“AMERICA S VITAL INTERESTS AND OUR DEEPEST beliefs are now one,” proclaimed George W. Bush earlier this year as he inaugurated his second term as U.S. president. He committed the United States to spreading “democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

After the terrorist attacks of 9/ 1 1 , the spread of democracy – and to a lesser extent, liberalism – became not only an “urgent requirement” of national security, but also in the words of the American president – “the calling of our time.” In the eyes of the Bush administration and the like-minded, terrorism is a lethal compound formed when authoritarian governments and ideological extremism are mixed.

This is a theory of great convenience for some. It absolves the United States of any role in the process of terrorist creation and legitimizes an aggressive and often-violent foreign policy towards the Middle East bent on reshaping the region according to parochial, neo-conservative interests.

The authoritarianism /extremism-terrorism theory is also weak. The research of Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political science professor, provides empirical evidence that illustrates that Al-Qaida is “less a product of Islamic fundamentalism than of a simple strategic goal: to compel the United States and its Western allies to withdraw combat forces from the Arabian Peninsula and other Muslim countries.” Though its means are brutal and immoral, the goals of Al-Qaida – and most other terrorist groups – are essentially political.

Sadly, fear trumps logic in post-9/11 America, and so, with Natan Sharansky’s The Case for Democracy in one hand and a machine gun in the other, U.S. troops invaded two Muslim countries, for among other stated reasons, to bring freedom and democracy to these lands. Though its occupation of Iraq remains troublesome, Baghdad might not be the last stop on the neo-conservative’s armed tour of the Middle East. The Bush administration remains committed to changing the regimes in this energy-rich region marked by corrupt and authoritarian governments, state-dominated rentier economies, significant levels of religious extremism, young and disgruntled populations, high rates of unemployment, and religious persecution by the state.

THE FORMER SOVIET republics of Central Asia bear these very hallmarks of the energy-rich Middle East autocracies viewed as threats to U.S. security. Yet the United States is in no hurry to change their governments. After 9/ 1 1 , the Bush administration made Faustian bargains with many of Central Asia’s autocrats – bargains hauntingly similar to the ones made before with Middle Eastern autocrats in exchange for military and /or energy-related cooperation. Apparently America’s vital interests and deepest values are not one – at least if these values are not economic and military strength.

The United States uses military bases in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and – until recently – Uzbekistan. These bases have played an important role in U.S. operations in Afghanistan. The Bush administration may be close to landing a base in Azerbaijan, Iran’s neighbor to the north and starting point for the Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which will provide Caspian oil to the West in lieu of cheaper routes passing through Iran and Russia. It also has military cooperation agreements with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. In turn, the United States has been relatively mute regarding the atrocious human rights records, fraudulent elections, and rampant violations of civil liberties in these countries. By equipping them with rents, assisting in security affairs, and paying a blind eye to their blatant authoritarianism, the United States has given these Central Asian dictatorships a longer lease on life. In the long term, the combination of U.S. support for these dictatorships and its military presence in the region may end up creating the next generation’s Al-Qaida.

Uzbekistan is one of the more egregious human rights violators in the region. The group Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) has grown considerably in size in the country as a result of the brutal and corrupt rule of Islam Karimov – a phenomenon Muslims in the West who view HT as an anomaly may see as strange. Hizb-ut-Tahrir, often a “gateway jamm V to expressly violent groups, has now split in Central Asia, with a more militant Hizb-an-Nusrah (HN) as an offshoot.

While this development poses little threat to U.S. security interests in the near term, it does threaten the stability of an important region as HT, HN and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) seek to erase the borders sketched by Stalin and unite the region under a khilafa. In the long term, continued U.S. support and military presence may make it a target of the scorn of the violent opposition.

Recent attempts by Washington to do good have backfired. It sharply condemned Tashkent following the government massacre of hundreds of protestors in May in the city of Andizhan and has pressed the government to allow an independent investigation of the incident. In turn, the Uzbek government restricted U.S. access to its militarybases and has turned toward China and Russia against the United States. These countries, along with other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), subsequently called on the United States to withdraw from Central Asia. Uzbekistan is now a country with options and it has chosen Chinese and Russian support because they find no fault with Tashkent’s authoritarianism.

