 51 percent of the population is Persian, with a wide variety of other ethnic groups represented as well. Some 58 percent speak Persian as a mother tongue, with 25 percent speaking a Turkic language.

Although its identity as the preeminent Shi’a Muslim nation is important to Iran, and its immediate interest in an Afghan solution is the protection of the fellow-Shi’a Hazara groups there, when it comes to its relations with Central Asia we need to think of imperial Persia rather than black-clad Mullahs. The Iranians have a strong sense of their identity and past and see themselves as the natural heirs of a leadership role in the region.

Iran has a long list of goals in Afghanistan. In addition to ensuring that Hazara interests are accommodated, another short-term Iranian goal is for Afghanistan to be stable enough to permit the 1.5 to 2 million refugees now in Iran to return home. A longer-term goal is to prevent Russia, Pakistan or Turkey from dominating the region and its resources. Iran’s perspective is complicated by the fact that Central Asian energy competes with its own resources. The Iranians have plans to build oil and gas pipelines to Pakistan and India that would compete with pipelines from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Finally, Iran, like Russia, wants to ensure that the United States does not remain a dominant player in whatever new order emerges in the region.

The antagonistic U.S.-Iran relationship will complicate the search for an equitable solution in Afghanistan. However, the fact that Iran objects to United States presence in the region and supports Hezbollah against Israel does not mean that it condones Osama bin Laden or the Taliban, as both represent a Sunni form of Islamic fundamentalism that is anathema to the Iranians. As difficult as it is for the United States to engage Iran, it is probably even more difficult for the Iranians to cast aside their fear and hatred of the United States to work closely with it on a solution for Afghanistan. Any mutual cooperation will probably have to be through the U.N.

Turning to Afghanistan itself, the country is the size of Texas, and is bordered by Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. It is home to a complex mix of ethnic groups, reflecting its complicated history. Of Afghanistan’s approximately twenty-six million people, thirty-eight percent are Pashtun, twenty-five percent Tajik, nineteen percent Hazara, six percent Uzbek, and twelve percent minor ethnic groups including Turkmen and Baluchis. Eighty-four percent of Afghans are Sunni Muslims and fifteen percent Shi’a. Although most Afghans speak more than one language, Dari (Afghan Persian) is the mother tongue of fifty percent of the people, Pashto of thirty-five percent, Turkic languages (primarily Uzbek and Turkmen) of eleven percent, and some thirty minor languages are spoken by four percent.

Historically, loyalties in Afghanistan lie primarily with the clan and tribe, a situation only reinforced after two decades of war. After successfully expelling the Soviets, the Mujahedeen leadership broke down into squabbling factions largely along ethnic and regional lines. Pashtun clans supported various warlords; Ismail Khan, a Tajik, ruled (and apparently rules again) in Herat; Uzbek areas were and are dominated by Abdul Rashid Dostum; Hazara loyalties were divided among several leaders; and the Tajiks were under Ahmed Shah Masood. The nominal government in Kabul, led by Burhannudin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik, governed little, reducing life in Kabul to chaos.

The Taliban arose as a reaction to this chaotic situation and with the active support of Pakistan, which feared that the non-Pashtun groups and their presumed backers in Moscow and Tehran would dominate Afghanistan. Over time, primarily by establishing peace in areas under their control and exploiting the venality of other leaders, the Taliban were able to extend their control over 90 percent of the country.

During the course of Taliban expansion a familiar pattern emerged: when one side felt it had the advantage it refused to negotiate a solution, while the weaker side sought international mediation. And the relative strength of the two sides changed repeatedly, often depending on the arrival of arms and military equipment from external supporters. None of the contending leaders covered themselves with glory during this struggle. Ahmed Shah Masood, for instance, was not considered a great Afghan hero, but rather simply the last of the ethnic warlords to resist the Taliban, able to do so only because of the impossible terrain in his base area and support from Russia, Tajikistan and Iran.

Nor have the Taliban lent themselves to easy definition apart from the fact that they were largely from Pashtun clans. Indeed, even when they controlled 90 percent of Afghanistan it was impossible to identify a coherent Taliban government structure. Mullah Omar, as an example, never became a formal head of state, simply referring to himself as "Commander of the Faithful." As Pashtun leaders now quickly abandon the Taliban and come to terms with the Northern Alliance, eliminating the Taliban appears to be coming down to capturing or killing Mullah Omar, some of his assistants, and the hard-core "Arab Afghans."

The implications of the current conflict in for the United States and the rest of the world go far beyond the narrow goal of eliminating Al Qaeda and the regime harboring it. Of primary concern must be the future of the Asian heartland for this century and beyond. Identifying and achieving an acceptable stability in that region will be at least as difficult as the war against terrorism, but has even greater implications for world peace.

One thing the events of the past two and one-half months have made abundantly clear is the fact that the United States cannot avoid playing an active and activist role in the world. Isolationism is simply not an alternative. Equally clear after the second effort in a decade to organize an international coalition against an international threat, is that unilateralism cannot form the basis of United States foreign policy. Just as the United States wants and needs the cooperation of other countries to achieve its national goals, so Americans must be willing to understand their goals and help achieve them whether they coincide with ours or not. Nowhere in the world will the United States need to work more closely with others, and nowhere will doing so be as difficult, as in Central Asia.

