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When you think of the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For some, it may be the Silk Road. For others, the (inaccurate) cultural stereotypes. Some might be surprised to learn they even exist. Yet few will think of the significant role these countries have played in global politics in their barely 30 years of independence. Their role is often overlooked, instead being viewed as “insignificant states”.
A great introduction to their role and dynamics is found in the books of Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, covers the attempts by Turkmenistan to export gas through the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI), avoiding Iran and Russia, and the resulting great power rivalry, which Rashid describes as the new Great Game. The book highlights Turkmenistan’s struggles in exporting its vast energy and mineral reserves.
A subsequent book, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, describes the causes of the rapid rise of radicalism in the region – covering both the historical background and the situation in the 1990s. Rashid focuses on poorly drawn borders, a Soviet legacy, and a population whose religious suppression was only lifted in the 1990s.
The next, Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, while focusing more on their neighbours Pakistan and Afghanistan, does have a section devoted to the complex situation in Uzbekistan after the Afghan War and the failure of the United States to create positive change.
In the aftermath of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, and an economically weakened Russia after the resurgence of the TAPI, understanding the Central Asian republics is as important as ever.
Image by Unsplash contributor AXP Photography