Why the World Should Be Watching Central Asia

By Ishaan Tharoor (Time Mobile)

When Pakistani troops began to pummel Taliban positions in the Swat Valley last month, there were other military advances against insurgent outposts — barely noticed by the global media — taking place in valleys not so far away. In late May, Uzbek soldiers and tanks patrolled parts of the troubled Ferghana Valley following shootouts with suspected Islamist extremists and a suicide bombing in the valley’s main city of Andijan. In neighboring Tajikistan, government forces fanned out across the remote Rasht Valley in a supposed attempt to hunt down a notorious militant commander named Abdullo Rakhimov. The veteran jihadi, according to some local reports, had recently abandoned Taliban allies in Pakistan to resume the struggle in his nearby native land.

While much of the focus of the U.S.-led war on terror now surrounds that theater of operations the Obama administration terms “Af-Pak,” the post-Soviet ‘Stans to the north present their own strategic quagmire. The tactical support of governments in the region is becoming increasingly vital for U.S. plans to bring stability to Afghanistan. Central Asian countries also sit atop a significant chunk of the world’s untapped oil and natural gas reserves, assets which are eyed covetously by both neighboring Russia and China, as well as the West. Yet the region — dominated by corrupt and repressive regimes — is itself precariously poised, home to its own native Islamist insurgencies vulnerable to domestic upheaval. “There is the possibility for really unpredictable change,” says Jeffrey Mankoff, a fellow for Russian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. And it’s change few Central Asia watchers expect to be positive. While great powers vie for resources and influence, countries that were once seen as a bulwark against more turbulent nations to the south and west are themselves lurching toward crisis.

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