Central Asia: the world's tinderbox

By Tom Putnam | Jul 07, 2010
Tom Putnam

The West has been involved in the Middle East and Central Asia for many decades. A principle reason is the huge oil reserves that exist in that portion of the world. Franklin Roosevelt believed Germany lost World War II because it ran out of petroleum supplies as a result of allied bombings in Eastern Europe. The United States had developed a relationship with Saudi Arabia, which enabled the Western Allies to have unlimited access to their oil supplies. The United States had its own oil reserves on its mainland to supply its energy needs, but World War II, with its mechanized military might, required extensive access to petroleum. Since that time, the United States has been importing more and more of its petroleum from the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq. Middle Eastern oil producing countries have been able to control, until recently, the price of crude oil: witness the 1970s, when OPEC jacked the price of oil to record highs. The price of gasoline at U.S. pumps rose from 30 cents a gallon to more than 75 cents. Since this country runs on petroleum energy, the price of all commodities shot up to unimagined heights. (And what goes up -- essentially never comes down.) Remember the price of a loaf of bread at 25 cents?

Then along came al-Qaida. We had met up with the organization in the 1980s when we joined forces to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The young Saudi Osama bin Laden raised substantial sums of money to help sustain that effort and we were grateful for his efforts. Little did we realize his other motives.

I understand that U.S. intelligence began to get some disquieting information about bin Laden and his organization in the late 1990s, but not until Sept. 11, 2001, did we realize the extent of his hatred for the West and particularly the United States. Now we became concerned about Central Asia for reasons other than oil.

There is another burgeoning factor in this mix: atomic weapons. The United Nations had passed a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It recognized that certain countries had nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, China, England and France. Signatory countries to the treaty forswore the development of nuclear weapons. There are countries, however, that have gone ahead and developed their own nuclear weaponry. Israel is believed to have "the bomb" although it has not admitted it, and India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons as does North Korea, and in short time so will Iran.

In 2003, the United States and Great Britain invaded Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence that it had nuclear weaponry. No weapons were found, but intelligence has it that Saddam Hussein's Army assured him of their existence, fearing for their lives if he found out the truth. Israel had previously bombed an atomic development plant in Iraq and also one more recently in Syria.

The real worry today is the security of the nuclear weapons in Pakistan; and in today's world, the nearness of Iran's developing its own nuclear weaponry.

Now let's look at the political situation in Central Asia. War is in its ninth year in Afghanistan and there are no signs of any victory for the West. Developing news would indicate that we may be pulling out of there sooner than the scheduled date of July 2011. It remains a tribal area with distrust for all members not of your tribe or not of your particular Islamic persuasion.

That is also the major force that has prevented the emergence of a true democracy in Iraq, an allegedly educated country. Those factors also influence Pakistan. The only force that seems to be able to attain some semblance of control in Pakistan is the military, and there is much opposition to that in the country itself. Now the "new kids on the block" are Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan -- members of the former Soviet Union. The entire area has been tribal in nature for millennia. When the Soviet Union came into existence in the early decades of the 20th century, it set up specific boundaries for the various new states, without particular regard for tribal ethnicity. Kyrgyzstan contains Kyrgyz tribes in the northern part, and Tajik, and Uzbek tribes in the southern portion. Distinct tribal cultures continue.

With the gradual dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Kyrgyzstan's evolving government elected a president, Askar Akayev. As in today's world in that area, there was corruption and favoritism. President Akayev, from the northern part of the country, was deposed and left the country for Moscow. A second president, Kurmambek Bakiyer, from the southern part was chosen, but he too was forced out of office and fled to Belarus. The new president, for the first time a woman, Ms. Otunbayeva, is afraid for her safety to travel to southern Kyrgyzstan where the minority Uzbeks are revolting and many deaths have resulted in both ethnic cultures. There seems to be no end in sight. This is another case of tribal conflict that seems so foreign to the western mind.

Kyrgyzstan's stability is important to the United States; we have a military base there that supports the continuing unrest in Afghanistan. Now add to this horrific mix, the development of nuclear weapons, and the question of their security. That is a situation that could lead to catastrophic consequences and no one knows how to stop it.

Since President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq because of suspected nuclear weapons, and the unending war in Afghanistan because of al-Qaida, the Taliban, and unending distrust among the various tribes, no one wants to invade Iran. Therefore the only alternatives are sanctions on Iran. Increasing numbers of these are being placed on that country with results that should be expected: nothing. The West does not have the grit to really challenge Iran -- and so that country will become another nuclear power. What will it do with its weaponry? Offer it to other countries it wants to bring into its sphere of influence? Threaten other countries to do its bidding? Stick the West's noses into the ground and assume command of the Middle East and Central Asia? The various concepts and possibilities are indeed horrific. Now add to that the tribal unrest throughout the area and there is a catastrophe in the making and no apparent satisfactory way of allaying that.

It is a new world out there. A decade ago, we believed that because of the development of new technologies and ease of communication that "the world was flat" and there would be more cooperation and the sharing of trade and wealth. We did not foresee the tribal unrest and religious furor that has gripped the Middle East and Central Asia. And their ire and anger at the West has been "vaccinated" into their youth, who look forward to religious salvation as a result of their brutal acts against western humanity, even if it means sacrificing their own lives. The real tragedy is that mature adults are taking advantage of the immaturity and inherent nature of adolescence and young adulthood. They are sacrificing their young people for their own idealistic goals.

How will this all end? Our government doesn't seem to know.

Does anyone?


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