Inter Press Network

Monday, August 22, 2005

'The 'Great Game' Heats Up in Central Asia

Report Drafted By:Adam Wolfe

Russia and China delivered a one-two punch to Washington's ambitions in Central Asia on the eve of the G8 summit with a joint statement on "international order" followed by a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (S.C.O.) that was hostile to U.S. interests. While this combination was not enough to knock the U.S. out of the region, it was the most forceful challenge to U.S. interests in Central Asia since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Shanghai Cooperation Organization"]

Seeking to prevent any further damage to Washington's position in the "Great Game," last week U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld traveled to the region to shore up support for maintaining its bilateral agreements with the key players. This was followed by Uzbekistan announcing a deadline for U.S. withdrawal from a military base in its territory. These moves indicate that even though fighting in Afghanistan has yet to cool down, the traditional power politics of Central Asia are heating up.

China and Russia Coordinate Their Central Asian Policies

Before the S.C.O. meeting, Russia's and China's leaders met at the Kremlin on July 1 to discuss their goals in Central Asia and to discuss the upcoming G8 summit. The meeting signaled a shift toward greater cooperation between the two states, completely solved their long-standing border disputes from the legal perspective, and laid the foundation for greater integration of their state-controlled oil companies and banking sectors. One reason that the atmosphere in the Kremlin was so unusually amiable was the perception that a shared threat loomed larger than their differences in policy goals; that threat was Washington's role in Central Asia.

The "Joint Statement of the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation Regarding the International Order of the 21st Century," signed by Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 2, addresses U.S. hegemony in several less-than-oblique passages. The text emphasizes "non-interference in internal affairs," "mutual respect" for other nations' "sovereignty," and stresses the role of "multipolarity" in dealing with conflicts.

In a passage aimed at Washington's perceived encroachment in Central Asia, the document states, "The peoples of all countries should be allowed to decide the affairs of their own countries, and world affairs should be decided through dialogue and consultation on a multilateral and collective basis. The international community should thoroughly renounce the mentality of confrontation and alignment, should not pursue the right to monopolize or dominate world affairs, and should not divide countries into a leading camp and a subordinate camp." This last statement could also easily be read as a preemptive dismissal of the G8 on the eve of the Scotland meeting. Though Russia is now a member and China an observer of the grouping, they feel that the organization is dominated by the West's agenda.

This dismissal of Western-style multilateralism is further expanded in a passing broadside aimed at the World Bank and the I.M.F. and their emphasis on reform in exchange for aid or loans: "The international community should establish an economic and trade regime that is comprehensive and widely accepted and that operates through the means of holding negotiations on an equal footing, discarding the practice of applying pressure and sanctions to coerce unilateral economic concessions, and bringing into play the roles of global and regional multilateral organizations and mechanisms."

Beijing and Moscow resent the West demanding economic reforms before further integrating China and Russia into the existing globalization power structures. They wish to present an alternative marketplace for developing countries to sell their goods -- one that does not tie economic access to reform or transparency. China has been able to successfully use the widely expected expansion of its domestic market to sell this alternative source of revenue to countries irked by the I.M.F. or World Bank, from South America to Africa. Now it hopes to further cement such a relationship with the states of Central Asia.

In the joint statement, China and Russia sent a clear message to the other members of the S.C.O. -- Washington poses a threat to Central Asia's sovereignty; China and Russia can offer a similar economic and security package, only it will be designed to preserve the current status quo not to encourage market economies or democratic reforms. Fearing future waves of "color" revolutions in the region, these states were eager to receive this message.

A Bigger and Stronger S.C.O.

On July 5, the members of the S.C.O. -- China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- met in Astana, Kazakhstan to discuss the changing political situation in Central Asia. While previous meetings focused nearly exclusively on the "three evil forces" -- terrorism, separatism and extremism -- and were dominated by China's desire to control the Uighur population in its Xinjiang region and protect its access to energy resources, this meeting demonstrated that the organization, which represents nearly 50 percent of the world's population when including states with observer status, desires to be a serious force in international affairs. This can be seen in the granting of observer status to India (at Russia's request), Pakistan (at China's insistence) and Iran (to the delight of all members).

