Dialogue  July-September  2009, Volume 11 No.1


Central Asia: India’s Extended Neighbourhood


Nirmala Joshi


The geopolitical salience of Central Asia for India was never in doubt; either in the past or in the present. Two momentous developments of the last decade have brought this salience in an even more sharper and pointed manner than before.  One was the end of the Cold War followed by the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989. This led to a paradigm shift in the nature of security leading to a change in some of the earlier held assumptions about security.  Apart from the conventional understanding of security as protecting a nation’s territorial integrity, non-traditional threats and challenges such as religious extremism and terrorism became an integral component of the meaning of security. These forces had defeated the Soviet Union – a super power demonstrating the power and capabilities to inflict harm and defeat or break up nations. Since then these dangerous forces have grown and are an international concern for nations including India.  The second development which nearly coincided with the first one was the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991 leading to a radical change in the geopolitical landscape of Eurasia. New entities suddenly gained independence. Although the Cold War was over geopolitics did not loose its significance nor its relevance. Eminent geographer Halford Mackinder’s theory about the “heartlands of Eurasia and “pivot of history” regained a new relevance in the present context.  Eurasia once again began to draw world attention not only for its geopolitical significance, but for its abundant wealth of natural resources as well.  A dominating strand in Western strategic thinking about Eurasia has been that it should not be controlled by a single power.  Henry Kissinger, an influential American opinion maker said “Russia is a great power that has expanded for 400 years … our problem is to encourage Russia to stay within its borders”.1 Moreover, Russia has the potential to emerge as a pivotal player in international politics – an influential pole in the multi polar world.  Its role in Eurasia would be substantial in view of the leverages it continues to enjoy in its post Soviet space.  Many scholars and analysts consider Central Asia as the pivot of history.  In addition the perceived rise of India and China and their possible emergence as major players in the region in particular has to be factored in the changing geopolitical scenario of Eurasia.  The Eurasian region is likely to witness increased competition among the major players involved in the region.

    For India these fundamental changes in its neighbourhood have a deep and wide-ranging ramifications for its security interests.  After the retreat of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan, the US interest in the region began to flag leading to its gradual disinvolvement from the area.  Importantly, the two major players did not address the issue of heavily armed extremist groups and terrorist organizations.  They were neither disarmed nor the terrorist infrastructure dismantled. On the other hand, the mujahideens became more confident; the defeat of a super power and the establishment of their first government in Afghanistan was a powerful stimulus. They were in search of new targets; India and the newly emergent states of Central Asia were areas that received the attention of extremists.  Its ominous impact on India was the phenomenal rise in insurgency in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).  Apart from concerns of insurgent activities on its soil, India was equally concerned about the stability and security of the Central Asian States (CAS); its extended neighbourhood. “The emergence of ideology linked terrorism, abetment of and support to separatist insurgencies in other countries, economic crises and the spread of small arms are some of the factors that link India’s security directly with its extended neighbourhood”.2 With India’s growing involvement in Afghanistan, these concerns have assumed a heightened urgency. Indian stakes in a democratic, independent and secular Afghanistan are also linked with the stability and security of Central Asia. Apprehensions about the emergence of a strategic integrated region with religious orientations were India’s prime security concerns.

    The competitive trend among the US and its allies in the European Union (EU) on the one hand and Russia in cooperation with China on the other hand began to accelerate in Central Asia.  The issue of energy security, transport corridors and spread of one’s own influence became important factors in this unfolding competition – often referred to as the replay of the nineteenth century “great game”. Major powers have already established their presence in Central Asia. India’s extended neighbourhood is not peaceful as it would like to be.  The competition for the present is not conflictual, as there appears to be an alignment of interests.  It is proposed to examine these issues in this article.


