There is a new geopolitical reality evolving in Central and Southwestern Asia. It is neither the "new Great Game," which some forecast when the USSR dissolved, nor the struggle between political Islam and secularism, which some in Moscow long tried to portray, nor even just the complexity of "pipeline politics" some have suggested. Nor is it the result of some brilliant Machiavellian scheme hatched in Moscow or Washington or Tehran or Islamabad, which many in the region find a useful explanation. In an area where complex imperial schemes are a familiar part of the historical record and suspicion of external influence runs deep, it comes as little surprise that, while some seek simple paradigms of"new great games" and others look for lurking conspirators in every mountain valley, the reality is that in Central and Southwestern Asia, which increasingly must be considered a single historically and culturally linked unit once again, a great many games, both great and small, are being played.
This article is not intended as a comprehensive description of the new geopolitics. I will instead offer some observations which, it is hoped, will provide a counterbalance to some of the stereotypes of recent years and offer a more complex framework for analyzing the ongoing situation.
Perhaps the centerpiece of the new geopolitics is the increasing linkage of the two civil wars that have wracked the area, those in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. More and more, they begin to look like two old conflicts merged onto one new battlefield. But not only have external players become involved (hardly news in Afghanistan, anyway), but the issues involved spill over into a much broader region, involving ethnic politics, border disputes, the control of future pipeline routes, and much more. In some ways, such longstanding and seemingly separate issues as the Kashmir dispute can easily be drawn onto the broader playing field as well.
An example of how the current situation defies traditional categories may be found in the de facto coalition that has emerged in the wake of the conquest of two-thirds of Afghanistan by the curious movement known as the Taliban. The Taliban are usually described in Western media reports as "Islamic fundamentalists." Yet no neighboring country is more opposed to their progress at the moment than Iran, while the United States has been studiously quiet about their successes. In fact, Iran has found itself part of an operational anti-Taliban alliance with Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, all of whose governments were, just a few years ago, boasting that they were the last bastion of secularism against an Iranian thrust into Central Asia. And one country, Turkmenistan, which is every bit as secularist as its Central Asian neighbors, is much more tolerant of the advances of the Taliban and has not joined the curious alliance which includes both Russia and Iran. If any more ironies were needed, the famous Afghan mujahid Ahmad Shah Masoud, who as the "Lion of the Panjshir" was the most successful of the field commanders against the Soviet Union's forces in Afghanistan, is today being supplied and armed through a former Soviet base in Tajikistan, with at least some of the funding for that armament coming from Russia.
What has happened here? Clearly, the early, post-Soviet paradigms have not been borne out. This is not a competition between Iran and secularism, because the Iranians and secularists are on the same side in at least one case, the alliance against the Taliban. That alliance has helped bring about a still very fragile peace agreement in the Tajik civil war as well.
The current curious alignments in Central and Southwestern Asia may best be understood as the result of a number of sometimes competing, sometimes complementary rivalries and processes that do not lend themselves to simplistic analysis. Precisely because this part of the world rarely captures the attention of the Western nonspecialist, the tendency to seek a simplistic analysis - a "Great Game" or Islam-versus-secularism paradigm - is even greater than would be the case in a more closely watched region.
Although some analysts do pay attention to these developments, a sort of bureaucratic inertia has meant that for many Western foreign ministries, the areas in question are still handled by two or even three different departments: the Middle East, sometimes South Asia, and the Former Soviet Union (or Newly Independent States or Commonwealth of Independent States, depending on the agency's preferred usage). But geopolitical reality is evolving faster than bureaucratic organization. This is, on a macro scale, the same sort of problem that exists regionally on a micro scale: many historical units are divided by boundaries reflecting neither ethnic nor cultural lines, but old colonial boundaries. The Ferghana Valley in Central Asia, one of history's great cultural units, is divided among Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The area known as Azerbaijan historically is divided between Iran, which by most reckonings is clearly part of the Middle East, and the Azerbaijan Republic, which according to most foreign ministries these days is part of Europe.
Let us briefly look at some of the failed efforts to come up with a shorthand explanation of the evolving geopolitics of the region. When the Soviet Union unraveled in 1991 and the states of Central Asia became independent, it was fashionable for a time to talk about a new Great Game in Central Asia, alluding to the British term for the competition between Imperial Russia and British India for territory in the heart of Asia in the nineteenth century. Many Central Asia experts were quick to warn against using such a loaded term; after all, the age of empires was past, and the situation in the wake of the Soviet collapse was anything but bipolar.
