Dialogue  April-June, 2015, Volume 16 No. 4


Global Challenges and Regional Strategy in Central Asia


Anita Sengupta*



The global war on terror dramatically reinforced the significance of security in the Eurasian region, which had been seemingly on the wane since 1989, but the notion of security that came with it was different from that which had come before.1 In the post 9/11 world, security became a much more expansive, fluid and an uncertain concept. While the State employed traditional military means to achieve security, the State no longer seemed to be the container of security. Terrorism, as the primary security threat, seemed to render the stark division between external and internal threat meaningless. This uncertainty of security has multiplied the sites at which ‘security’ may be found. Traditional sites, such as militaries and conflict, have been rearticulated but they have been joined by border fences, detention centres, airport security counters, places of worship and even universities. However, even as insecurity processes become increasingly transnational and even global in their dynamics and scope, many States continue to be profound sources of insecurity both to other States and people.

      A plethora of issues constitute pressing security concerns today. These include environmental threats and climate change, the situation of forced migrants and refugees, nuclear instability, security and proliferation, interstate security dilemmas, trade in small arms, concerns about the militarization of space and proliferation of robotic military technology. This is compounded by endemic human insecurity represented by the experience of women in conflict zones, deep and widespread poverty, human rights abuses and the targeting of minorities. Globally this amounts to a complex and interconnected array of concerns that no state or security organization can afford to neglect. It has been argued that this globalization of insecurity, in such complex interconnected forms requires a change in State approaches and commitments and efforts to improve global security governance.2 In the last decade there has, therefore, been a broadening of the notion of security from States to societies and an increasing differentiation of security arrangements. It has been proposed that this transformation be conceptualized as security governance, characterized by a fragmentation of initiatives among a diverse group of actors. While these have been issues of global concern, the challenges that the post-Soviet space confronted was complicated by geopolitical proximity to conflict zones and threat perceptions from radical activity both from within the State but also from across borders.


The Globalization of Insecurity

In the immediate post-Soviet period, there was a general assumption that the removal of the Soviet power from the Central Asian region would result in one of the two scenarios. Either there would be a resurgence of Islamic faith in the region which would be followed by the takeover of the region by radical elements or the ethnic cauldron would boil over and result in the emergence of numerous conflicts that would eventually lead to innumerable divisions of the region. Interestingly, none of the scenarios proved to be entirely correct. Over  more than two decades of existence of the States as independent republics there have been occasional incidences of radical group activity but also effective State response to them. Similarly, what has been termed as “ethnic” conflict has occurred in a few instances. In most instances the “ethnic” element of the conflict has been overshadowed by economic motives and allegations of deprivation that had little to do with the “ethnic” component of the issue. Yet, time and again there have been attempts to identify the problems of the region in ethnic/religious terms. The Ferghana Valley, for instance, is identified as an ethnic conundrum where conflicts between the Uzbeks/Tajiks/Kyrgyz are endemic. This ignores not just the fact that the valley is one of the most densely populated in the region and conflicts emerge not out of purely ethnic issues but largely around issues of land and water distribution. In fact the problem is a complex one that would have to take note of the Soviet policies of sedentarisation whereby the traditional division of land and systems of water sharing between the largely nomadic Kyrgyz and the largely settled Uzbeks/Tajiks was disrupted when the Kyrgyz were encouraged to settle in lands that the Uzbeks/Tajiks had traditionally cultivated.

    With the emergence of new republics and a new emphasis on territoriality, the issues re-emerged. However, it was only in cases where the political agenda coincided with ethnic divisions that conflicts surfaced. The inevitable interconnection that is seen between the “emergence” of religious fervour in the Central Asian region seeking a political outlet through the establishment of an Islamic State, leading to threats to the security of the State or at least the established structures of the State, thereby resulting in “suppression” of religious organisations and culminating in “terrorism” as the ultimate response to this suppression, therefore, requires re-examination. This interconnection is seen time and again in writings that see the loss of civil liberties and particularly religious rights as a direct cause of extremist activities in the Central Asian region.3 The reality is far from being as simplistic and requires more critical evaluation. A rather long passage quoted from Uzbeksitan President Karimov’s book attests to this.

      The process of revival of national traditions of Islam and its culture has been a rightful proof of the rejection to “import” Islam from outside, to politicize Islam and to “Islamize” politics. The Moslem culture of Maverounnahr assimilated the spirit of ethnic tolerance and openness; it is not coincidental that its ideal described in the works of Farabi and Ibn Sino was the Ideal City—a community of people united not only by religion, but also by culture and morale. Freedom of belief fixed up by our constitution not only dispelled absurd fears of possible overall “Islamization” in Uzbekistan, but also contributed to the revival and promotion of normal development of other religions.4

     There is also apprehension about the role that radical forces will play within the region. A rise in Islamic radicalism in the region since the late 1990s with kidnappings by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the rise of the power of the Taliban in the Afghanistan, events following 9/11 and the March 2004 suicide bombings in Tashkent brought into focus threats that the radical challenge posed globally.