The environment of the S.C.O. meeting was most influenced by the reaction to Uzbekistan's violent suppression of the May rebellion in Andijan. Western criticism of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's tactics brought to the surface the fears that the clan-based governments of Central Asia might fall in a wave of "color" revolutions, similar to that of Ukraine's "orange" revolution. Russia and China provided blanket support for Karimov after the suppression, while Washington could only offer nuanced criticism, fearing that intense criticism of Karimov would result in the loss of access to the Karshi-Khanabad air base, or K2, used to support U.S. operations in Afghanistan; nevertheless, the loss of this base now appears a likely scenario.

Washington's criticism was enough to spread fear throughout the ruling clans of Central Asia that the U.S. is engaged in covert operations to undermine or overthrow the current ruling regimes. This fear does not even escape Kyrgyzstan's subsequently elected government -- which swept into power in a similar manner as Ukraine's government -- because its support still rests on a shaky foundation of clan alliances.

In this environment, the S.C.O. sought to limit Washington's presence in the region -- Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan shifted their support to China and Russia in order to protect their sovereignty from U.S. meddling. The joint declaration issued at the end of the summit took aim at Washington by rejecting attempts at "monopolizing or dominating international affairs" and insisting on "non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states." The members further urged the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan to declare a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Uzbek and Kyrgyz bases in the region that were established to support the Afghan operations. The Central Asian states see it in their interests to fill the power vacuum that the withdrawals would create with that of China and Russia, which they believe would better ensure the longevity of their regimes.

Top U.S. General Richard B. Myers summed up Washington's interpretation of the shift in blunt terms: "It looks to me like two very large countries were trying to bully some smaller countries." Ten days later, Rumsfeld landed in Kyrgyzstan to ensure that the world's only superpower wasn't elbowed out of the region.

Washington Pushes Back

The U.S. secretary of defense's visit to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan was aimed at shoring up support for the continuation of the U.S. military presence in each country, which was successful at least for the mid-term. Kyrgyzstan hosts a U.S. military base at the Manas air base, and Tajikistan offers the U.S. military and N.A.T.O. fly-over rights and hosts a small contingent of French soldiers involved in Afghan operations. French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie was in Dushanbe on July 21 to firm up that arrangement. Notably, Rumsfeld did not visit Uzbekistan, the other S.C.O. member-state that hosts a U.S. military base. Whether his absence was the result of an Uzbek request or a calculation of Washington's, it demonstrated how the U.S. plans to address the shifting power relations in the region.

Washington has approached Central Asia on bilateral terms, never treating the S.C.O. members as a bloc. In terms of leverage in the relations, this shifts the fulcrum to Washington's advantage. China and Russia encourage the S.C.O. states to act multilaterally in an effort to limit Washington's reach. Rumsfeld's trip demonstrated Washington's ability to act bilaterally with Kyrgyzstan, which has a newly elected government and has yet to congeal its foreign policy fully, and with Tajikistan, which has traditionally been the S.C.O. member that follows a balanced approach with its foreign suitors.

Recently, the relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have shown the strengths of Washington's bilateral approach. When more than 500 Uzbeks crossed over into Kyrgyzstan following the crushing of protesters in Andijan, Kyrgyzstan initially reacted in step with the Uzbek government. Eighty-seven Uzbek refugees were sent back, prompting outrage from the U.N. and Washington. This led to negotiations between the U.N. and officials in Kyrgyzstan, which, by Washington's design, left out any avenue for input from Uzbekistan. On July 29, a plane with 440 Uzbek refugees left Kyrgyzstan for Romania. This demonstrated Washington's ability to influence directly the geopolitics of Central Asia only a few weeks after the united front presented by the S.C.O. called for a U.S. withdrawal.