Despite such warnings, there were those who tried to portray the new situation in Central Asia as a different sort of polarized conflict: that between "Islamic fundamentalism" and secularism. This refrain is still beard occasionally, but not so frequently as was once the case, especially since generally pro-Western Pakistan tacitly supported the rise of the Taliban while Iran has opposed it. Attempts by Moscow and its allies in the CIS to portray the civil war in Tajikistan as- a war between secularists and Islamists had some success, but its credibility has faded as the nature of that war has changed.
Another early paradigm was to see the Republic of Turkey as a natural champion of secularism in Central Asia. After all, the Central Asians spoke Turkic languages and had a secular heritage, so Turkey would be the natural ally against Iranian-backed Islamist movements. Although Turkish television and other cultural presence has had some effect, Turkey has not transformed the Central Asian scene; today, with Necmettin Erbakan in power in Turkey, political Islam is stronger in Ankara than in any Central Asian capital.
More recently, the Taliban in Afghanistan have been pictured as an "Islamic fundamentalist" movement. After all, they ordered women off the street. Yet the Taliban were being tacitly supported by Pakistan at a time when Benazir Bhutto was its prime minister, and they are openly opposed by Iran, most Westerners' stereotype of an "Islamic fundamentalist" country. A full analysis of why none of these convenient shorthand paradigms worked to explain how the situations in Tajikistan and Afghanistan merged and came to involve so many different elements would require analyses of both wars and of the policies of a dozen states.
That will not be attempted here. However, the present situation will make more sense, and the future will hold fewer surprises, if a few key but often missed points are noted.
1. Historical, cultural and ethnic links between formerly Soviet Central Asia and its neighbors to the south run much deeper than many realized. Central Asia and the great Silk Road cities were once part of the core area of Islamic civilization, and particularly of the Persian cultural area within it. Despite seven decades of attempts to create the New Soviet Man, the deeper cultural memories have not been forgotten. Ethnic and cultural loyalties across national boundaries, never really absent, are reawakening.
2. The links between the Tajik and Afghan wars are not purely the product of the period since the fall of the Soviet Union. They began during the Afghan Soviet war. During the long war between the mujahidin and the Soviets, Soviet Central Asians sometimes served in Afghanistan, discovering themselves among their ethnic compatriots, while the mujahidin sometimes carried out missions inside Tajikistan or Uzbekistan through their ability to pass as locals. Ethnically based interaction across the border began then, and it is little surprise that today Tajiks in Tajikistan support Tajiks in Afghanistan, or Uzbeks in Uzbekistan support General Abdul Rashid Dostam's Uzbek militia in northwestern Afghanistan.
3. Islam has always been a "nationalist" rallying point in Central Asia, but not in the modern, urban, political Islamist sense. Whether in the Afghan wars against the British, the long resistance to Russian expansion in Central Asia, or the Basmachi revolt in the 1920s and 1930s against the Bolsheviks, Islam has always had a powerful role as a rallying symbol against the non-Muslim outsider. It was a common badge for the Persian speakers of the cities as well as the Turkic or Pushtun-speakers of the countryside.
Often the Sufi orders provided the instrument and the organizational structure for these movements. There is evidence that they still do. But when most people think of "Islamic fundamentalism," they mean the modem, urban-based movements of political Islam, almost all of which denounce the Sufi brotherhoods as heterodox and dangerous, and which have very different social roots. Islamic resistance in Afghanistan and Central Asia has traditionally been more traditional, more rural and more tribal.
4. It is a fundamental mistake to consider the Tajik civil war a conflict between Islam and secularism. It is a rivalry of regions. Most press accounts of the Tajik civil war have presented it more or less as the factions sought to present it themselves: after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a coalition of Islamic and democratic forces won elections against the Communist old guard. But in subsequent fighting, in 1993, Russia and Uzbekistan directly intervened to support the old Communist side and drive out the Islamic and democratic forces, in part in the name of combating "Muslim fundamentalism." In the civil war that has followed, Islamic forces supported from Afghanistan have fought the central government forces backed by Russia. Now, the two sides have agreed to a power-sharing agreement that may bring peace.
The reality is much more complex. Tajiks and Russians dealing with Tajikistan often speak of "clans," but they mean not kinship groups but regionally-based elites. The old nomenklaturas of the Soviet era were always delicately balanced among the several different regions of Tajikistan. In the civil war, the "clans" of Dushanbe, Garm and Gomo-Badakhshan (the lightly populated region of the Pamirs in the eastern half of the country) supported the Islamic and democratic forces, or more precisely, were those forces. The "clans" of Kulyab, Kurgan-Tyube and Khojent (Leninabad) represented the Russian backed side. There have been many failings-out on either side of the fence. As the civil war has continued, the "government" side in particular has fragmented, with regionally-based warlords having much more power than the central government itself. An Afghan-style warlordism has emerged, and the fundamental challenge to the power sharing agreements reached earlier this year is the fact that it really envisions the sharing of power by two sides, rather than by the confusing mosaic of local authorities that has arisen.
