Lord Curzon famously stated “who ever controls West Asia, controls the world”. In his view this entailed the exercise of a predominant influence over the destinies of Persia and Afghanistan – a role he reserved for British India.
BIRTH OF RADICAL ISLAMIST MILITANCY
by Hassan Rizvi
Today we have many nations desperate to acquire that role? NATO and ISAF led by the USA, fighting Al-Qaeda and the Pakhtuns (Taliban). Even Russia and China are not ignoring their strategic interests in the area; and of course the traditional rivals India and Pakistan always ready to fight a proxy war in Afghanistan. This article –and a few others to follow- will look at the issues at stake today – primarily from Pakistan’s point of view. But first an over view of the make up and strategic importance of Central Asia.
CENTRAL ASIAN DEMOGRAPHY
Once upon a time not so long ago the world’s biggest Empire possessed unimaginable land, wealth and potential. However, lacking the vision to manage what it possessed; it chose the wrong friends and made the wrong enemies resulting in an inevitable humiliation at the hands of a ‘despicable band of holy warriors’. China which should have been it’s biggest helper lifted not a finger to assist; and India which should have been it’s biggest friend shed not a single tear -in fact jumped on to the opposing band wagon with glee.
The monolith fell, and instead of the USSR we suddenly had fifteen sovereign states. In this series of articles we are concerned with only six of them now termed as the Central Asian Republics. They literally had independence thrust upon them –for none of them had lifted even a finger in any show of protest against USSR rule, or showed any solidarity with the coup of Boris Yeltsin. Yet after the events of Dec 1991 they had no choice except to be independent!
Central Asia can be termed ‘central’ as well as ‘a single region’ for more reasons than one.
THE CENTRAL ASIA
First it comprises most -but not all the territory – of what was formerly known as Turkistan, also as ‘inner Asia’, because of it being a land locked part of Asia; Second culturally and politically it lies in between many distinct civilizations –Roman Christianity to the west; Slavic Christianity and Communistic to the North; Chinese to the East and Islamic to the South. Third demographically and economically too it lies some where in the center –all have high rates of fertility and a high percentages of population engaged in agriculture, low per capita incomes and low rates of labor productivity as well as life expectancy. Fourth all of them have experienced Russian colonial rule and therefore have similar inefficient and corrupt post colonial government structures.
The political structures are highly centralized and based on feudally empowered ruling local elites working with the masters; while the economic structures are based on the classic definition of economic exploitation, in that the colonies were producers and suppliers of cheap agricultural as well as mineral raw material –with the additional imposition of the communistic pattern of organization in that the masters fixed what and how much had to be produced by each region.
This also resulted in some startling discrepancies; in that some regions despite their primitive base gained remarkably advanced technological infrastructures and equipment–including nuclear and space technology!
Last but not least like the colonial experience every where else; despite Russian attempts to eradicate their Islamic values, in all these regions, Islam remains deeply embedded in their social and political psyche. This gives rise to ideas of regional and global Islamic unity. Although again – like else where in the Muslim world – what exactly this means remains unclear!
Endless border disputes –again like the legacies left by colonial powers else where- are a source of constant internal friction preventing any unity for common welfare and development. All of Uzbekistan’s borders for instance are in dispute with its neighbors!
THE MINERAL WEALTH OF CENTRAL ASIA
Situated on the Caucasian Isthmus between Armenia and the Caspian Sea, it is a major oil producing country.
2. Turkmenistan (488,000 sq. mi)
The country has enormous oil, gas, coal and other natural resources and directly adjoins Afghanistan to the south.
3. Uzbekistan (172,000 sq. mi)
It too has vast resources in oil, gas, coal, copper and gold; and is a big cotton producer. It too adjoins Afghanistan.
4.Tajikistan (55,000 sq. mi)
Again like its other counterparts in the region, Tajikistan has a frontier with Afghanistan, and, has very rich deposits of oil, gas, coal, lead, zinc, uranium, radium etc.
Adjoining Tajikistan, Krgyzstan has a relatively well-developed industrial and agro-industrial base. It has a border with China to its east.
6. Kazakhstan (1,000 000 sq. mi)
Kazakhstan has absolutely vast reserves of coal, oil, gas, manganese, copper, bauxite, gold, uranium and many other minerals. It is highly developed both agriculturally as well as industrially. Possessing much of the former Soviet aerospace and defense industries, it also has common borders with both Russia and China.
Historically too the region has always been valued for its oil potential alone. The two great, World War I oil fields were in Texas and the Caspian Sea region of Imperial Russia. In WW II also Adolph Hitler launched Operation Blau to capture the Caspian Sea oil fields.
THE STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE OF AFGHANISTAN / PAKISTAN
In order to appreciate the strategic importance of Afghanistan /Pakistan, we have to first realize that any power which possesses the major route for transit of trade revolving round Central Asia’s vast oil, gas and mineral resources will gain immensely in wealth, power and prestige. With this in mind let us have a look at all the likely routes out of the area:
- The Routes Through The Caspian Sea
These are the most desirable routes from viewpoint of the EU. They are also the shortest routes out of the area and some have been operational since WW1.Moreover they allow for the possibility of the trans-shipments to Africa and SE Asia. This route empowers Europe.
Its more important sub-routes are:
- Kazakhstan through Russia to Novorossiysk (Route 1)
Built in 1997 by the Caspian Sea Consortium, this route helps maintain Russian control of oil shipment from the region.
- Old Russian Line from Baku To Novorossiysk (Route 2)
This historic line: Chechnya to Novorossiysk was closed because of the Chechens’ continuing struggle. Russia has recently completed a bypass around Chechnya and reactivated the pipeline.
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