Islamic State joins the great game in Central Asia

There was a surprise element in the US State Department announcement on July 16 in Washington that its 2014 Human Rights Defender Award goes to a jailed Kyrgyz activist, Azimjam Askaraov. Indeed, the US decision to pick a row with Kyrgyzstan, of all the five “Stans” of Central Asia, is surprising because that country is, relatively speaking, the least authoritarian and repressive of the regimes in the region.

Without doubt, Washington feels emboldened to move up the human rights issue from the backburner now that the US is no longer beholden to the “Stans” to provide the Northern Distribution Network for supplying the American and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

All the same, Washington’s focus on the human rights issue at the present juncture is intriguing when the regional security is in great flux and Central Asia is gearing up to face the spill over from Afghanistan. The Tajik President Imomali Rahmon warned only last week that the “Stans” are facing their biggest ever security challenge since they emerged as independent states.

Unsurprisingly, the Kyrgyz government lost no time to condemn the US state department’s move as “creating a threat to civil peace and stability in society”. Furthermore, Bishkek signaled that it might be compelled to renounce the 1993 bilateral treaty between Kyrgyzstan and the US (which grants diplomatic immunity to all American aid workers deployed in Kyrgyzstan.)

Washington promptly warned that any move to abrogate the 1993 treaty could threaten the US-funded aid programs in Kyrgyzstan. An impression becomes unavoidable that Washington and Bishkek are acting and reacting according to some script.

From what one can make out, the Kyrgyz authorities probably suspect that the US aid workers are involved in some sort of covert activities and want them to leave and Washington would have got wind of it in advance.

Curiously, on July 16, Kyrgyz security forces killed six alleged Islamic State [IS] terrorists and detained five others in two shootouts in the capital city of Bishkek. Four Kyrgyz security personnel were wounded in the encounter, which lasted for over an hour. The Kyrgyz authorities have since said in a statement that the terrorists were planning to attack the Russian military base in Kant.

The Bishkek bazaar is full of rumors that the IS has made its appearance in the steppes as the geopolitical tool of the US in the great game in Central Asia.

But then, why would Kyrgyzstan become eligible as a “frontline state” in the great game in Central Asia? One reason could be that the country genuinely qualifies to be a battleground for influence for the big powers. Kyrgyzstan was once in the US orbit (following the “Tulip revolution” and the regime change in 2005), and although it is now regarded as an ally of Russia and has joined the Eurasia Economic Union [EEU], there are still enduring pockets of US influence in that country among the so-called “civil society” and the NGOs, which makes it also the weakest link within the EEU (and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.)

Of course, Kyrgyzstan’s geography is highly strategic. It extends into the Ferghana Valley, which is a hotbed of radical Islamist ideology, and it also shares a border with China’s Xinjiang province. In fact, there is a sizeable Uighur diaspora living in Kyrgyzstan.

To be sure, the loss of influence in Central Asia in the recent decade has prompted Washington to reset the compass of US diplomacy towards the region. In Central Asia, there is no crowbar more lethal than the human rights issue to put pressure on the authoritarian regimes in the region.

The human rights issue has popular resonance, and by championing it, the US can project itself to be on “the right side of history – unlike Russia or China.

The first signs of this tactical shift in the US’ Central Asia diplomacy became available in a speech made by Robert Berschinski, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the US State Department. Speaking at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Washington a month ago in a testimony titled as “Civil and Political Rights in Uzbekistan and Central Asia”, Berschinski gave a gloomy picture of the human rights record of the Central Asian regimes, going to the extraordinary extent of casting doubt on the legitimacy of the re-election recently of the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Nurusultan Nazarbayev and Islam Karimov.

Berschinski brought in a compelling argument that the human rights situation in Central Asia impacts international security insofar as the absence of religious freedom and a democratic opposition actually engender the rise of extremist groups in the region.

Berschinski later fleshed out this idea in another speech titled “The Role of Youth, Women, Religious Groups, and Civil Society in Preventing Violent Extremism”, which he delivered at the Central Asia and South Asia Regional Conference on Countering Violent Extremism at Astana, Kazakhstan, on June 30, just a fortnight before the announcement of the State Department’s 2014 Human Rights Defender Award.

(Copyright 2015 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Categories: Asia Times News & Features, Central Asia, M.K. Bhadrakumar

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  • Dan Kuhn

    The US worried about human rights? This must be the joke of the week. if they want to really do something about human rights they need look no farther than 90 miles from their coast to Guantanmo Bay.

    But of course with the US it is always do not do as I do, do as I say. I have said it many times, it is the hypocricy that makes the world hate them so much, certainly not their freedoms, those vanished long ago.

  • Cronos Sin Apellidos

    About human rights, just say that US Potus George W. Bush, and Obama defend torture.

    About the article, it really is scary. If real, US is going to keep spreading chaos further and further in Asia, trying to cut the new silk road and diminish the Russiah region of influence.

  • James Jerome

    All US NGO’s are full of Spies sent to initiate regime change everywhere they go. When they can’t do it with proselytizing, they do it with subversion. The US have the Gall to talk about Human rights when they are committing crimes against Humanity with the persecution and homicidal acts of police in America against American Blacks. They are hypocrites and everyone should resist them with every means necessary.

  • timebr

    The US wealthy and corporations are unfortunately addicted to war, terror and murdering of innocents in pursuit of riches and the US public tax dollars. Capitalism has reached the end of the line, little natural resources left to exploit so the rich are after war making and dismantling of public assets, social security, medicare, food assistance to the needy, public utilities and productive land globally.

  • timebr

    Try as they might but the biggest disadvantage for the west is their proximity to central Asia as well as their complete lack of respect and knowledge of the cultures and peoples of the region. It is very cost prohibitive for the US/Europe to transport war making materials to the regions in central Asia. On the other hand China and Russia are right there, especially Russia since as former Soviet Union has access and greater knowledge about the people and politics and does not have to transport troops and equipment over thousands of air, land and sea terrain..

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    As a personal opinion there are two aspects about Kyrgyzstan that have been and are thorns in the US foreign policy.
    -The first is when the US was at war in Afghanistan, against the Taliban. the leader of Kyrgyzstan refused to renew the lease on a US air base Manas, just outside Bishkek, under Russian pressure, in 2009. The lease amount was 17 million dollars per year. The lease was renewed but the new fee was 60 million dollars per year. Washington needed this air base to wage war in Afghanistan.
    -The second thorn for the US is that Kyrgyzstan is both a member nation of Russia’s CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) and China’s SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization)