DUSHANBE, TAJIKISTAN — Here at Dushanbe airport, French Air Force planes sit on the tarmac, their blue, white, and red roundels looking a bit incongruous against the backdrop of the soaring, snowy Pamir Mountains.
A dozen miles away, Indian engineers are quietly reconstructing a former Soviet airfield. In central Tajikistan, Russia maintains a motorized infantry division of 10,000 men at a sprawling outpost, while the US is reportedly training Tajik forces in counterterrorism techniques.
They're all piling into a modern replay of the 19th-century "Great Game," in which the contending Russian and British Empires vied for land and influence amid these same Central Asian desert wastes and towering mountain peaks.
In this round, the main prize is control over pipelines that will deliver an estimated 5 percent of the world's dwindling energy reserves to market. And the players are far more diverse: In addition to the US, China, France, and India, the region's five post-Soviet states are getting into the game, giving the local hazards that stalk them – including faltering authoritarian governments, rising Islamic militancy, and a wave of drug trafficking that originates in the poppy fields of Afghanistan – a new international dimension.
"The game in Central Asia is very much about competition between the powers," says Dmitri Suslov, an expert with the independent Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow. "But this time the countries of the region are players themselves, using the contradictions between Russia, the US, the European Union, and China for their own benefit. It's becoming very complicated."
It's not only Tajikistan where world powers have taken to flying their flags, especially since the 9/11 attacks focused attention on the dangers of state failure in this volatile region.
In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, gleaming rows of US Air Force KC-135 midair refueling tankers line the airstrip at Manas International Airport; Russia flies Sukhoi-27 fighters from its base at nearby Kant. China is said to be eyeing its own Kyrgyz military presence. And Germany stations 300 troops with helicopters at Termez, in next-door Uzbekistan.
On Tuesday and Wednesday this week, a delegation of European Union officials, led by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is meeting with foreign ministers of five Central Asian states in the Kazakh capital, Astana, to discuss deepening ties. The EU has declared an "Energy Dialogue" with Central Asia a key foreign policy goal, as part of a general effort to wean Europe from a perceived overdependence on Russian supplies. That coincides with US purposes in the region and, experts say, this is the main play to watch as the game develops.
"The Central Asian countries are still very much locked into the Russian pipelines and infrastructure and must sell their oil and gas to world markets on Russian terms," says Ivan Saffranchuk, Moscow director of the independent World Security Institute. "The Western idea is that these countries will have real sovereignty only when they are able to independently sell their resources."
The US strongly backed the recently opened $4 billion Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which carries Caspian oil to the West without Russian participation. Mr. Suslov says that Washington is urging hydrocarbon-rich Kazakhstan to break free from Russia's grip and build links to the Baku- Ceyhan network. China has recently managed to buy a key Kazakh oil company and in 2005 a 1,000-mile pipeline began carrying Kazakh crude to China. It reportedly has plans to extend the pipeline westward by 2011 to funnel Caspian oil eastward.
Two years ago this week a lightning revolution overthrew Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, and the little mountain state has been mired in unrest ever since. A few weeks later a putative Islamist uprising at Andijon, Uzbekistan, was brutally put down by forces loyal to Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov. That rang alarm bells about the dangers of regionwide destabilization.
"These are very weak states that cannot provide social services or justice to their populations," says Irina Zvigelskaya, a regional expert at the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "The Islamists are moving into this vacuum, and creating a real long-term challenge to stability in Central Asia."
Thousands of alleged members of the banned Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir have been arrested in several regional countries in the past two years. Experts say the group, which calls for a single Muslim Caliphate, is increasingly active – particularly in the multiethnic and impoverished Fergana Valley, which spills across the borders of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
"Hizb ut-Tahrir is a very radical movement, which many people believe has taken root in Uzbekistan and is spreading around the region from there," says Parviz Mullojanov, director of the Public Committee for Democratic Process, a Tajik NGO. He says a combination of poverty, weak government, and huge numbers of young, jobless males in the Fergana have created a perfect storm for Islamist movements. "If economic conditions worsen, this could become the problem of our future," he adds.
Ms. Zvigelskaya cites unofficial studies that indicate drug money could make up a third of local economies. Some experts say there's a danger that drug lords and Muslim militants, who share hostility to state authority, will make common cause to undermine local governments.
"Islamists and drug traffickers are interested in each other's support," says Nur Omarov, a political expert at Bishkek's Slavic University. "Both find it perfectly acceptable to use drugs as a weapon of jihad against the West."
Others blame the West for stimulating Islamic reaction through military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. "People for whom Islam is the main source of identity find themselves fighting foreign invaders, and of course that strengthens their beliefs and encourages sympathy for them," says Saimodin Dustov, director of the independent Information for Democracy and National Progress Center in Dushanbe.
Russia, leader of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which includes three regional states, often appears to chafe at the US military presence on former Soviet turf. In July 2005, after the US condemned Uzbekistan's response to the uprising, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a six-member group run by Russia and China, issued a declaration that implicitly called for the US to close its Central Asian bases. American forces subsequently were compelled to vacate a sprawling airbase at Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan.
Kyrgyzstan, however, is resisting Russian pressure to evict the US from Manas air base, in what experts say is a growing tendency of Central Asian leaders to play the big powers off against each other. "Our president thought about removing [the US base] but gradually realized that its existence is not only in American interests, but in ours too," says Orozbek Moldaliyev, director of the independent Center for Politics, Religion and Security Research in Bishkek, the capital.
The Bush Administration, which may have driven some of the region's authoritarian rulers into Moscow's arms by trumpeting US support for democratization, has lately adopted a more pragmatic stance. Last May, on a trip to Kazakhstan, US Vice President Dick Cheney raised eyebrows in the human rights community by embracing Kazakh strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev – who's been accused of banning opposition parties, fixing elections, and shutting down independent media – calling him "a good friend" and expressing "admiration for all that's been accomplished here in Kazakhstan."
Russian experts say that that, plus warmer ties with Tajik leader Imomali Rakhmon (he recently changed his name from the Russified "Rakhmonov") and optimistic US statements about the prospects for democratic thaw in authoritarian Turkmenistan, make Washington a sharper opponent.
"The region's main threats are state failure and rising Islamism, and both of these demand democratization in the long run," says Suslov. "But as soon as you push for that, you spoil relations with the regional lords and lose leverage. The Americans appear to have taken that on board now, and the game is becoming more sophisticated."