Sometimes, I just hate clichés like the plague. I wrote this for my Reuters AlterNet blog on 20 February 2009.
Even if you don’t follow Central Asia at all, you could hardly fail to notice the increased media attention the region has been receiving in recent weeks. Repeated Taliban attacks on NATO supply routes into Afghanistan from Pakistan have driven General David Petraeus, the top US commander in the area, to make a series of relatively high-profile visits to the former Soviet Stans to shore up a new logistics line from the north. Adding to the pressure and the press buzz that is so uncharacteristic for this largely forgotten corner of the world, Kyrgyzstan is kicking out the Americans from the airbase at Manas, used to support Afghan operations. Moscow’s offer of two billion dollars in loans to Bishkek a couple weeks ago is widely seen to be the decisive factor in the Kyrgyz decision -- or perhaps it is better to call it a Kyrgyz gambit to get Washington to make a counter-bid to keep the base.
In any case, the world’s media have jumped to define the story purely in terms of the US and Russia competing for the favours of the region’s rulers, and one of the oldest, most tired clichés of international relations is dusted off yet again: "The Great Game”. It’s hard to find a commentator who doesn’t use to this facile anachronism, referring to the 19th-century strategic rivalry between the British and Russian empires in Central Asia. And you find it everywhere in Anglophonia: from the right in the US, to the left in the UK.
But blurting out "The Great Game” rather than offering real analysis of the region is not going to help anyone understand what’s really at stake here and how to deal with it.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the world’s media so rarely pay any attention to post-Soviet Central Asia that when they do, they have no idea where to even begin. I received an interesting call from a major US TV news channel a couple days ago. They were looking for background on Uzbekistan to use during the Petraeus visit, admitting, "we haven’t done anything on Uzbekistan for four years”. And this for a country right next to a war zone where their US viewers have tens of thousands of soldiers on the ground, not to mention a few actually in Uzbekistan at the German base in the town of Termez.
But at least they phoned up someone who could fill them in a bit. For those who don’t even bother making such a call, a cliché like "The Great Game” is a handy way to save time by eliminating the need to actually understand anything. And such media misunderstanding damages the ability of decision makers to get a grip on the region and develop practical policies towards it.
Real security for this region is not a "Great Game”. It’s not simply about a base here or a supply line there, because the whole space is crippled by fragile authoritarian regimes that are generally despised by their own people due to the lack of economic opportunities and the absence of political and social freedoms. Some of these countries can barely be called states, yet these are the regimes the West is increasingly depending on to help stabilise Afghanistan.
Relying on a country like Tajikistan for security smacks of desperation. As my colleague points out in a new article in Transitions Online, this country is far from being a reliable partner; in fact, it is collapsing into failed-state status under President Imomali Rahmon.
And Uzbekistan? General Petraeus visited Tashkent and met with President Islam Karimov to discuss supply routes -- and some have suggested they also talked about the possible reopening of the US base at Karshi-Khanabad, "K2”, which the erratic Karimov ordered closed in 2005 after Washington mildly criticised his regime’s massacre of some 700 mostly unarmed civilians during an uprising against his rule in the city of Andijan.
If the critical international operation in Afghanistan now rests with such leaders, we are in trouble. But the decrepit cliché of "The Great Game”, with its emphasis on short-term gains in some imagined chess match against Moscow, will not explain why. Instead, a longer-term and more comprehensive understanding of security for the region is needed -- what the OSCE calls the "human dimension”, which includes things like full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and abiding by the rule of law.
Without appreciating these broader security aims, the West is highly unlikely to find stable partners for operations in next door Afghanistan. How can Tajikistan, which can’t even supply electricity and roads to its own people, offer logistics solutions for NATO? How can a regime like the one in Tashkent, which enriches itself by forcing over two million children out of schools and into the cotton fields for two months every year and jails or simply guns down anyone who shows any sign of dissent, really be an ally in bringing human rights and the rule of law to Afghanistan? In a war against extremists who thrive on oppression and the weaknesses of bad government, it is counter-productive to assist regimes that drive people to the wrong side. By only focusing on bases and supply routes without considering the wider security dimensions, the west is essentially tacking up recruiting posters for the Taliban.
No "Great Game” commentary in the Western media is going to help explain any of this.
There is, however, a very interesting op-ed in the Washington Post today that pulls together some of the strands of recent media reports from Central Asia and eloquently explains why US policy has been misguided. Baktybek Abdrisaev, formerly Kyrgyzstan’s ambassador to the United States, thankfully doesn’t mention the great cliché and instead looks beyond Russia for explanations of his country’s behaviour:
"Kyrgyzstan was the scene of a popular revolution in 2005 fueled by complaints about corruption and hopes for greater democracy. My people’s hopes have receded as our nation has steadily become more authoritarian. Kyrgyzstan may still be the most democratic nation in Central Asia, but the ways in which it differs from its more authoritarian neighbors are steadily being erased. Millions of Kyrgyz dream of a better, more democratic future. They were long heartened by the criticisms that the United States used to voice against authoritarian regimes; they drew inspiration from unwavering admonishments to stay on the difficult path to democracy. That was the voice of a true friend. But after the air base opened, that voice was lost. Our constitution was changed several times to allow autocrats to consolidate their power. Political opposition has been criminalized, and corruption has grown more widespread. The country’s economic mismanagement most recently manifested itself in a power crisis -- in a nation once expected to be a giant in hydropower production and a net exporter of electricity to our region."
Of course, one can’t downplay the role of Moscow in Central Asia, but there are many other things going on as well, and if media commentators -- and policy makers -- only look through the lens of geo-strategic manoeuvres, then they are going to make very troubling mistakes. New supply routes are vital for the operation in Afghanistan, but they won’t be safe and reliable unless we take the broader view of security in this region.