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The Next Threat: Political Instability in Central and South Asia by Ahmed Rashid

Journalist Ahmed Rashid argues that although the U.S. and its allies have defeated the military threat in Afghanistan, growing political instability in the region may provide a dangerous opportunity for Al Qaeda to rebuild. He calls on Western governments to turn their attention to the emerging political crises of Central and South Asia, which he says have been ignored in favor of the U.S.'s single-track policy of hunting down Al Qaeda leaders.

It's one year into the global war against terrorism, and the world can congratulate itself that Al Qaeda and the Taliban no longer pose a military threat to Afghanistan and the surrounding region. Al Qaeda have lost their central base and command centers in Afghanistan--although tactical failures by U.S. military forces led to thousands of Al Qaeda militants escaping the dragnet around Afghanistan and permeating the world with more dangerous and secretive terrorist groups, who will strike again in Western capitals sooner rather than later.

However, across Central and South Asia, the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan has led to growing instability and domestic political crises in every country. So far these political crises have been virtually ignored by the West, but they, rather than the continuing war against Al Qaeda, are likely to define the coming 12 months. The U.S. -- obsessed with its single-track policy of hunting down Al Qaeda leaders -- has not attempted to deal with the political ferment in the region. The Pentagon and the CIA still dominate policy-making in Washington and their strategy -- let alone their tactics -- has changed little since December 2001 when the Taliban were defeated.


Rashid is a journalist who has been covering Afghanistan for two decades. He is the author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale University Press, 2000.)

+ Afghanistan

Nine months after he became president, Hamid Karzai still has to extend the writ of government authority across the country and find a political formula to rein in the warlords outside the capital, who grow stronger and more defiant of central authority by the day. He has been prevented from doing so, not just by the continuing ethnic and tribal tensions in a country devastated by 23 years of war, but the stark failure of the international community to deliver on two key pledges it made last December at the signing of the Bonn agreement, which set up the new government in Kabul.

The first was to mobilize an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to stabilize Kabul and five other cities. The ISAF is currently present only in Kabul. The U.S. had blocked its expansion to other cities, but has now agreed that it should be expanded -- although the U.S. is not willing to donate peacekeeping troops towards a larger force.

Even more dangerous has been the world's failure to deliver on reconstruction funds to help rebuild the country -- which Karzai depends on to reduce warlordism and provide jobs and economic revival. Of the U.S. $1 billion that have been delivered so far, 90 percent of it has gone on humanitarian relief rather than long-term reconstruction projects. As a result, not a single housing or road building project has yet started.

+ Central Asia

In the five Central Asian republics whose leaders still hold Soviet-style elections where the ruler is the only candidate -- and even then the vote is heavily rigged -- the question of legitimacy has never been more pertinent. Since last October, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have hosted Western military forces for the war in Afghanistan, but they have used their newfound importance for the West as a convenient excuse to step up repression of the people and their political opponents.

For the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union a decade ago, Central Asia's long dormant and largely underground secular political opposition is galvanizing against dictatorship and in support of democracy. Almost all the Central Asian leaders are now threatened by their first significant public political movements and repeated demands for the leaders to resign, in addition to the continuing threat of Islamic extremists who were once supported by Al Qaeda. The economic meltdown and corruption in Central Asia is only adding to young peoples' frustration with their leaders.

Leaders of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan continue to reject demands by opposition political forces and the international community to carry out political and economic reforms. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan -- who host no Western forces, but have provided facilities to them -- have not hesitated to do the same.

The West has refused to intervene or use its newfound clout to persuade these rulers to change their ways and carry out political and economic reforms. A crisis is inevitable, and in the next 12 months several of these leaders may find themselves toppled from power. With no succession process in place and no institutions to hand over power peacefully, the danger of a longer-term instability is unavoidable.

+ Pakistan, India and Kashmir

In Pakistan the domestic crisis is even more volatile, and is reaching the boiling point, but it is conveniently ignored by Washington as long as military ruler President Pervez Musharraf continues to support the war against terrorism and provide military bases to the U.S.