However, in dealing with Karimov's government in Uzbekistan, Washington's bilateral approach is no longer effective, in part because of its success in Kyrgyzstan. The Uzbek suspicion of Washington's involvement in the Kyrgyzstan revolution and uprising in Andijan has caused Karimov to throw his government's support behind China's and Russia's vision for the region. As such, the same day that the plane carried refugees out of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan asked Washington to leave the K2 air base within 180 days. The immediate reaction from Washington was to hold back on sending a high-level representative to renegotiate the arrangement while waiting for things to "cool down."

This seems to suggest that the U.S. is leaning toward the future goal of regime change in Uzbekistan and is willing to sacrifice the air base if necessary. This does not mean that Washington will cut off all relations with Uzbekistan, but if it becomes apparent that future negotiations will not lead to an extension of the air base use agreement, Washington can be expected to pursue further bilateral agreements with the other governments in Central Asia to isolate Karimov's government.


Beijing, Moscow and Washington are once again using Central Asia, the setting for the "Great Game" between Tsarist Russia and Victorian England more than 150 years ago, as their game board in a region rarely neglected by the world's great powers. In the contemporary version of the game, Washington approaches each state bilaterally, offering incentives to support the operations in Afghanistan while undermining the consensus put forth at the recent S.C.O. meeting.

China and Russia are acting in tandem to shore up support for S.C.O. policies by offering blanket support for the current regimes and implicitly calling attention to U.S.-led efforts to undermine their governments. The states hosting the game board will continue to swing their support from China and Russia to the U.S., and back again, so long as they keep their hold on power. The past month has seen a flurry of activity in the Great Game, and it can be expected that things will not cool down anytime soon.

Shanghai bloc expands reach

By Raza Naqvi
August 20, 2005

An alliance of six Central Asian nations has emerged as a serious contender in the geopolitics of the region, posing a direct challenge to President Bush's push for democratic reform among the area's authoritarian states.

Dominated by China and Russia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) also is seen by regional specialists as a vehicle for reviving the Great Game struggle for supremacy that dominated politics in the regions in the 19th century and during the Cold War.

"The SCO has always been conceived of as a way for countering American influence in the region," said Stephen Blank, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Army War College.

The SCO powers "have gotten a lot more apprehensive about [U.S.] bases and about the Bush democratization policy," he said.

The Sino-Russian drive to mold the SCO into an effective regional force comes as the one-time Cold War rivals are also intensifying bilateral ties, capped by an unprecedented joint military exercise that began Thursday.

At its most recent summit last month in Astana, Kazakhstan, the SCO -- which includes Russia, China, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan -- made its most assertive statement to date, demanding a timetable for American troops to pull out of strategic military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan that were set up to support the 2001-2002 war in Afghanistan.

"Considering the active phase of the military antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan has finished, [SCO] member-states ... consider it essential that the relevant participants in the antiterrorist coalition set deadlines on the temporary use" of air bases in Uzbekistan, the declaration said.

The bases were logistical hubs for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and are still essential supply posts for the region.

The SCO also is expanding its reach in other ways.

India, Pakistan and -- most worrying for the United States -- Iran also were invited as observers to the Astana summit. Pakistan attended at China's request, while Russia extended the invitation to India. Iranian officials came by mutual agreement.

"I would guess that this is a demonstration of diplomatic support by China in the first place and Russia in the second," said Robert Cutler, research fellow at the Institute for European and Russian Studies at Carleton College in Minnesota. "And since the SCO is concerned with promoting economic cooperation, China would see an opportunity for cooperation with Iran."

But "China and Russia did not invite Iran to intimidate the United States," he added.

There are growing signs that Russia and China are using the organization to re-establish their influence in the region, reviving the Great Game in which Russia, the United States and regional powers vied for influence in Eurasia.

The statement of the SCO summit was the most palpable signal of the organization's changing role in the region.

Mr. Cutler said China was the "motivating force" behind the push to enhance the SCO's clout. The alliance got its start in the late 1990s as a way to ease regional tensions and resolve border disputes.