5. The Taliban are not an Islamist movement in the usual sense, but a Pushtun traditionalist movement seeking to restore a romanticized version of the tribal village. The Taliban are, admittedly, a complex and not well understood phenomenon; their origins are still somewhat obscure and their leadership calculatedly mysterious. But they are, first and foremost, a Pushtun movement, almost entirely drawn from that ethnic group. Despite their purported origins among religious students, their vision of Islam is not that of trained scholars, but of traditional villagers, with a patriarchal and rather xenophobic view of the world. To them, Kabul, however conservative it may seem to outsiders, is a symbol of Western influence and corruption, of Islamic laxity. It would not be a gross exaggeration to compare their world view to such groups as the Cambodian Khmers Rouges at the time they evacuated the cities, or Peru's Sendero Luminoso, except that the Taliban are clearly less brutal in their methods and less revolutionary in their goals.
6. Pakistan, and perhaps the United States, initially encouraged the Taliban primarily because they seemed able to unite Afghanistan. This may prove a two-edged sword for Pakistan. Although denied at the time, almost everyone has recognized that Pakistan, through its military intelligence and through the efforts of its former Pushtun interior minister, Naserullah Babar, supported the Taliban and may even have helped supply them. The Taliban's core "students" were studying at Islamic schools in Pakistan. Yet one of the nightmares of Pakistan has always been the danger of ethnic division and disintegration, and one of the most potent movements challenging the unity of the state has been the old Pushtun dream of a "Pushtunistan" uniting the Pushtun regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Why then would Pakistan back a Pushtun movement?
It is certainly not clear that the Nawaz Sharif government still does, and there were indications of second thoughts by Benazir Bhutto's government before her fall. But clearly, one reason was the desire by Pakistan to see a unified Afghanistan, which would permit a reopening of the Salang Road to Central Asia, allowing Pakistan to become an outlet for Central Asian commerce and, perhaps, for a proposed natural-gas pipeline from Turkmenistan. Those who see tacit U.S. toleration for the Taliban, at least initially, would suggest it was for the same reason: it is in the U.S. interest to encourage a reunited Afghanistan, because it could make Pakistan an alternative (to Iran) as an outlet for Central Asian oil, gas and trade.
7. There is more here than just "pipeline politics." In connection with the above remarks, many have noted that a U.S. firm, Unocal, is partnered with a Saudi firm as a competitor for the proposed Turkmenistan gas pipeline and have suggested that for this reason the United States either tacitly accepted or covertly aided the Taliban. That is probably an exaggeration of the facts, and the Pakistani motives are in some ways far more compelling than the alleged U.S. reasons. But so-called "pipeline politics" is part of a more complex mosaic of regional rivalries here.
Most of the articles so far published on future pipelines have focused on the immediate and rather delicate issue of getting Azerbaijan's oil to ports on the Black Sea or the Mediterranean, but the future of Turkmenistan's natural gas and of Kazakhstan' s huge oil reserves is also very much on the minds of interested parties in many capitals. Since the Central Asian states generally have hoped for alternatives to their traditional links through Russia, the alternatives are few. While there has been some talk of carrying Turkmenistan's gas to Japan via a pipeline across all of China, that sort of massive engineering undertaking will not be completed soon, if ever. More practical routes would seem to be through Iran and Pakistan, but the latter must transit Afghanistan, where the continuing civil war makes it impractical. The Taliban, however unpleasant they may be, are the only force that can unite Afghanistan. Therefore Pakistan backed them.
But there is more than just natural gas involved here. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pakistani planners have recognized that the shortest distances between Central Asia and the Indian Ocean lie through their territory. They could become not merely the pipeline outlet but the major port for Central Asian goods. With its ethnic, religious and cultural links, the Pakistanis could see the rise of the Central Asian states as a great boon to their own vital interests.
