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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Central Asian Magnet

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Concerns about the consequences of a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan for the Central Asian states -- in particular Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- have been expressed with increasing frequency of late. These concerns are not only voiced by political scientists and pundits, but also seem to be gaining currency among ordinary citizens in Dushanbe and Tashkent where there are reports of panicky rumours spreading.

The Tajiks, who recently suffered a bloody civil war, fear revenge will be swift and unavoidable if Tajikistan joins the U.S.-led anti-Taliban coalition. The Uzbeks share these fears. Moreover, they are afraid retribution will be delivered not just from Afghanistan, but also by extremist Moslem groups within Tajikistan and Uzbekistan such as the armed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, which enjoy Taliban support.

However, it is misleading to view a potential strike by the Taliban on Central Asia as something new, engendered by the events of the past two weeks. The threat of a Taliban strike on Tajikistan and Uzbekistan has long existed, and its implementation is probably merely a question of time. Indeed in the early, euphoric days of its rule, the Taliban incautiously pledged to restore Islamic rule to the ancient Moslem centers of Bokhara and Samarkand. So far, only long-term preparations for such a strike have been undertaken in the form of support to various extremist Islamic groups in Central Asia -- from armed insurgents who have opposed President Islam Karimov's rule in Uzbekistan to the underground Khizbi Takhrir party active in both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. These groups are thought to be preparing the ground for an Islamic revolution in Central Asia, which forms part of the Taliban's stated plans.

Paradoxically, Central Asian states -- primarily Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- have done much to strengthen the Taliban's cause in the region. Russia and the West, to the extent that they exert influence over the ruling elites of these countries, have also made their contribution. Despite conciliatory public statements regarding Islam, these regimes continue to pursue policies that are essentially anti-Moslem. These regimes are successors (and also pupils) of the repressive system that prevailed under the Soviet Union and have proved incapable of shaking off the Soviet approach that views religion as "dangerous free-thinking" with potential to undermine the state's control over the hearts and minds of its subjects. This approach has long been a source of tension among large swathes of the Tajik and Uzbek populations for whom Islamic values are of paramount importance. This is particularly true in Uzbekistan, on whose territory is located the Ferghana valley -- the most radically Islamic region of Central Asia -- along with the historically important Moslem centers of Bokhara and Samarkand.

The wave of Islamization in these countries is most likely to strengthen for the foreseeable future. Ordinary people long ago discarded the state-preached atheism of the Soviet regime and have naturally turned for moral succour to Islam, the religion of their forefathers. Soviet power, despite the repressive machine it wielded and seven decades of rule, failed to uproot Islam. In Tashkent and Dushanbe, the authorities naively believe that they will succeed where their Soviet predecessors failed: That they will be able to foster loyalty among their Moslem subjects while at the same time subjecting them to discrimination on the basis of their faith.

It is these anti-Islamic policies officially pursued by Tashkent and Dushanbe that have created fertile ground for the likes of the Taliban. It is no secret that the IMU, an armed Islamic opposition group in Uzbekistan, receives direct financial and material support from the Taliban. Also, according to reports, the radical wing of the Islamic opposition in Tajikistan's recent civil war relied to some extent on Taliban support.

Therefore, one can argue that the Central Asian states draw the Taliban to themselves just as a magnet attracts iron filings. The politically active Moslems in Central Asia, who are fighting against the anti-Islamic policies of the ruling regimes, accept support from anyone who is willing to offer it. Until now, it is only extremists in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that have offered real support.

If the international community wishes to have reliable and dependable allies in Central Asia for the battle again Islamic extremists, it should first and foremost consider how to avoid artificially provoking religious extremism in the region. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan must be encouraged to abandon their primitive anti-Islamic policies, which in any case are destined to end in failure. It is primarily the responsibility of the allies and patrons of these regimes to ensure that this is achieved. Russia, which considers Central Asia to be firmly within its sphere of influence, has a large role to play in this, particularly in Tajikistan, where its influence is unrivalled.

Central Asia must achieve stability in and of itself, regardless of whether there will be military intervention in Afghanistan in the immediate future. Stability can only be guaranteed by the emergence of moderate and enlightened regimes in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (whether secular or Moslem) that are prepared to forego confrontation in favor of cooperation with the Moslem majorities of these countries. Only in this case is there a chance that Moslem activism in the region can be harnessed in a constructive fashion, that the fertile ground for extremism will disappear, and that Central Asia will not be turned into a new bridgehead for Taliban-style Islamic revolution.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union that dominated geopolitics in the second half of the 20th century, gave rise to the widespread phenomenon of supporting terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy. The main centers of terrorism that exist today were created originally and given sustenance by the super powers as a means of applying pressure on one another during the Cold War period. The Taliban is no exception. Its roots can be clearly traced back to the proxy war fought between the two super powers in Afghanistan. It is most important that Russia and the United States put aside their ambitions now and join together in the global fight against terrorism. The tragic events in New York and Washington are proof positive that there is no other option.

Rustam Shukurov is associate professor of history at Moscow State University. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.