      Since 9/11 security narratives in Eurasia have been intertwined with the impact of Islam. The relationship between Islam and security in Eurasia has significant historic depth, on account of the Russian encounter with Islam. Russia’s discursive imagery has fluctuated from fear of encirclement to aspirations for domination, from resistance to accommodation between cultural alienation and Eurasian affinity. These fluctuations, speak of a long history of both soft and hard securitizations of Islam in Eurasia.5 The collapse of the Soviet Union opened the region and its competing narratives to outside influences and penetrations. The global narrative, defining Islam as the primary post-cold war threat and civilizational challenge found its way into the region where it was adopted by post-Soviet elites. Regional actors and great powers all tapped into the prevailing discourse to deal with their own specific political or ethno-territorial challenges. Eurasian Islam that has had its own distinctive history and local/regional socio-political complexities was catapulted into a larger Muslim world not through cultural, economic or political integration but via a narrative process of securitization on a global scale.

     The process of securitization itself embraces a broad spectrum of narratives and views that encompass individuals, social groups and movements. While security concerns have assumed salience across the globe, Afghanistan’s proximity to Central Asia has meant that security or perceptions of insecurity dominate the strategic discourse in the region. Issues that stand out include the challenges that the Central Asian States will face in terms of stability, ethnic tensions, radicalization of youth, destabilization of commodity flows and energy security and the impact that these could have on Central Asian society. However, security cannot just be defined in terms of security at the borders. It needs to be defined in ‘cosmopolitan’ terms through an array of issues like movements across borders, radicalism within States, the sharing of water, and various multilateral attempts at combating insecurity.


2014, Afghanistan and Regional Strategy

In the post 9/11 context Central Asia suddenly became very important once again, not just because geographically it was situated in the immediate neighbourhood of Afghanistan but also because of the assumption that in the “war against terror” the region would play a crucial role in the course of which security, economic and political structures of the region itself would be transformed. As American presence increased and the US was offered basing rights by the Central Asian States an entirely new set of geopolitical relations was seen to be emerging where traditional areas of interest were projected to have been transformed. Along with this was the realisation that the United States has developed important stakes in the region and its periphery, which would demand, continued American presence. The region, traditionally considered to be part of the Russian sphere of influence, became a significant part of the strategic concerns that lies at the core of the American interests.6 

      As the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops leave Afghanistan, these issues of concern have re-emerged and the future of Central Asian security has become a major subject of policy discussions not only within the region but also in the capitals of neighbouring States. While the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization work out detailed plans to cope with shared security concerns, the idea of a “spillover” is increasingly being debated by security experts. In fact analysts have argued that the Central Asian States have once again raised the question of growing terrorist and extremist risks to attract greater military assistance packages from Russia, China and the US.

       Washington’s post-withdrawal stabilization strategy for Afghanistan appears to rely heavily on regional economic development schemes through an initiative known as the New Silk Road Strategy. Two US sponsored initiatives have been on the cards—the establishment of a regional energy market via the construction of transmission lines connecting South and Central Asia and a long planned pipeline connecting Turkmenistan to South Asia, TAPI. The success of the strategies to link the two regions would be dependent on economic viability as well as prevailing political and security conditions. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether all the States would agree on a single strategy of development. In fact, there are already existing alternatives to the New Silk Road Strategy with the Chinese vision of a Eurasian Land Bridge linking China and Russia to Europe via Kazakhstan and the International North South Transport Corridor project supported by India, Russia and Iran which are at different stages of implementation.

        A significant response was the waiver of a ban on military assistance to Uzbekistan in January 2012 by the Obama administration. It was officially stated that the waiver would provide Uzbekistan with defensive equipment to enhance her ability to protect the borders through which cargo destined for US forces in Afghanistan flows. This is seen as an endeavour to enlist Uzbekistan’s support in the post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan following US withdrawal. As part of this, Hillary Clinton visited Tashkent in October 2011 with a promise that the US would remain engaged in the region after the planned pull-out. The focus of the visit, however, was on the New Silk Road, a commercially oriented initiative that seeks to expand links between Central and South Asia, with Afghanistan acting as the transit hub.