Religious Extremism and Terrorism in Central Asia

    On gaining independence in 1991 there was an upsurge of religion in Central Asia.  There was a rapid rise in the construction of mosques and madrassahs and people began to observe religious practices with fervor and devotion.  Copies of the Koran were distributed freely.  The religious revival was most noticeable in the Fergana Valley, the stronghold of Islam even in the Soviet period.  At the external level it was Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates that played a central role in the spread of religion in Central Asia.  Over 5,000 mosques were built in Uzbekistan, while 1500 sprang up in southern Kyrgyzstan with foreign assistance.  Tajikistan and Kazakhstan also witnessed such building activity.  It must be noted that the people of Central Asia have always exuded a liberal ethos. The exposure to new ideas and novel cultures, scholars from all over the world flocking to Samarkand and Bukhara renowned centres of learning, the nomadic psyche and importantly the influence of Sufism have played a part in moulding a progressive outlook in the people.  During the Tsarist period contact with education, science and technology, etc. which continued in the Soviet period inculcated in the people a spirit of modernism, secularism and tolerance. Religious revival in Central Asia was partly a response to the suppression of religion during the Soviet period, and partly a search for an identity that was different from the Soviet one. The following remark by a perceptive Uzbek observer speaks about the Central Asian orientation.  He said “One hand must hold the Koran and the other a computer”.3 The people want a correct balance between modernity and tradition.

    Indian concerns were primarily externally fuelled extremism and terrorism which could destabilize the young states. Indian concerns were not unfounded.  Developments in neighbouring Afghanistan also began to impinge on the CAS, especially those bordering Afghanistan.  Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan share borders with Afghanistan.  Within a few months of gaining independence a civil war broke out in Tajikistan.  The Tajik Opposition sought refuge across the border.  Here they were welcomed, offered arms, training, financial support and safe sanctuaries. It was reported that special classes were organized to impart religious education.  This support enabled the Tajik civil war to last for five years (1992-97). There is a view that suggests that the Tajik Civil War was not a war between pro and anti religious elements but basically a power struggle.  The religious cover was essential to receive Afghan support. In the view of well known Tajik scholar Muzaffar Olimov “Reasons for the rise of intra Tajik conflicts are yet to be studied and demand a deep analysis….  One of the decisive roles in the escalating conflict is played by external factors”.4 Thus, the civil war was essentially a power struggle between two factions rather than a struggle for religious domination.  However, an important outcome for Tajik extremists was that they made contacts with other extremist groups and learnt about networking.

    The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan with the support of Pakistan was viewed with immense circumspection by India. The September 1996 offensive of the Taliban which overthrew the Rabbani government and captured Kabul was believed to have been part of Pakistan’s larger game plan to extend her influence in Central Asia.5 Taliban’s rapid expansion into northern parts fuelled ideas of “greater Afghanistan”.  Such ideas had the potential to destabilize the whole of Central Asia, if not break up Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The idea lost shine after the Taliban was routed by Western military forces in 2001.

    Under the influence of Taliban, the profile of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was rising. It is believed that the banned party Adolat reappeared as IMU. The IMU received full support from the Taliban.  In due course the IMU became a conduit for drugs and arms smuggling through Uzbek territory. In her Congressional Testimony Martha Brill Olcott a well known specialist on Central Asia said on 29th October 2003 “ … allegations that the IMU was tied to Al Qaeda network was well documented by materials seized in their camps in northern Afghanistan in late 2001 and early 2002.”6  The IMU carried out several incursions in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and even dared an attempt on the life of President Karimov in 1999.  During the war on terror the IMU fought alongside the Taliban.  It also suffered heavy reverses; its leader Jume Namangani was killed and its ranks decimated.  A faction of IMU led by Tohir Yoldashev is presently located in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

    Another extremist grouping the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), originally from the Middle East established its presence in the Fergana Valley. The HuT is most active in the Fergana Valley but also has a presence in Kazakhstan.  The objective of HuT is to establish a caliphate stretching from Mongolia to the shores of the Caspian Sea.  Its tactics are largely educational propaganda among the people though it is not averse to violence.  After the war on terror commenced the activities of HuT have been low key.  Clandestine religious extremist groups existed in Tajikistan and after 1991 they have surfaced and many new ones have been formed.  They are Bayat, Tablighi Jamaat, Akramiya Hizb-un-Nusrat. Most of these groups are oriented towards cultural rejuvenation.

    After Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) was launched in October 2001, extremism and terrorism received a decisive blow, and the Taliban were defeated.  A democratically elected President Hamid Karzai is at the helm of affairs in Afghanistan.  Despite the defeat of the Taliban the situation in Afghanistan continues to be unstable.  Forces of extremism and terrorism have not been destroyed and they continue to operate from Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands and the FATA region of Pakistan.  There is resurgence in their activities. In fact extremist groups and terrorist organizations have become confident and audacious. Closely intertwined with the issue of terrorism is the drug production and its transportation to consuming areas mostly in Europe. It is the drug profits that sustain insurgency. Another factor that impacts on insurgency is the proliferation of small arms in the region. This proliferation to date goes unchecked. The Obama Administration has promised a surge in troop levels in Afghanistan and by all indications this could be a decisive year in the history of war on terror.  There is a strong possibility that extremist groups and terrorist organizations could shift base to Tajikistan and the Fergana Valley. Such a possibility raises the spectre of destabilization of Central Asia.  It is also imperative that peace and stability of Afghanistan is ensured.  Peace and stability is inextricably linked to terrorism operating from Pakistani soil, and its ability to rein in these groups appears restricted.