8. This, combined with ethnic allegiances, explains the new alignments in the region. Iran has naturally seen the rise of the Taliban as hostile to its interests. (It also remembers that the Taliban were responsible for the death of the local Afghan Shiite leader, whose Hizb-i- Wahdat was backed by Iran.) Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have supported the former Afghan government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who, along with his military commander, Ahmad Shah Masoud, is a Tajik. There, the Tajik ethnic affiliation has been extremely important; today, they are being supplied through Tajikistan. Rabbani and Masoud are allied with General Abdol Rashid Dostam, who is an Uzbek, and naturally has received support from Uzbekistan. After the fall of Kabul, Russia held several meetings with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and also Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, in order to discuss the situation. Yet Turkmenistan did not attend. Its interest in a potential pipeline through Afghanistan presumably outweighed any other concerns. Thus an intermingling of ethnic loyalties, pipeline politics and broader geopolitics has combined to create an odd alliance of Iran, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
At least nominally backing this alignment has been India, which may have provided some support to the anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan and certainly has criticized the Taliban. India's motives hardly need examining: it is seeking to counter Pakistani influence. And one need only look at a map to see that in the high Pamirs, Afghanistan and Tajikistan come together in a great mountainous knot, the other side of which is Kashmir.
9. Finally, ethnopolitics plays a major role, but not yet a decisive one, in these conflicts. Pessimists can argue that Tajikistan and Afghanistan have essentially become failed states, and that this failure could spread regionally, particularly to the always-fractious Pakistan. Certainly the Afghan war looks more and more like a case of ethno politics gone berserk: a Tajik enclave in the northeast, an Uzbek one in the northwest, and the southern two-thirds of the country under the Pushtun Taliban. If this ethnic split were-to become permanent, could pressure on Pakistan for a "Pushtunistan" be far behind? And in the fighting in early 1997 in Badghis province in northwestern Afghanistan, there have been reports of major refugee flows based on ethnic identity: Uzbeks fleeing the Taliban, Pushtuns fleeing General Dostam.
Tajikistan is ethnically diverse, and the civil war in part divided it along ethnic lines. Kulyab and Kurgan-Tyube, whose "clans" dominate the Russian-backed side, contain the largest numbers of Uzbeks in the country; the "rebel" side came from areas more thoroughly Tajik. In the big, empty mountainous east known as Gordo Badakhshan, a variety of Pamiris and other mountain peoples, some of them Ismaili Muslims, seek greater autonomy of their own.
As the two interlinked wars in Tajikistan and Afghanistan continue, such ethnic politics could threaten Pakistani unity. Deep divisions between Punjabis and Sindhis are of long standing, and the ethnic violence in Karachi between the Mohajirs and local Sindhis has been a constant in recent years. On the positive side, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's victory in the recent elections has given him, for the first time in recent memory, a two-thirds majority in Parliament, enough to allow him to repeal the controversial "Eighth Amendment," which gave the president the power to dismiss the prime minister. Whether that will end Pakistan's recent revolving-door politics and replace it with something more stable remains to be seen.
Can conclusions be drawn from all this? It is clear enough that the developing geopolitical situation in Southwest and Central Asia is a great deal more complex than any of the paradigms provided in the past for understanding it. I have not even mentioned China's role, and barely alluded to the always-present tinderbox of Kashmir. The former is certainly a player, the latter a potential detonator for new conflict at the roof of the world.
Since this analysis has also emphasized the role of pipeline routes in the Afghan conflict, I would also warn against adopting a new paradigm as simplistic as the earlier ones: that the competition in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and elsewhere is primarily about oil and gas, or pipeline routes. These play a role, as do ethnicity, Islam, colonial legacies, tribal allegiances and regional rivalries (India-Pakistan, for example, or the more nuanced Iran-Pakistan rivalry).
It is easy and tempting to paint these developments in black and white instead of the mosaic of grays that is really present, easy to try to simplify it as a case of a new Great Game or of Islam versus secularism. But there is no one great game like that between Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century; there are many smaller games, rivalries and counter-rivalries, crisscrossing national and ethnic interests.
The region is important; it has always been. And the growing demand for the petroleum and other resources of independent Central Asia, and the question of how those resources will reach the outside world, make the geopolitics of the region salient. Four nuclear powers are part of the region or border it: Russia, China, India and Pakistan. Another, Kazakhstan, has only recently given up nuclear weapons. Kashmir is probably the most sensitive flashpoint between two nuclear-armed states anywhere in the world. The wars in Afghanistan and Tajikistan have merged and engaged their neighbors, reminding us how instability can spread.
The complex mixture of competing ethnicities, borders with little local relevance, and cultural links across those borders makes it difficult to create a convenient model for policy analysis. With the enormous variety of countervailing elements intermixed in the region, it is not easy to extricate individual strands. Dealing with such a complex situation may prove to be the greatest game of all.