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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Regional Players, Same Great Game

Two hours north of Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, an Iranian construction firm is boring a hole in the side of the Fan Mountains. It's not for stashing weapons or nuclear material. It's for a five-kilometer tunnel that, when finished in 2007, will become the only road open year-round between this country's two main cities. And it will mean that motorists will no longer have to make the terrifying trip between Dushanbe and Khujand across the 3,600-meter Anzob Pass.

I took a taxi over the pass last fall. The driver praised the Iranians for their charitable work. "They are doing something great for Tajikistan," he said.

But for Iran, the Anzob tunnel project is hardly an act of pure magnanimity. It's an effort to get an edge on the competition. In a repeat of the "Great Game" that played out in Central Asia over the mid-to-late 19th century, foreign powers including Iran, Russia, China and the United States are converging on Tajikistan -- and the rest of Central Asia -- to compete for influence. There is a lot to gain: access to vast, untapped oil and natural gas reserves, rights to the use of key military bases, and the imaginations of the nearly 50 million people who live in this part of the Muslim world. The whole place is up for grabs.

Who's winning this latest iteration of the Great Game? Some analysts are content to tally and compare newly signed pipeline deals and security agreements to come up with an answer. But I wanted to find out which country is capturing the attention of ordinary citizens in Central Asia. So I spent six weeks last fall traveling through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, reporting from the level of the Central Asian street. And from this angle, the United States is losing.

For the players in today's version of the Great Game, Central Asia -- the region that comprises Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- is like California at the dawn of the Gold Rush: a reservoir of unbounded potential and unrealized wealth. The Chinese seek new markets to dump their goods in and energy sources to fuel their economy; the Russians, who consider Central Asia part of their backyard, want to preserve the status quo while continuing to expand their multinational electricity grid; and the Iranians hope that big-money investments in the region, coupled with a successful nuclear fuel cycle, will elevate their status in the Muslim world. The United States has an eye on long runways (recent visits by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were motivated by concerns over access to American military bases), energy prospects and a region seemingly ripe for democratic change.

All this commotion harks back to the contest that took place in Central Asia starting almost 200 years ago, the chief political result of which was that Central Asia was swept into the Russian Empire. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the communists chopped the territory up into separate Soviet socialist republics. For more than 70 years, no one disputed the communists' hold on Central Asia. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, foreign businesses jumped at the opportunity to invest in the oil and natural gas fields around the Caspian Sea. Western corporations and governments feted the despotic leaders of these new nations like modern-day emirs. The Great Game resumed.

In the past couple of years, however, domestic developments have shaken the traditional centers of power in Central Asia and changed the nature of the Great Game. Power has begun shifting out of executive offices and into the streets. Following the "color revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine, thousands of Kyrgyz took to the streets last spring after fraudulent parliamentary elections and overthrew former President Askar Akayev. In May, as many as 10,000 Uzbeks in the city of Andijan demonstrated against the government of President Islam Karimov. The Uzbek military later reportedly shot hundreds of protesters, refused to allow an international investigation and, on July 29, evicted the Pentagon from an air base it had been using in southern Uzbekistan.

Street protests are suddenly having global ramifications. And the more emboldened people in Central Asia become, the more it will be their hearts and minds, not those of aging dictators, that will be at stake for the global powers trying to influence the next generation.

When I arrived late one September night at Manas International Airport in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, the first sight to greet me was a row of hulking American KC-135s, C-17s and C-130s on the tarmac. Even through the fog of jetlag, it was a reminder to me -- and everyone else flying in and out of Bishkek -- that the United States is a truly global empire.

But the fate of empires is tied to more than military might, and the 21st-century version of the Great Game relies on capturing the popular imagination. In the first three years after Washington began deploying forces in Kyrgyzstan in December 2001, however, the number of Kyrgyz "favorably inclined" toward the United States fell from 65 percent to 47 percent, according to the polling firm InterMedia. Sitting on the runway on my first night in Central Asia, I wondered what effect the presence of the U.S. air base was having on popular opinion, and whether it might explain the Kyrgyz's increasingly negative attitudes toward the United States.

These musings, I soon found out, were premature. Instead of there being too much of the United States in Central Asia, there may just be too little. Over the following weeks, I saw scarcely another speck of America in the region. While the Pentagon is well-represented, American values and ideas aren't. Newsstands and bookstores are dominated by Russian-language publications. As I sat in a hotel room in Dushanbe flipping through satellite television one night, I passed a plethora of Iranian and Russian news channels (equally notorious for their sharply anti-American news spin). I saw no American ones. Even Hollywood films were hard to come by. In Osh, Kyrgyzstan, I asked a talk-show host, Ganijan Khalmatov, why support for the United States had fallen. Khalmatov shrugged at what, to him, seemed an obvious question, and replied that there's not enough about America on television. "If something is on TV, people automatically believe it," he said.

The United States' limited public role in Central Asia goes beyond the media and entertainment industries. In high-profile international investments, the United States lags behind Iran, China and Russia, whose combined annual gross domestic product is about three-quarters that of the United States. Washington has no equivalent effort to the Anzob tunnel project, which will not only ease domestic transport in Tajikistan, but will also connect local merchants and goods to markets as far away as Russia and Pakistan. This lack of public presence best explains why, according to InterMedia data, the number of Tajiks "favorably inclined" toward the United States fell from 58 percent in 2001 to 31 percent in 2004. For citizens like my taxi driver, Iranian projects show Tehran's rapport with the ordinary man, while Washington's apparent tight-fistedness reflects a flimsy commitment to helping people in Central Asia -- and ultimately, to winning the Great Game.

Central Asia could yet buck the trend of anti-Americanism that has swept the wider Muslim world. The loyalties and allegiances of most people there are still for sale. But the United States' ability to win over hearts and minds is in jeopardy. Ten years from now, a local friend of mine thought, "everyone else might be here, but the Americans won't still be interested. They just don't have the patience." Yet patience could well be the name of the Game.

Nicholas Schmidle is a freelance writer based in Washington.This comment first appeared in The Washington Post.