Collateral Victory: America's New Imperial Presence in Central Asia May Be a Preview of What's to Come in Iraq. the Picture Is Not Wholly Encouraging

By Caryl, Christian | The Washington Monthly, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Collateral Victory: America's New Imperial Presence in Central Asia May Be a Preview of What's to Come in Iraq. the Picture Is Not Wholly Encouraging


Caryl, Christian, The Washington Monthly


TO BE HONEST, SHERALY AKBOTOEV does not look like a homicidal fanatic. I was not sure what to expect as I waited, on a sweltering summer's day, in a visitors' room of the special prison in the secret-police headquarters in Bishkek, the capital of the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan. Then the barred door swung open and they led him in, a man in his early 40s, clean-shaven, affable, and dressed in a white football jersey with light blue numbers. In appearance, he was about as far as you could get from the Taliban prisoners--bearded, emaciated, obsessively fumbling their prayer beads--whom I had interviewed in a Northern Alliance jail in Afghanistan last fall. And yet, until a few months before we met, Akbotoev, too, had been a warrior of God, a member of the Taliban's Islamist International.

On September 11, he was living in Kabul, one of more than one thousand militant Islamists from Central Asia who had come to Afghanistan to train in Osama bin Laden's terrorist camps and learn from the Taliban how to overthrow their own governments and set up an Islamic state. But unlike bin Laden, Akbotoev didn't see America as his enemy. Rather, his anger was directed at the corrupt, authoritarian former communists running his country.

Indeed, when he first heard about the attacks on New York and Washington from a news broadcast on the Russian-language service of the BBC, he claims that his first reaction was sympathy: "We thought it was a terrible tragedy. We're people too, after all." But a few weeks later, Akbotoev was ordered to Logar, a province just south of Kabul and a Taliban stronghold. There, at the local mosque, he was ushered into a funeral service for the IMU's charismatic military leader, a man who went by the nom de guerre Juma Namangani. Namangani and his soldiers had been holding the line in the northern city of Kunduz against the U.S.-supported troops of the Northern Alliance. But when they tried to fall back to the city of Mazar-I-Sharif, the IMU convoy was attacked by U.S. planes firing missiles. The better part of the IMU's thousand or so active fighters were slaughtered; the jeep carrying Namangani and his bodyguards was shredded. What was left of their bodies arrived at the designated mosque for burial wrapped in blankets in the back of a minibus--"but there wasn't much," says Akbotoev, "just meat."

The grisly destruction of the IMU represented one of the greatest but least appreciated strategic triumphs in America's war on terrorism. U.S. forces not only removed--at least for the time being--the chief force for militant Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia, but also won, in return, U.S. military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Almost overnight, American military and political power achieved a presence in Central Asia. Now Washington is poised to put that presence to work unlocking the region's vast, largely untapped oil reserves, which could be used to bolster the independence of the new Central Asian states from jealous neighbors. And if the United States can eventually get that oil to market, it could undercut OPEC's hammerlock on world oil prices.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the United States suddenly finds itself the guarantor of peace and stability in this brittle, deeply impoverished part of the Muslim world--a role it appears to have little interest in fulfilling. Instead of building bridges of friendship to the people of Central Asia, we are instead aligning ourselves with the brutal dictators who oppress them. As a result, America may well become the new great enemy of the remnants of militant groups like the IMU--men like Akbotoev--and their countless peasant sympathizers. If the U.S. presence in Central Asia were to bring peace and prosperity to the region, we might reap gratitude rather than hatred. Instead, the Bush administration has scorned nation-building--even in Afghanistan still the source of most of the region's instability--and invited a backslide into militant Islam. …

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