Central Asian Connection

The novelist E.M. Forster once urged his readers: "only connect." That's good advice to anyone assessing the complexities of affairs in distant regions like Central Asia.

Iranian military exercises on the Afghan frontier, the Taliban victories in the northern Afghan cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Bamiyan in August, and the subsequent US missile attacks against terrorist camps in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan may seem to be isolated events. But, in the region, they are seen as linked to each other and to May's nuclear exhibitionism by India and Pakistan and President Clinton's June visit to China.

We heard this first hand during a recent visit that began in Beijing and went through Xinjiang and former Soviet Central Asia to Islamabad and New Delhi.

A Eurasian imbalance of power is emerging, with an unstable and neglected inner Asia as its center of gravity, say some in the region. This is the result of overreactions by regional actors to perceived threats. It also reflects the uncoordinated pressure and influence of larger powers - namely, China, India, Iran, Russia, Turkey and the United States.

How did this happen?

First, with the strategic vacuum left after the Soviet breakup, a pecking order - involving petty rivalry and courtship of larger patrons - has crystallized among the newly independent states of Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Russia's, and now Uzbekistan's, heavy-handedness through the imperious treatment of smaller neighbors is partly at fault. So, however, is the lack of a concert of interests among large and small powers in the region.

Kazakhstan is bolstering its already strong ties to Moscow while taking out insurance through cautiously expanded relations with China. The Kyrgyz Republic is actively courting China, even as it clings to dwindling Russian support. Turkmenistan is increasingly friendly toward Iran. Tajikistan remains dependent on Russian troops to sustain it against destabilization by the fighting in Afghanistan and its own internal rivalries. Taliban aggressiveness in Afghanistan is seen by many as a front for a greater Pakistan, even as many Pakistanis view the Pashtun nationalism represented by the Taliban as a threat to their own country's unity. Uzbekistan meanwhile speaks of a new entente with India, Israel, and Turkey.

Experts may justly quibble with such simplistic characterizations, but this is how many in the region see things. And in politics, events follow perception.

Second, the nuclear tests in South Asia have precluded dialogue between two of the region's largest powers - China and India. Their cooperation is essential to stability in this part of the world, and perhaps beyond it.

The absence of strategic understanding has become a self-perpetuating problem.

India's nuclear explosions were motivated in part by its perception that China's rising prestige was aided by nuclear status. Whether or not China originally reciprocated India's sense of rivalry with it for primacy in Asia, diatribe and hostility have now replaced dialogue and detente between the two countries.

Taken together, these developments have made it more difficult to achieve peace and economic prosperity in Central Asia, which is increasingly seen as an important piece of a larger strategic equation.

Clearly, realignments adverse to American interests cannot be ruled out. To a great extent, those interests are shared by China, the European Union, India, and Russia in this region. More should be made of these shared interests before events drive them apart.

Much is gained by heeding examples from the past. Both Europe and North America have proven remarkably successful in transforming older ways of competition into cooperative relationships. How best to accomplish this in Central Asia should be a prominent subtext in bilateral discussions with like-minded governments - as well as with Pakistan and eventually with Iran.

The United States should seek such cooperation as a defense against the pursuit of hegemony by any state in Central Asia either on its own or with backing of an external power. All states in the region should be encouraged to work together to achieve goals of benefit to all rather than seeking to enlist foreign allies against each other.

An initial step in this direction is the "six-plus-two" consultative arrangement for addressing the Afghan conflict. A deliberative group of the warring parties, border states, plus Iran and Russia - under UN auspices - it marks the first time that China, Iran, Russia, and the United States have met at the same table to discuss common interests in Central Asia. Meanwhile, the states of the region have made a symbolic start in the newly formed Central Asian Union. Yet these initiatives have received little more than rhetorical support to date from Western leaders.

The US would serve its own interests and those of Central Asians by spearheading an international effort to raise the profile of the six-plus-two process and bolster the Central Asian Union in its attempts to harmonize regional policies on issues like transport and communication improvements, energy, and environmental management, trade facilitation, border issues, and migration.

Such an effort might be convened together with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Economic Cooperation Organization, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or all three. Membership in these organizations overlaps but is not identical. All of them have a potential role in assuring that an open door rather than the "great game" or the "clash of civilizations" becomes the dominant element along the "new Silk Road" of the 21st Century. Accomplishing that should be an important US objective. Its success would bring benefits that go beyond the region as we now define it.

The ramifications of failure in Central Asia may be larger than we think.

* Charles W. Freeman Jr. is former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Jack F. Matlock Jr. is a former US ambassador to the Soviet Union. They are directors of the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C. policy organization that sponsored their Asian trip.

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