What would Central Asia be like today if the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 never had took place?
There are many questions to consider, and the easiest to answer might be related to global economic trends.
The Price of Oil and other minerals – Presumably without 9/11, there would be no Iraq war and no huge spike in the price of oil (or in the price of copper, gold, and other natural resources). The high price of oil and other minerals in the last several years has done wonders to generate huge amounts of capital for both Kazakhstan and Russia. It has made these two states the lead players in Central Asia. The price of oil has also probably accelerated thirst for oil in China and India, which results in increased Chinese and Indian engagement in the region. These all may be processes that were underway before 9/11, but the events unfolding from the terrorist attacks of September 11th probably accelerated them.
The Heroin Trade – If there had been no 9/11, there would have been no war in Afghanistan. The Taliban had been on the verge of significantly curtailing the production of heroin in Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion of the country. Now, heroin production in Afghanistan by most accounts is at a record high level. This has enormous ramifications for Central Asia, and for the economies of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in particular. Among other things, a dependency on the heroin trade in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan provides incentive not to initiate reforms related to the rule of law and offers no impetus for serious sustainable economic development in those countries. As we have seen recently in Kyrgyzstan, it also has led to the more visible participation of criminal elements in governance.
There are also some political transformations in Central Asia that appear to be visibly related to the events of September 11, 2001.
U.S. Military in Central Asia – The most vivid geopolitical transformation in Central Asia as a result of 9/11 has been the introduction of U.S. military bases and re-fueling stations in the region. Without 9/11, it is difficult to imagine that the U.S. would have been able to establish such a military presence in the region. People who have spent significant time in Central Asia know that this U.S. military presence is not readily visible in daily life. Unless one is hanging around the lobby of the Meridian Hotel in Tashkent, buying bootleg DVDs at the Tsum department store in Bishkek, or drinking at the bar at the Nissa Hotel in Ashghabat, one might never know of the U.S. military presence. The geopolitical ramifications of this presence, however, have been significant. It is at the root of the developing mistrust concerning U.S. intentions in the region that is presently held by Russia and China. It is also the primary impetus for the increase in U.S. engagement and US assistance money in the region. If in 2000, the U.S. government was thinking about gradually phasing out its assistance to the Central Asian states, post-2001 brought significant money into these countries, who had suddenly become major allies in the war on terror. Finally, one must assume that without the establishment of a significant U.S. military presence, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) would not be nearly as strong and important as it has become in the last several years.
The Complete Alienation of the Uyghur and Chechen Separatism Movements – While the Chechen and Uyghur separatist movements were already significantly marginalized in international politics by 2000, there was a certain constituency in the international community that had at least some sympathy for these movements (especially as they were articulated in peaceful terms). Part of engaging Russia and China in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) for the U.S. and Europe was a more explicit recognition that the Chechens and Uyghurs had no right to sovereignty in Russia and China respectively. While a denial of the rights of these groups to self-determination has not become official policy, recognizing both real and imagined terrorist groups among them has become official policy and tacitly ignoring their right to sovereignty has become more or less unofficial policy, in the United States at least.
The Increased Profile of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – Starting with the first state-of-the-union address after 9/11 when U.S. President George Bush highlighted the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) as part of the enemy in the GWOT, this apparently ill-organized rag-tag group of Uzbek rebels in Afghanistan became a global player that boosted the careers of scholars and analysts in the U.S. and drew the U.S. increasingly into the orbit of the domestic politics of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov. Incidently, the legacy of September 11th has also all but destroyed what had existed of the IMU.
The Establishment of U.S. Foreign Policy Focused on “South and Central Asia”—This policy has been evolving since September 11, 2001, but it has become a critical part of the U.S. engagement of both regions only recently with the establishment of a new bureau in the U.S. State Department focused on South and Central Asia as a unified region of the world. This will likely have major ramifications for Central Asia as the U.S. continues to see the former Soviet Republics of the region as critical to saving Afghanistan from itself and to saving the rest of the world from Afghanistan.
There are also some questions that remain unanswerable but are still provocative to consider nonetheless.
Would the events of Andijon ever have happened without 9/11?
Would the Tulip Revolution ever have happened without 9/11?
Would Nazarbayev, Niyazov, Karimov, and Rakhmanov still be in power if 9/11 had never happened?
Russian analysts who specialize in fueling the politics of a “new great game” and in demonizing U.S. policy in Central Asia as neo-imperialist would answer that Andijon and the Tulip revolution would never have happened and that all five Central Asian leaders who held power before 9/11 would continue to do so. They would argue that 9/11 began a U.S. policy of aggressive democracy promotion that facilitated the overthrow of President Akayev of Kyrgyzstan in March of 2005 and aided the protests in Andijon during May of 2005. Real figures for the U.S. assistance to the Central Asian states since September 11, 2001, however, would bring such analysis into question. The assistance to the Central Asian states for border security, anti-terrorist technology, and law enforcement since September 11, 2001 has been far more than that provided for the development of indigenous civil society organizations, independent media outlets, or electoral transparency. If one looks at these various assistance programs from this perspective, one wonders if the increased engagement by the U.S. in Central Asia since 2001 has served more to promote the status quo than to foster changes.