When Uzbekistan joined the "Shanghai Five" in 2001, the alliance already was turning its attention to joint anti-terrorist and political cooperation in the post-September 11 world.

"It was a Chinese diplomatic initiative that gave it the traction to turn into something broader than simple border demarcations," Mr. Cutler said. "As time has gone on, Russia has also seen it in its interest" to use the SCO for exercising its influence in Central Asia.

The U.S. presence, massively increased with the Afghan war and its aftermath, "scrambled things up," he added.

On July 2, just prior to the Astana summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao issued a joint statement on the "international order of the 21st century," a declaration widely seen as a veiled warning about unchecked American power in Central Asia and beyond.

"The peoples of all countries should be allowed to decide the affairs of their own countries, and world affairs should be decided through dialogue and consultation on a multilateral and collective basis," the statement said in part.

"The international community should thoroughly renounce the mentality of confrontation and alignment, should not pursue the right to monopolize or dominate world affairs, and should not divide countries into a leading camp and a subordinate camp," it said.

According to the Internet-based Power and Interest News Report (, the two presidents signed the statement out of a "perception that a shared threat loomed larger than their [own] differences in policy goals; that threat was Washington's role in Central Asia."

Russia and China this week began an unprecedented joint military exercise conducted in part close to the Korean Peninsula. "Peace Mission 2005," involves Russian fighter planes and paratroopers, China's nuclear submarine fleet and approximately 10,000 troops in total.

U.S. officials say they do not see the exercises as hostile to American interests, but Pentagon officials add they will be watching the exercises very closely.

Since the end of the SCO summit last month, Uzbekistan, the newest member of the bloc, has essentially evicted U.S. forces from its Karshi-Khanabad base, a base that played a pivotal role in the U.S.-led Afghan campaign. More recently, the base had been used as a supply transit point for humanitarian aid into northern Afghanistan.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov's decision to end the U.S. base accord is seen as the culmination of deteriorating relations with Washington following the U.S.-backed democratic revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine that overthrew pro-Moscow governments.

According to analysts, Mr. Karimov suspected an American hand in the 2003 ouster of President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia and fears the Bush administration is encouraging similar democratic revolutions elsewhere around the Russian periphery.

"It's a reasonable assertion that Karimov would see these changes in the region as implements of U.S. policy," Mr. Cutler said. "These uprisings were probably encouraged and equipped by the U.S. government or related [private groups]."

Prior to the political upheavals in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan had been pursuing pro-U.S. policies to boost economic and political cooperation.

However, both Mr. Karimov and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev have shifted course, feeling threatened by U.S. calls for democratic reforms in the region.

The SCO, regional analysts say, provides both leaders with diplomatic cover and the backing of Russia and China, neither of whom has embraced the U.S. drive for reform.

Still, despite setbacks in Uzbekistan, the United States maintains a strong foothold in the region, enhanced by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's recent visit to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Kyrgyzstan, the site of the second largest U.S. base in Central Asia, told Mr. Rumsfeld last month that U.S. forces were welcome to stay as long as Washington deemed necessary. New President Kurmanbek Bakiyev appeared eager to balance good ties with Washington with his country's overtures to Russia and China through the SCO.

In a number of Central Asian countries, it is the democratic opposition which is the strongest supporter of continued U.S. ties and the most skeptical of the SCO's agenda.

Opposition leaders from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, another Central Asian authoritarian state under pressure to reform, have stressed the need for a force to "counterbalance" Russian and Chinese influence in the region.

"To us, American troops in the region are a guarantee of security," said Asim Mollazade, founder of the Democratic Reforms Party of Azerbaijan, during a recent Washington visit. "The United States gave us support in our fight for independence against the Soviets and now they are supporting us in our democratic aspirations."

Alikhan Baimenov, a democratic opposition leader in Kazakhstan, was more even more emphatic.

"A U.S. withdrawal from Central Asia will give Russia a chance to move in," he said. "They have their own interests."

