Rife with corruption, their impoverished economies are still mostly controlled by the state. In varying degrees, their rulers censor the press, restrict religious worship, and limit political opposition. Before the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, these states won notice in America chiefly from indignant human-rights watchdogs. But now the wheel has turned: The U.S. government is eagerly courting these countries' assistance in its urgent hunt for chief suspect Osama bin Laden in neighboring Afghanistan.
They are "the stans," the five former republics of the Soviet Union in landlocked Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Faced with the threat of Islamic insurgencies from bin Laden-linked groups, the autocrats governing these states are wagering that a decisive U.S. military assault on the bin Laden network--and its Taliban supporters--would bring an elusive security to their own fragile regimes.
And that's why, from their perspective, the sudden and unexpected U.S. interest in their remote patch of the globe--total population 55 million--is welcome. Their chief concern is that a fickle America, after capturing bin Laden, will leave the region helpless to stem festering political and economic ailments. Seeking to reassure the leaders, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld left for a visit to the Middle East and Central Asia on Oct. 2.
ILL-FATED. Early signs are that the formula for cooperation is working well--even though the partners are so vastly different. The U.S., the world's wealthiest country, with a per capita gross domestic product of $36,500, is teaming up with five of the world's less fortunate members, whose average per capita GDP is just $766. Kazakhstan, along with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, both of which have a direct border with Afghanistan, have offered their territories for the basing of U.S. troops. Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan have tendered airspace rights. And even though he's concerned about the U.S. gaining a foothold in a region he views as part of his country's own sphere of interest, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who faces his own bin Laden-linked uprising in Chechnya, has blessed the arrangements.
Uzbekistan's President, Islam A. Karimov, a former communist boss, is extending an especially warm greeting to America. That's no surprise; he may be the region's least secure leader. In February, 1999, he was nearly killed by car bombs in the capital city Tashkent, an assault that probably was the work of a bin Laden-linked group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
Based in Tajikistan and Afghanistan and numbering up to 3,000 guerillas, the IMU advocates Karimov's overthrow. Its aim is to establish strict Islamic law in Uzbekistan, a country of 24 million that is 88% Muslim but lives under secular rule. Uzbekistan, which has an 85-mile border with Afghanistan, was the staging ground for the Soviet Union's ill-fated 1979 invasion of that country.
Now, the same airports that hosted those Soviet troops are accepting C-130 U.S. military cargo planes, according to sources in Tashkent. What's more, the Pentagon is sending to Uzbekistan troops from the Army's 10th Mountain Division. In his Sept. 20 speech to Congress, President George W. Bush handed Karimov a plum: He singled out the IMU as part of bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and ordered a freeze on its assets. "Now, there is a unique chance to destroy the IMU squads," says Alisher Taksanov, an ex-Uzbek Foreign Ministry official in Tashkent. "U.S. policy in Uzbekistan suits Uzbek interests."
Then there's Tajikistan, which serves as the main supply channel for the Russian-backed Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. That coalition, led by ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, is the principal source of military opposition to the Taliban. Torn apart by a civil war between communist and Islamic forces that ignited after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Tajikistan remains host to 17,000 Russian troops. They guard a border that has become a haven for heroin smuggling, one of the nation's only booming businesses. Russian-backed President Imamali Rahmonov hopes America can be a stabilizing influence--and a source of financial aid. On Oct. 2, the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development announced a $13 million loan to Tajikistan to modernize its telecom network--nearly doubling its commitment to that country.
But if the leaders of the Central Asian states are now seeking closer ties with the U.S., their citizens have mixed feelings. Envied as wealthy and powerful, the U.S. also is resented as a meddler in fellow Islamic countries. These sentiments are common not only among the fervently religious but also among secular elites, such as professors. Moscow-based analyst Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center says that on a recent trip to Kyrgyzstan, he encountered widespread anti-Americanism among intellectuals, who called the September 11 attacks "a punishment" for America.
OIL RICHES. One reason America is not better liked is that so few of its riches have made it to Central Asia, which wants to become a new "Silk Road" trade route between Western and Eastern market economies. With the exception of Kazakhstan, which has joined oil majors Chevron Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp. to develop vast oil reserves near the Caspian Sea, the Central Asian nations have attracted scant foreign investment. In Tajikistan, 60% of the population earns less than $7 per month, says the EBRD. In comparatively wealthy Uzbekistan, the average monthly salary is below $50. Families in the fertile Fergana Valley, the most densely populated part of Uzbekistan and the place in which Islamic militants have made the greatest strides, manage by growing their own fruits and vegetables.
Of course, foreign investors have good reason to be wary. Promises of economic reform generally have not materialized. In April, the International Monetary Fund pulled out of Uzbekistan, citing its antimarket policies. Deals in the region hinge less on the rule of law than on the whim of government ministry officials.
It is conceivable that a successful U.S. operation against bin Laden could break this bleak cycle. The most hopeful scenario, sketched by S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, goes like this: The U.S. extracts bin Laden, defeats the Taliban, and a postwar Afghanistan offers a welcome mat to Western investment. New trade routes and energy pipelines open up across the region.
Then, with prodding from the U.S., heavily engaged as an economic partner, the Central Asia states liberalize their economies and political systems. "We have the opportunity, not only to set Afghanistan on a better course but to pull the cork that has bottled up the economies of Central Asia," Starr says. Maybe, but it will be a long, arduous road. For now, mum's the word in Washington on the repressive policies of America's prize recruits in its new global war to defend U.S. liberties.
By Paul Starobin in Moscow