Musharraf is coming to an end of his three-year military rule and has promised elections on Oct. 10. Yet it is already clear that Musharraf is planning a rigged election in which Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the leaders of the two largest political parties, will be barred from taking part. In a controversial and heavily rigged referendum in April, Musharraf appointed himself president for the next five years. Now he is trying to subvert the constitution to give the army a permanent role in the political system and create a military-dominated national security council that will override any future parliament or prime minister.

Musharraf is now totally isolated and faces a stream of criticism from all political parties and civic groups. A crisis will erupt either just before the election or right after when even the army's "selected parliament" is unlikely to rubber stamp all the constitutional changes he wants. A crisis in Pakistan will have overwhelming international and regional repercussions. With a bellicose India at the gates, Al Qaeda cells firmly planted inside the country, the breakdown of law and order as militant groups kill Westerners and Pakistani Christians, along with acute economic recession and deep polarization between secular democratic parties and the Islamic groups, the country's future is at stake.

Next door, India has until now used the war against terrorism to continue its repressive policies in Kashmir, actions which earlier this year prompted Pakistan to step up support for militant Kashmiris, which in turn led to near war between the two nuclear armed states.

U.S. diplomatic efforts have only gone as far as defusing the immediate crisis, but Kashmir remains on the boil. India is determined to hold elections there in September while Pakistan and the militants are determined to sabotage them. Another round of heightened tensions is unavoidable. The beleaguered military government in Pakistan and the increasingly extremist Hindu fundamentalist BJP, which leads the ruling coalition government in New Delhi, are unlikely partners to even start talks on Kashmir unless there is concerted international pressure.

+ Iran

Iran faces a paralyzing standoff between the moderate government of President Mohammed Khatami and the hard-line mullahs, which could erupt onto the streets with a single spark. The hardliners are now determined to destabilize Khatami by backing all anti-Western Islamic groups in the region, be they in Afghanistan, Central Asia or the Middle East, while the U.S. has disengaged itself from trying to open a dialogue with Khatami.

+ Acceding to Al Qaeda's Wishes?

Catching the remaining Al Qaeda cells in the U.S. or Europe will require patient intelligence and police work, but Al Qaeda or its extremist clones can never hope to rebuild a command and support base in the West as they did in Afghanistan. However, in the Central and South Asia region, instability, unpredictable regime changes or mass movements in the streets could lead to enormous opportunities for Al Qaeda to rebuild itself. An unstable Pakistan torn apart by tensions between the army and politicians, or a war between India and Pakistan that leads to Islamabad's defeat, could give the fundamentalists the opportunity they want to establish an Islamic state in Pakistan. The collapse of one or more Central Asian regimes, in the absence of democratic alternatives and in the midst of a seething economic malaise, could give the Islamic extremists the opportunity to set up new terrorism command and control centers.

What is clearly needed is a hard focus by the West to persuade these regimes that the war on terrorism must also mean that they have to change their ways and their relationship with their own people. There is no substitute for representative governments, which heal rather than further divide these extremely polarized societies. The international community's strategy must also include much greater economic support for the region as a whole. The ideas of "nation building" or "a Marshall plan for the region" -- which are anathema in Washington -- are essential if the West is to save the region from further instability and catastrophe.

Such a strategy would be also profoundly beneficial for improving relations between the West and the Muslim world. Angry Muslims will then have to face the reality that the West does not only destroy terrorist governments like the Taliban, but also helps in rebuilding countries and economies. However, none of this is likely to happen if the U.S. pushes ahead with its desire to attack Iraq without international support and while the Middle East is in flames. The Arab and Muslim world will erupt in universal anger -- and terrorism may then become the only political platform for many other groups to conduct a war against the U.S.

The war against terrorism has entered a much more critical and complex phase, which now involves helping rectify the gross political and economic imbalances in the region. It is going to need even greater commitment by the international community to meet this challenge, not less.

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