The Clinton administration has just announced a little noticed but significant shift to greater realism in United States policy toward Central Asia and Iran. At the same time, recent events make it clear that the militant Taliban movement can no longer hope to impose its version of political Islam throughout Afghanistan. Taken together, these unrelated developments may provide a unique window of opportunity for United States interests in an increasingly important part of the world.
On July 21, nearly six years after the independence of the Central Asian states from the former Soviet Union, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott provided the first comprehensive statement of a United States vision for the region. He proclaimed an end to the zero-sum, 19th century "Great Game" mentality that has characterized some countries' approach to Central Asia. Less than a week later the administration made known that it would not oppose construction of (and United States participation in) a $160 billion gas pipeline project from Turkmenistan through Iran to Turkey (see map).
That coincides this week with a visit to the United States by President Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan. There is mounting pressure to normalize relations with his country by repealing the ill-conceived 1991 congressional ban on aid to it. Ending the ban would allow democracy-building and other official programs of assistance to go forward in Azerbaijan, as in other former Soviet republics.
Pressure from Russia and Iran
In a visit to the Caucasus and Central Asia last May as part of an Atlantic Council delegation, we saw firsthand how all of the above issues are linked. To one degree or another, all of the states of the region are under pressure from both Russia and Iran. They worry about the implications of a 21st century Eurasian balance of power among Russia, Iran, China, and the West. All, with the exception of the small, mountainous Kyrgyz Republic and war-torn Tajikistan, count on developing their large hydrocarbon resources to achieve prosperity and secure independence.
It is very much in the interest of the United States for the newly independent states of the Caucasus and Central Asia to become a reliable alternative to Persian Gulf oil and gas supplies. To do so, they must be able to export their energy through multiple routes - through pipelines that run not only to the north through Russia, but also to the west across Georgia and the Black Sea, to the east across China, and to the south across Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Americans, Russians, Western Europeans, Chinese, Turks, Iranians, Pakistanis, and Indians must participate commercially in these ventures to prevent a rebirth of the zero-sum, I-win-you-lose approach in the region. The Clinton administration's withdrawal of opposition to the long-planned pipeline through Iran to Turkey is welcome recognition of the American and global interest in an open-door policy for Central Asia.
But the final piece of the puzzle remains to be put in place. The United States now needs to take the lead in backing stepped-up United Nations efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan. The establishment of a credible and ethnically balanced coalition government in Kabul is in the interest of all of Afghanistan's neighbors as well as the people of Afghanistan itself.
Tremors from Afghanistan
It was clear from our discussion with prominent government officials in Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan that what they (and by extension, their counterparts in Moscow) feared most from events in Afghanistan was not contagion from Islamic fundamentalism but rather the effects of prolonged ethnic strife on their own independence and domestic tranquility. The fighting in Afghanistan not only blocks routes for oil and gas shipments to ports outside the Strait of Hormuz, but also threatens precarious ethnic balances of power in Central Asia's newly independent states.
One day after the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif to the Taliban, we found officials in Uzbekistan's capital of Tashkent obsessed with the effects of anticipated large-scale refugee flows from Afghanistan. These officials feared that the resulting intensification of ethnic strife in neighboring Tajikistan, in particular, could further destabilize that country and kindle unrest among the large Tajik minorities in Uzbekistan's major cities. They argued forcefully that the worst thing that could happen to Central Asia would be an outbreak of attempted ethnic cleansing amid efforts to build new monoethnic states in this region.
Fortunately, this did not come about during the current cycle of the Afghan conflict. Central Asia's ethnic patchwork remains intact for the time being under governments committed to secular, multiethnic societies within the region's existing borders. An end to the fighting in Afghanistan is the key to securing Central Asia's stability on that basis. The United States needs to recognize this by giving at least as high a priority to brokering peace in Afghanistan as it has to the admirable conflict-resolution work underway in Tajikistan and Nagorno-Karabakh. Now is the time to put the American diplomatic skills demonstrated at Dayton behind brokering an agreement between the Taliban and other warring Afghan factions.
* Curtis Coward is a partner at the law firm of McGuire, Woods, Battle & Boothe in McLean, Va., and Chas. W. Freeman is former assistant secretary of defense and former United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia.