- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 8, 2005

Tomorrow Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Central Asia and Afghanistan, a tough neighborhood with a key role in the coming global game between the West and the rest.

The U.S. has increasing interests and growing geopolitical competition from Russia, China and global Islamist movement. Miss Rice is playing the 21st-century version of the “Great Game” in which the British Empire and Czarist Russia competed over the heartland of Eurasia 100 years ago.

The stakes are high. Central Asia is important as a major source of oil and gas. By 2015, the Caspian Sea Basin, including Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, will produce 4 million barrels a day — more than Kuwait and Iraq today combined.

It is surrounded by emerging giants: energy-starved India and China, and bordered by Iran and Pakistan — key Islamic states, one of them an aspiring (U.S.-hating) nuclear power.

Afghanistan and Central Asia are where the rubber of Bush democratization doctrine meets the rocky road of authoritarianism. Afghanistan’s elections were criticized in the Muslim world as “Made in the U.S.A.,” while the lack of rulers’ legitimacy in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan may spark revolts.

In May, hundreds of protesters were shot by troops loyal to Uzbek President Islam Karimov after an Islamic insurrection in the city of Andijan in the Ferghana Valley. After the U.S. protested, Mr. Karimov kicked the U.S. military base from Karshi-Khanabad — with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s encouragement. China “congratulated” Mr. Karimov by signing a $600 million gas pipeline deal with Uzbekistan.

In July, the Beijing- and Moscow-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) demanded the U.S. provide dates certain for withdrawing troops from Central Asia and Afghanistan. In Moscow meetings this writer attended in September with Mr. Putin and Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov, the Russian leaders claimed the military phase of the Afghanistan operation is over and it is time for U.S. troops to go home. Miss Rice would take exception.

On her trip, Miss Rice is dropping in on newly elected leaders of the small mountainous Republic of Kyrgyzstan to ensure the U.S. air base remains open at Manas Airport in the capital of Bishkek. She also visits Tajikistan, another poor mountainous land that may host a future U.S. military base.

In August, SCO sent a strong message to its Central Asian members when they conducted unprecedented joint military maneuvers in the Far East, which Mr. Ivanov called “peace enforcement that may look like blackmail.” The new de-facto Moscow-Beijing bloc is aimed against U.S. “hegemony” as well as U.S. democratic rhetoric.

Meanwhile, Islamist radicals spread their tentacles in the region’s impoverished and drug-ridden villages and slums. Hizb ut-Tahrir, a global Sunni clandestine group aiming to overthrow secular regimes and create a caliphate, has made Uzbekistan its primary target. Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is allied with al Qaeda and active in Afghan and Pakistani border areas.

Coordination of counterterrorism and nonproliferation activities with the battle for hearts and minds and cooperating with Central Asian states in the interdiction of drug activities should be high on Miss Rice’s agenda. She will visit Kazakhstan and meet President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Kazakhstan may be a key to U.S. interests in the region. Mr. Nazarbaev in September told the parliament that in 10 years his country may surpass Kuwait as an oil exporter, pumping more than 2.5 million barrels daily.

Mr. Nazarbaev’s policies are leading to possibly doubling his country’s standard of living to the level of Central Europe, improving the rule of law and developing a civil society. It will take time — and money, he says — in a society predominantly nomadic 80 years ago but now developing a middle class.

With prosperity growing, Mr. Nazarbaev promised to make democratic reforms, starting with contested presidential elections in December in which he is running. He is introducing elections of regional governors, jury trials and e-government — a far cry from Uzbek and Turkmen oppression.

Miss Rice should encourage her Kazakh host to promote separation of power, transparency and political pluralism. But she needs to tread carefully: Kazakhstan has political options to the North and East — China and Russia covet its oil and huge expanses. In September, China National Petroleum Co. (CNPC) committed to pay $4.2 billion for Petrokazakhstan, a Calgary, Canada-based oil company controlling 550 million barrels of oil.

Miss Rice can encourage Mr. Nazarbaev to finally authorize construction of a pipeline connecting Kazakh oil fields to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which takes Caspian oil to global markets. She should also encourage Kazakhstan to promote its unique model of peace and harmony between Muslims, Christians and Jews around the Islamic world. Finally, she should encourage Kazakhstan to sponsor U.S. observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, so Washington can alleviate Beijing and Moscow fears about its intentions in the Eurasian heartland while playing an important role there.

Whatever she does, anchoring U.S. interests in Central Asia can only be a two-way street, in which America gives, not only takes, and listens, not only lectures.

Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the author of “Eurasia in Balance” (Ashgate, 2005).



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