      The lifting of the ban underlines Uzbekistan’s increasing strategic importance to Pentagon. Uzbekistan is part of an overland supply route to Afghanistan known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) that was negotiated by US officials as an alternative to sending supplies through Pakistan. The NDN is a network of road, rail and air routes that traverses the Central Asian States. Despite higher transit costs the NDN carries nearly seventy-five per cent of all non-military items bound for Afghanistan. Uzbekistan has the most developed railway network in Central Asia and thus serves as the hub for the NDN traffic carrying as much as ninety-eight per cent of it. The NDN, used for bringing non-lethal military cargo into Afghanistan, is expected to be expanded to create a path for withdrawal from Afghanistan for which there is requirement of an overland supply line into Afghanistan. Officials and defence planners are also on the lookout for alternative arrangements to move military equipment out of Afghanistan. It is difficult to marginalise Uzbekistan as the rail connections between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan is irreplaceable. Some sixty per cent of the fuel deliveries to the US forces in Afghanistan are shipped via the NDN and the bulk passes over the Termez-Hairaton crossing on the Uzbek Afghan border. The significant improvement in US-Pakistan relations and the reopening of supply routes through Pakistan in July 2012 may affect this position. However, alternative routes through Central Asia would retain their importance.

    On 28 June 2012, Uzbekistan announced the suspension of its membership to the Moscow led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) saying that it does not agree to the “CSTO’s strategic plans on Afghanistan.” The CSTO was established in 1992 and also includes Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Armenia and Belarus. Uzbekistan previously suspended its membership of the group from 1999 until 2006. The CSTO didn’t give any official reasons for Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the alliance but analysts and commentators were quick to describe it as Uzbekistan’s move towards the US. Strategically located on the southern fringe of Central Asia, Uzbekistan is an important partner for the West, which needs its support to withdraw military kit from neighbouring Afghanistan.

        Similarly, Moscow’s recent decision to offer $200 million to Tajikistan and an even bigger aid package exceeding $1.1 billion to Kyrgyzstan actually translates its desire to secure Central Asia’s southern border against any possible Afghan threat. One of the effects of the scheduled pull-out of the international troops from Afghanistan has been a reported upswing in the activity of Central Asian militants in northern Afghanistan and the attendant anxiety that these groups might be engaged in destabilising activity in Central Asia.7 In mid-2013 Tajik security forces arrested nineteen members of a terrorist organisation in the northern Sogdh province in the Ferghana valley. The subversive activities of these groups largely unseen in Tajikistan before 2013 may actually provoke serious instability which could also involve Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan highlighted its growing security concerns by reporting in August 2013 the increased presence of Tablighi Jamaat, a religious organisation accused of links to radicalism. From the time of the first terrorist attacks that took place in 2011, the country has been confronted with another extremist group, Jund al-Khilafah active in the provinces close to the Caspian Sea.8 



It has long been recognized that security is essentially a contested concept and there is no term that is as uncertain and unstable as ‘security’. The end of the cold war rendered the settled, hegemonic understanding of security unstable and vulnerable to contestation. This traditional understanding was defined by Stephen Walt as the ‘threat to use and control of military force’ and it translated into security for states against threats posed to them largely by other States. Much of the early critical work in security studies demonstrated the politics of this concept of security; who it worked for and who it worked against. There was subsequently two ways of understanding security; the first explored the way in which security came to be understood and practiced and with what effects and the second in terms of the forms of security that were masked or actively opposed to by the dominant understanding. Prior to 2001, the discussion on security was dominated by the understanding of security as State centric, military security. While a range of alternative understandings was being developed which were articulated exclusively in relation to the conventional conception. The events of 9/11 and more importantly the decisions taken in response to these events fundamentally altered the terrain of contest over security. Global challenges to security in the foreseeable future and regional strategies that will be developed in response to these will have to be analyzed within this context.





1. David Mutimer, Kyle Grayson and J Marshall Bejer, “Critical Studies on Security: an introduction”, Critical
   Studies on Security, vol 1, no 1, 2013.

2. Antony Burke, “Security Cosmopolitanism”, Critical Studies on Security, vol 1, no 1, 2013.

3. Human Rights, Religion and “Terrorism” in Central Asia, Report on a Round Table Meeting at the IHF Secretariat,
   Vienna, 6 October 2000.

4. Islam. A. Karimov, Uzbekistan on the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century, Threats to Security, Conditions of
   Stability and Guarantees of Progress, Tashkent: Uzbekiston, 1997.

5. Mohiaddin Mesbahi, “Islam and Security Narratives in Eurasia”,

   Caucasus Survey, vol 1, no 1, October 2013.

6. For details see Amitabh Mattoo, “United States of America and Central Asia: Beginning of the Great Game,” in
   Nirmala Joshi (ed.), Central Asia. The Great Game Replayed, An Indian Perspective, Delhi: New Century
   Publications, 2003. 

7. Saule Makhametrakhimova, “Afghan pullout risks Central Asian Security,” JK Alternative Viewpoint, 23 August

8. Georgiy Voloshin,”Spillover of Afghan insecurity puts Central Asian regimes at risk,” Global Times, 1 September

*Ms. Anita Sengupta is a Fellow at Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Instituteof Asian Studies, Kolkata, specialising in Central Asia Studies.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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