    Connected with the rise of extremism and terrorism in the region was the role of Pakistan in the early years. After the victory of the mujahideens in Afghanistan, Pakistan had a vision of creating a strategic integrated region comprising Afghanistan and Pakistan. The idea was propounded by President Zia ul aq in HHaq in 1989 who passionately worked toward creating a pro Pakistani Islamic government in Kabul to be followed by the Islamisation of Central Asia. In military parlance this was Pakistan’s strategy to secure “strategic depth” in relation to India.7  In pursuit of this objective perhaps the issue of Afghanistan-Pakistan border – the Durrand Line was never resolved.  A porous border was to the advantage of Pakistan.  Therefore in official Indian thinking Pakistan has a vested interest in a weak and unstable Afghanistan which gives it an opportunity to meddle in the internal affairs of the country in pursuit of its quest for strategic depth vis-à-vis India and Central Asia.8  As mentioned Pakistan, UAE and Saudi Arabia were actively propagating the religious agenda in Central Asia immediately after gaining independence. These activities evoked a negative response from the CAS, instead they began to look to India for guidance and help.  The following statement of President Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan made during his visit to India in 1992 aptly reflects the prevailing sentiment. In his banquet speech President Akayev said “Kyrgyzstan is looking to India as an example as it sets about restructuring its economy and socio-political system”. Further he said “We categorically reject extremism of any kind. Let it be neither extremism of the communist type nor of religious fanatics.”9  This undoubtedly eased India’s worries about its security. The negative response from the CAS compelled Pakistan to abandon this one, and think of new approaches.  Since then Pakistan has evinced keen interest to emerge as a bridge between CAS and the rest of the world via its port cities of Karachi and Gwadar.  So far efforts in this direction have not succeeded mainly because of the uncertainties prevailing in the region.


Major Powers and Central Asia

    End of the bipolar world system did not bridge the gap between Russia and the West.  Perhaps geopolitical differences or both could be the root of this divide. Consequently Eurasia began to witness an increasing interplay of geo-strategic and geo-economic interests of the major powers.  On the one hand was the US and its allies in the EU, and on the other hand was Russia in cooperation with China. The issue at hand was should the policies of major powers be exclusive or inclusive in nature? The US had already put forward the idea of “geopolitical pluralism and multi culturalism” implying that the West also had vital stakes in Eurasia.  Russia argued that its interests in the region were of long standing and vital in nature and therefore the post Soviet space should be its exclusive zone of special interests. It is plausible that underlying these assumptions, as one may argue, was the competition to control the natural resources including energy resources and to expand Western influence by reducing Russian, if not eliminating it.  The inclusive approach had in reality an exclusive aspect. This is not to suggest that the cooperative aspect among the US and its allies, and Russia was missing in Eurasia.  Several issues have surfaced that require a collaborative and a cooperative approach, and both the sides have been cooperating in mutual interest.

    The US objective was initially to ensure the stability of Eurasia including Central Asia. In its perception the post Soviet space was emerging as an area of instability. It feared that this instability could spread to Europe as some of the states of post Soviet space adjoin Europe. To counter the Russian proposal of a ‘special zone’ of interest in the post Soviet space, the US put forth the concept of ‘geopolitical pluralism and multiculturalism’. The then Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott spelt out the American view.  According to Talbott “the countries of Caucasus and Central Asia should be independent, prosperous and secure. This would widen the area of stability in a strategically vital region that borders China, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan”.10  It was also around the mid nineties that inherent limits to partnership between the West and Russia had become clear. These limitations paved the way for ‘Cold Peace’, in which the competitive tendency became prominent.  The decision to enlarge the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in an eastward direction was made. All the CAS, except Turkmenistan are members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP). There was a growing concern for the security of the Central Asian region, this was because of the geostrategic location of Central Asia.