Al-Qaeda's Proliferating Ideology

Drafted By: Erich Marquardt

The July 7, 2005 attacks in London served as reminders that there is no end in sight to the current campaign by Islamists against the United States and its allies. The attacks were committed by British citizens, some of whom were raised in the country. This fact is important since it displays how segments of the British Muslim population became so alienated by British foreign policy that they contributed to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's movement against the United States and its allies.

Furthermore, the strikes came after similar attacks in Madrid, where on May 11, 2004, 191 people were killed and over 600 wounded when ten bombs were detonated on the city's train line. Spain has held many suspects in these attacks; some are Moroccan, others Tunisian, but all Muslim.

If attacks such as these continue, it will mark al-Qaeda's success at listing an accurate set of grievances against the West that many Muslims share. By exploiting those that agree with this set of grievances, al-Qaeda is bound to organize, and, more importantly, inspire segments of the Muslim population to take violent action against the U.S. and its allies. [See: "The Threat of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Revolutionary Movement"]

Implications of the London Attacks

The July 7 attacks in London were coordinated effectively, with multiple militants exploding four bombs within an hour's time frame. Three of the bombs struck underground trains, while the last bomb destroyed one of London's trademark double-decker busses. The attacks occurred in downtown London and sent a message to many governments that similar style incidents could occur anywhere. The attacks left some 50 dead and hundreds injured. Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, an Islamist group that was formed in 2001, claimed responsibility for the actions. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Islamist Terrorism in Europe"]

Two weeks after the July 7 attacks, Muslim militants targeted London's transportation system again -- the Brigades also claimed responsibility for these attacks. Where the July 7 militants succeeded, the July 21 militants failed. The July 21 attacks targeted the London transportation system yet none of the bombs detonated properly and there were no serious casualties. Indeed, one of the suspects, Hussain Osman -- also known as Hamdi Issac -- argues that the July 21 attacks were merely "copycat" attacks intended to foment fear and panic, but not to actually kill anyone.

London investigators have also not been able to uncover any connection between the July 7 attackers -- who are believed to have died in the attacks -- and the July 21 attackers. The July 7 attackers, for instance, were of Pakistani descent, while the July 21 attackers were African. Investigators have not ruled out a connection yet. More importantly, investigators believe that the two groups of militants had no organizational relationship with al-Qaeda. This development, if it is true, further highlights how bin Laden's rhetoric has emboldened Muslims across the world who agree with his argument of the need for a "defensive jihad" against the U.S. and its allies. [See: "The Threat of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Revolutionary Movement"]

If there were no organizational ties to al-Qaeda, the London attacks signify the difficulties in preventing such acts in the future since there is no one group to infiltrate and eliminate. For instance, while the latest attacks were claimed by the Brigades, it is not clear whether the organization had any real role in the operations.

Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades

The Brigades were formed in 2001 after the death of al-Qaeda leader Abu Hafs al-Masri -- known as Muhammad Atef -- in Afghanistan; the organization's title also bears his name. Their first attributed attack occurred on March 9, 2004, when two suicide bombers detonated themselves in Istanbul, killing one person and injuring five others. Then, on May 11, 2004, the group claimed responsibility for the terror attack on Madrid's transportation system, where 191 people were killed and over 600 wounded when ten bombs were detonated on the train line. The Brigades claimed that the strike was in response to Spain's military support of the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq.

However, it is not clear how involved the Brigades were in all of these incidents; indeed, many of its claims have been proven false. For instance, the organization claimed responsibility for the August 5, 2004 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, in addition to the power blackout in August 2003 that affected the northeast United States; both claims turned out to be false. Because of these inconsistencies, it is possible that a figure within the organization lays claim to attacks that the group had no role in, simply to promote the notion that the organization is an organized and lethal force.

The veracity of the Brigades' claims are important, considering that after the London attacks the organization released a statement giving Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands an August 15 deadline to withdraw troops from Iraq. Failure to meet the deadline, the organization argued, would result in assaults on these countries by Islamist militants. This deadline has concerned Italy greatly, since the country fears that its support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq has made it a high target for Islamists.