From the "Great Game" of the nineteenthth century until the end of the Cold War, Central Asia was in many ways frozen, its countries pawns on the chessboard on which great powers determined the fate of the world. Even then Afghanistan was practically unique as a buffer state that managed to maintain its independence almost to the end. After the demise of the USSR, the United States failed to foresee the impact that major world event would have on Central Asia or the importance Central Asia could have for its national security. American inability or unwillingness to exercise a dominant role in the region left the field open for competition among the regional powers. In effect the stage is set for a new "Great Game" there, of which the current Afghan conflict is but act one. The players in that competition share a common political goal of replacing the vacuum at its center that Afghanistan has become with something more stable, but each wants the replacement to favor its national interests and, in some cases, hopes to thwart the ambitions of others. Also, all of the regional countries covet the significant natural resources of the former Soviet republics.

With the elimination of the Taliban practically a foregone conclusion, the issue is what will replace it. While the outcome remains murky, two points do seem pretty obvious: first, a successful government will have to take into account and respect the interests and customs of Afghanistan’s various ethnic groups. We know such a government is possible, because they have existed in the past. Second, foreign presence in, or obvious hand behind, any government will inevitably doom it. The one thing that brings Afghans together is their hatred of foreign meddling in their affairs. Beyond that is anyone’s guess. The op-ed section of The Washington Post of November 18 featured four articles by regional experts each of whom espoused a different solution as the only one possible.

One issue is whether the solution lies with leaders who have remained in Afghanistan or with exiles such as the ex-king. The former may have been so corrupted and radicalized that they cannot cooperate; the latter may be too isolated from Afghan reality, resented by those who have fought the battles, and, in the case of the king, be too old to play a role.

A second issue, and one that also involves the question of foreign interference, is what kind of rights different segments of Afghan society will enjoy. The group receiving most international attention these days is women. Although women in some ethnic groups, principally the Turkic minorities, enjoy significant freedoms, the same is not true in Pashtun and some Tajik areas. Afghans are likely to resist heavy-handed efforts by the international community to accord women the rights they enjoy in western societies or to impose other "modern" social standards on these traditional, conservative cultures.

The most likely scenario for a successful Afghan government is probably a form of federal system, with limited powers accorded to the central government and regional authorities organized along geographic and ethnic lines given wide authority over local matters. The problem will lie in finding leaders at all levels who are not fatally tainted by previous actions and associations. Again, a heavy foreign hand in imposing leaders would doom a new government.

In spite of their distrust of foreigners, however, the Afghans at this point have no choice but to accept significant foreign assistance in feeding the population and rebuilding the economy and infrastructure. Inevitably that assistance will come with strings, which may include a ban on poppy cultivation as well as increased rights for women. The most effective way for international assistance and advice to be channeled to Afghanistan will be through the United Nations, doled out by UN staff who are not from the United States or any of Afghanistan’s neighbors.

Although this article has focused on the Afghan conflict in its regional context, it is worth a few words to place events in Afghanistan in a broader context of changes occurring around the world. Rather than being unique, the recent course of events in Afghanistan has parallels in other parts of the world, where the end of the bipolar Cold War conflict also has left societies searching to recreate lost identities or forge new ones. From the Balkans to the Congo and Somalia to Indonesia political structures in multi-ethnic societies breaking down. Experience in those other areas argues for exercising caution in imposing solutions from the outside, however brutal the consequences of inaction might be. The cost in human and financial terms for the United States alone or the West as a whole to impose a new worldwide order would clearly exceed the tolerance of public opinion in those countries.

Yet Afghanistan is different from seemingly similar conflicts elsewhere in the world because its internal conflict has become identified with a broader sense of unhappiness with Western cultural influence. While conflicts in Somalia and Sudan, to use examples of other Muslim (or partially Muslim) societies that are undergoing civil strife, focus on local political differences and have not threatened to place the West in conflict with Islam, the Afghan situation has taken on that coloration. In part because it began not as an internal conflict, but as the latest in a long line of Afghan efforts to throw off foreign occupiers, the conflict always was focused on outsiders. But, unlike the Afghan wars against Great Britain that were nationalist in nature, a new factor was present this timethe resurgence of Islam that began with the Iranian revolution in 1979. Shi’a Iran’s declaration of independence and religious superiority caught the imagination of Sunni Muslims as well. And, in fact, it probably led fundamentalist Sunni Islamic groups, primarily in Saudi Arabia, to promote their own ideas more aggressively, in part to counter the Shi’a.

So the Soviet war in Afghanistan became a focal point for Muslims eager to fight the infidel. The West, and particularly the United States, seeing the vulnerability of the USSR and convinced that Afghanistan could become its Vietnam, actively supported the opposition, turning a blind eye to longer-term consequences that now become painfully apparent. I do not mean to imply that we were wrong. Defeating world communism was an overriding concern, and United States success in that effort remains a significant victory for human freedom worldwide. Nor did Americans close our eyes to the fact that the defeat of communism would mean many changes in the world as it groped for what President George Bush senior called a "New World Order." Clearly, however, longer-range vision has been less than perfect.

So now the United States is engaged in a war against terrorism and facing a new challenge in Afghanistan. Policy choices are being made on a daily basis that will have long-term consequences. While they cannot be readily identified today, there is no doubt that they will have enormous implications for the world as a whole. Meeting the challenges they pose is likely to require as firm and lengthy a United States national commitment as did the challenge of defeating the "–isms" of the twentiethth century.


Ambassador Cotter served as a career U. S. diplomat from 1970 to 1998, serving at eight posts abroad, including three in Vietnam. He holds a B. A. from Georgetown University and graduate degrees from the University of Michigan Law School and Stanford University. In retirement he takes an active role on the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers.

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