Across most of America, life is starting to return to normal as the nation absorbs the shock of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and mourns the victims. Not so in the Islamic world. The aftershocks of the disaster--and the certainty of U.S. military retaliation--are aggravating dangerous social, political, and economic fault lines across Central Asia, the Middle East, and even Southeast Asia.
The underlying problems in each region vary radically, and it's sheer coincidence that they're coming to a head now. But the upshot is similar--domestic discontent that increasingly expresses itself in radical religious and political movements. With fragile governments forced to take sides with or against the U.S.-led campaign against terrorist networks, the repercussions could last years.
Prior to September 11, the former communist Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan were struggling to pull out of severe economic contractions and in some cases, political strife. But they were geopolitical backwaters. Now, they're on the front lines of a possible U.S. attack on Afghanistan. Pakistan's pledge to help Washington already is provoking a political backlash. And with Pakistan's mismanaged economy in tatters, any disruption of its $30 billion underground economy could raise temperatures higher. To borrow a cold war term, some of these states could be the next dominos to fall to Islamic extremism.
Tensions are rising even in countries allied with the U.S. Four years after Indonesia's financial collapse, radical Muslim groups threatening to attack Americans now claim thousands of young adherents. And although Saudi Arabia and Kuwait still sit on vast oil wealth and host thousands of U.S. troops, geriatric governments that have failed to set up political successions are producing widespread resentment. All of this makes it imperative that any U.S. military strike cause minimal casualties to civilians. As it is, dealing with the fallout of war in the Muslim world will emerge as one of Washington's biggest foreign policy challenges.
By Pete Engardio in New York