Concern in Italy

Italians fear that members of their own Muslim population could follow al-Qaeda's ideology and launch an attack on Italian soil. On July 12, for instance, the Italian military intelligence agency S.I.S.M.I. released an alarming report where it stated that some 300 Islamist suicide fighters successfully reached Iraq from other countries -- three of them were proven to have come from Italy. This knowledge is concerning and embarrassing for the Italian government, for it sheds doubt on Rome's ability to combat internal militants since it cannot even prevent them from leaving Italy to fight in Iraq.

However, even if the Brigades does not have the operational capacity that it proclaims, Italy's support of the U.S. still makes it a target for other Islamist militants, and the government is aware of this. The success of the July 7 London attacks, and even the fear caused by the failed July 21 attacks, prodded Rome to action, and in recent days it has taken serious measures against potential Islamists within its borders.

On August 15, Italian police announced that more than 100 suspected Islamists had been arrested, and that Rome would expel hundreds more; the action is part of Italy's anti-terror sweep that is now possible due to legislation passed after the London attacks giving the Italian police more power. According to the Italian Interior Ministry, police targeted "Islamic gathering places: call centers, Internet points, Islamic butcher shops and money transfer business."

The ministry also stated that it ordered over 700 people to leave Italy for violating immigration laws. Also on August 15, the ministry stated that its current intelligence can "confirm that an elevated risk for a terrorist attack in our country remains." As the September 11, 2001 anniversary draws near, the Italian government is being extra vigilant in case militants are planning to launch an attack on that day in order to tie special significance to their actions.

Denmark and the Netherlands

Denmark is also a country on the Brigades' hit list. Some 500 Danish troops are in Iraq fighting alongside U.S.-led forces. Islam is now the second largest religion in Denmark, making up about five percent of the population.

In recent weeks, Danish police have been very visible in the country's capital, Copenhagen, and have been especially vigilant in protecting the city's public transportation system.

While it has not responded with the same vigor as Rome, Copenhagen has taken action against some Muslim extremist groups. Just recently, for instance, Fadi Abdullatif, spokesman for the Danish wing of Hizb ut-Tahrir -- a radical Islamist group -- was arrested due to his threats against the Danish government. Such rhetoric was seen in a Hizb ut-Tahrir handout, distributed in Denmark, that said, "So, travel to help your brothers in Fallujah and exterminate your rulers if they block your way."

The Netherlands was also threatened with the August 15 deadline. However, the Netherlands withdrew its troops even before the threat was levied. Nevertheless, the country feels that it could be next in an attack, especially since it has large Moroccan and Turkish communities that have not been completely integrated with Dutch society.


It is difficult to draw conclusions regarding the Islamic revolutionary movement. A logical assessment is that U.S. military operations against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan scattered an already relatively primitive organization. Continued U.S. vigilance in that country and elsewhere will make it difficult for al-Qaeda to orchestrate any large-scale attacks against the United States, or even its major European allies.

Yet, because of al-Qaeda's attractive ideology, similar attacks such as those that occurred in London and Madrid, in addition to those that have been executed in other capitals around the world, will continue. In these cases, militant individuals or Muslim war veterans will be drawn together to undertake the planning and execution of attacks against the interests of the U.S. and its allies. These individuals and groups may have no organizational relationship with al-Qaeda, but agree with bin Laden's rhetoric against the West and are willing to use violence to further this goal.

While it is possible to prevent al-Qaeda from developing into a larger and more sophisticated organization, it is less possible to prevent small-scale attacks from unknown and unidentified militants who develop plans to attack the West with the motive being equal to a religious and political grievance. Preventing these attacks will require the creation of a security state, a possibility that is not likely in Western countries. Of course, as long as vigilance remains high, it is also unlikely that Muslim militants will be able to execute a massive and sustained terror campaign. However, such knowledge is not especially reassuring to the West as it only takes one lucky and well-placed strike to cause a major catastrophe.