    It was the issue of energy security that brought forth in a sharp manner this competitive aspect. A peculiar geographical feature of Central Asia is that the region is landlocked and Uzbekistan is doubly so. Any attempts to transport the energy resources of Central Asia would require an excellent pipeline infrastructure. In no time the issue of building new and modern pipeline infrastructure assumed importance.  Inextricably linked to the issue of providing several options to the landlocked Central Asian countries was the politics of cold peace.  While planning the transportation routes attempts were made to bypass Russia and challenge its monopoly. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the lodestar of the West was designed and built bypassing Russia. It is now operational, though reports suggest that it is not working to full capacity.

    With the commencement of the war on terror in 2001 and the military presence of the West led by the US in Afghanistan enhanced tremendously the geopolitical significance of Central Asia. The CAS on their part have extended full support to the US led war on terror.  Recently when the Taliban cut off the NATO supply route through the Khyber Pass, Russia and the CAS have offered alternative supply routes.  For the present the US focus is on the war on terror.

    Russia has vital and comprehensive interests in Central Asia – geopolitical, strategic, historical, economic and demographic. Russia accords the topmost priority to its security interests.  There are no natural barriers that separate Russia and Kazakhstan.  In fact, had Russia not placed the Commonwealth of Independence States (CIS) peacekeeper on the Tajik-Afghan border, it is probable that hordes of extremism would have destabilized Central Asia and then the adjacent Russian areas. In pursuit of its objectives Russia has chosen the military and economic instruments to advance its interests.  Russia has been steadily increasing its military presence at the bilateral as well as the regional level.  It has formed the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in 2003. The CSTO aims at defence integration and has military base facilities in Kant and Osh in Kyrgyzstan and in Dushanbe Tajikistan.  Besides it has comprehensive military agreements with the CAS. The strategic aim of Russia is to restore its earlier influence in Central Asia.

    Economically, the rising prices of oil has catapulted Russia to a leading position as an energy power.  Russia has made skillful use of its advantage to subdue the CAS. The energy factor has also helped Russia to deal with the West from a position of strength. It initiated the Eurasian Gas Alliance, with aim to bind natural gas exports via Russia only. Though the energy rich Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are keen to diversify their routes and markets, for the present their options are limited via Russia.

    Hence we find that the energy issue had become a tool in this competition. The US and the EU would like to use the opportunity to help the CAS to diversify their routes and become independent, while for Russia the energy issue provides it an opportunity to regain its lost influence in Central Asia, by ensuring that these countries' energy strategies are in tandem with its own. Besides Russia has other levers of influence in terms of trade, migrations etc.

    China is gradually emerging as an influential power in Central Asia.  In the beginning China had modest aim to ensure peace and stability on its borders with the three CAS countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.  In 1996 the border issue was resolved and subsequently Chinese objectives began to expand. The rise of extremism, terrorism and separatism led China to broaden its agenda.  Its concern was mainly for the ethnic Turkic minority – the Uyghurs – settled in Xinjiang province in Western China.  China’s Western periphery and the Xinjiang region are vulnerable to extremist and terrorist activities. Incidentally, the Uyghurs are followers of Islam. The recent upsurge in Uyghur activity against the Central government indicates that this is an unresolved issue.  Energy security has become a major plank in China’s policy towards Central Asia.  China has signed substantive agreements with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and Kazakh oil has started flowing into China.  China’s engagement with the CAS is at the bilateral level as well as at the regional level.  The formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has provided China with a tool to enhance its engagement with the CAS. Chinese policy so far, has been in cooperation with Russia. In the long run China considers Central Asia as a land bridge to reach Caspian Sea.  This would give China a vantage position in a region that is fast acquiring immense strategic significance. In such an eventuality the competitive aspect may not remain a low key one.

    India’s extended neighbourhood, has thus attracted world attention since the inception of the CAS, and this attention has not flagged. By the mid nineties major and regional powers involvement in the region was substantial, and this left India with little choice. The inextricable link of politics and economy compounded the situation for India.  Nevertheless the ongoing competition is not hostile, but for the present seems low key.