This is a tough game for the United States to play as it has less experience and territorial proximity to the region than China and Russia. Washington was forced to act against Tashkent because of the large media coverage of the incident and, in turn, has lost a key military base and partner country in a key region. In the past, American fears of Uzbek reversion to Russian assistance may have caused its hesitancy to put significant pressure on the Karimov government; however, Washington may have missed previous opportunities to press Tashkent several years ago when Chinese and Russian influence were less available and desirable.

TURKMENISTAN provides the most bizarre case of leadership in the region. Its president, Saparmurat Niyazov, is a strange mix of Muammar Qaddafi and Mustapha Kemal. He named himself “Turkmenbashi,” or leader of all ethnic Turkmen, and penned the Green Book-esque Ruhnama, or Book of the Soul, which serves as the basis for a cult with Niyazov and his mother at its center. The text is studied in government schools and has replaced books in rural libraries. The country is replete with statues and images of Niyazov.

In addition to military cooperation with the United States, Niyazov’s Turkmenistan is abundant in natural gas, which might be transferred via a proposed pipeline running through Afghanistan to Gwadar, Pakistan. This pipeline is favored by the United States over the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India one. As a result of its inflexible Iran policy, the United States will continue its silence on the ills of Turkmenistan’s dictator. Not only will the pipeline provide rents to support Afghanistan’s government, it will also meet India’s growing energy demands and avoid assisting the Islamic Republic of Iran. While Nivazov’s regime faces no serious oppositional threats, it would be naive to assume the continuation of the status quo. In fact, Turkmenistan may experience a similar fate as its neighbors with a rise in antigovernment militancy and sabotage activity against energy installations.

THE FORMER SOVIET republics of Central Asia have made few advances in the area of democratization since gaining independence around 1 5 years ago. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan will have non-competitive, manipulated elections this year. Their leaders will be emboldened by economic gains from energy sector growth. Turkmenistan’s dictator is more entrenched than ever. Fair elections aren’t an issue for Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, empowered by Chinese and Russian support. Kyrgyzstan, with the recent overthrow of Askar Akayev and relatively free election of a new president, may develop into a bright spot in the region. The changes there occurred partly due to Washington’s support for the opposition.

As a whole, the Bush administration’s policy toward Central Asia demonstrates the limits of its pro-democracy agenda. It is tough for the United States, with China and Russia as rivals, to promote democracy in a region run by dictators dependent on foreign support. The latter two countries will welcome cooperation from the region’s rulers as they are. No need to change. In fact, China and Russia have seized the opportunity and are pressing to oust the United States from the region. Both countries orchestrated an SCO call for a U.S. departure from the region. Also, Russia is increasing its military presence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

There may be some degree of readjustment of the power distribution and influence in Central Asia, but U.S. influence will likely remain for years to come, especially in countries such as Azerbaijan. The United States must balance its economic, security, and geo-strategic interests. It also faces greater competition for influence in the region from China and Russia – than it docs in almost any other region. It would be a mistake, however, for Washington to overextend itself and support unpopular and brutal governments and create a new set of enemies. Some American policy makers believe their country shares a common foe with the states of Central Asia, namely, what is known as “militant Islamism.” Washington should keep in mind the role played by brutal authoritarian governments in creating such a phenomenon in an area whose Islamic practices have been traditionally colored by tasawwuf or Sufism. The authoritarian governments are part of the problem, not the solution. The combination of U.S. support for these governments and the presence of its troops will generate a new locus of opposition to the United States that may be expressed using instruments of violence.

Moreover, the presence of U.S. troops in land-locked Central Asia – which eliminates the possibility of protecting energy supplies via naval forces – may leave it overexposed and overly visible. It is in the interest of the United States to have a substantive, influential presence in the region, and one that is at least on par with China and Russia. However, it would be costly if it gets caught up in a new “Great Game” with these two countries, and loses sight of the factors behind Al-Qaida’s attacks against the U.S. and its interests: the physical presence of the U.S. military in Muslim lands. If the U.S. falls into this trap, the future, in the words of the great New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, “would be deja vu all over again.”

  • Most Viewed This Week on TIM

  • Latest comments on TIM

  • About the autor

    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

    Latest at tim

    See our Current issue

    Join our Newsletter

    Enter your e-mail address below to receive periodic updates from The Islamic Monthly.

  • Follow us on


    Comments are closed