Indian Policy

    India’s contacts with Central Asia date back to antiquity. It was a multifaceted interaction enriching in the process the histories and cultures of both sides. During the Soviet era Indian films and music were popular in Central Asia. In the changed context the past has become the bridge for future.  On gaining independence both India and the CAS renewed their contacts. The Presidents of CAS visited India in quick succession seeking assistance and guidance. Soon a wide area of shared commitment and interests emerged. Both the sides had the shared commitment in terms of building open, democratic and secular polities.  India and the CAS were also opposed to religious extremism and terrorism and had similar views on the source of these dangers and in their understanding about the regional environment. Thus, the commonality of interests lay in security, strategic, economic and cultural spheres.  India, therefore, considered Central Asia as part of its extended neighbourhood, though it does not share a direct boundary with any of the states.

    Despite the fund of goodwill and congruence of vital interests, Indian policy in the early years was not as vibrant as it ought to have been. It was a reactive policy. In the last decade Indian foreign policy was largely South Asia centric.  India’s primary interests and concerns were rooted in Pakistan and its activities in Central Asia. Attempts by Pakistan to spread the religious agenda, form a strategic integrated region were viewed with tremendous circumspection and concern. Besides India’s immediate concern after the break up was to restore India-Russia ties especially in view of the comprehensive cooperation in the defence field.  In view of developments in Afghanistan and the worsening security scenario for both India and the CAS particularly Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, India welcomed the role of Russia as the sole guarantor of security to Central Asia.  However, diplomatic exchanges and interaction did take place. Of equal significance was that India had just launched its economic reforms requiring attention and resources.

    The dawn of the twenty first century saw major changes in India’s strategic thinking. There is a paradigm shift in Indian foreign policy.  It was not focused only on South Asia, but India was willing to play a role in Asia in particular. India’s growing international profile, its growing economic strength and acceptance as one of the leading knowledge power placed India in the category of rising powers in Asia.  In view of its growing abilities, India energized its “Look East” and “Look Central Asia and West Asia” policies. Against the background of widening perception of India’s strategic interests, the Central Asian context has a new and greater significance than before. “Relations based on a shared commitment to open and progressive societies, secularism, and democracy, have been reinforced by similarity of views in the fight against terrorism …. In the sphere of defence, cooperation is taking the form of a security dialogue and training of armed forces personnel.”11  Simultaneously Indian involvement in Afghanistan after 2001 has grown substantially. The salience of Central Asia has also, therefore, grown tremendously. From the geopolitical perspective Afghanistan and Central Asia are interlinked. Indian policy towards the CAS is an energized and a proactive one. The Declaration of Strategic Partnership with Kazakhstan amply demonstrates India’s proactive policy in Central Asia.  Another area where India has energized its policy is in the energy sector and projection of its ‘soft power’.

     Indian interaction with CAS has generally been at the bilateral level.  Multilateral regional groupings namely, The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has a focus on security and economic development, while the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is aimed at defence integration. India is not member of these regional groupings, except it has Observer status in the SCO. The CAS are keen that Indian status in the SCO is upgraded so that it can play an effective role in the region. India is a member of the Kazakh initiative Conference on Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA).

    In conclusion it can be said that religious extremism and terrorism continue to threaten and challenge the territorial integrity of India and the CAS.  There is going to be a surge in US troop levels in Afghanistan and it is likely that the coming months would be decisive in the war on terror. One dangerous possibility is that extremists and terrorists are likely to shift base to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This has a potential to destabilize Central Asia and would have serious repercussions for Indian security. India can make a meaningful contribution in the area of sustained development. Similarly the scope for furthering defence cooperation needs to be further explored.  It is not difficult for India to achieve these objectives. What it needs is a policy that accords sustained priority to the region.



1. Martin Steff ,  “President’s Policy on Russia Faulted as too Optimistic”, Washington Times, March 5, 2005. Quoted by Stanley Kuber, NATO Expansion and the Danger of a Second Cold War.

2.  Annual Report 1998-99, Ministry of Defence, Government of India.

3. The Times of Central Asia (Brishkek), 7 February 2002.

4. Muzaffar Olimov,  “Central Asia after the Collapse of USSR and Islamic Radicalism” in J.N. Roy and B.B. Kumar, eds., India and Central Asia: Classical to Contemporary Periods (New Delhi 2007), p. 218.

5. Annual Report, 1996-1997, n. 2.

6. www.silkroadstudies.org.acc. on 10 November 2008.

7. Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos (London, Allen Lane 2008), p. 268.

8.  Annual Report, 2002-2993, n. 2.

9.  Indian Express  (New Delhi), 18 March 1992.

10. Strategic Digest, September 1997, pp. 1378-1383.

11. n. 8.


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