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04/01/2005 | A U.S. role in Central Asia

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

When terror struck the United States on September 11, the United States responded with a foreign-policy revolution of a magnitude not seen since the foundations of the Cold War were laid more than a half-century before. The new U.S. approach would be focused on the central tenet that freedom and democracy are antidotes to terrorism and, in the long-term, the expansion of liberty throughout the world provides for peace, stability and security.


Kyrgyzstan today is a vivid example of the need to strengthen this policy in Central Asia. Months of civilian protests and flawed parliamentary elections have culminated in the invalidation of those election results by the Kyrgyz Supreme Court, the resignation of the entire cabinet, and the ouster of President Askar Akayev.

These developments have far-reaching implications for a region which continues to face a number of serious transnational threats -- chief among them religious extremism and terrorism.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a great revival of religious activity in Central Asia. The number of mosques in the region multiplied, supported by Pakistani and Saudi money. A brand of radical, internationalist Islam, Wahabbism, gave birth to the Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The former's views are highly radical, advocating the overthrow of governments throughout the Muslim world and their replacement by an extremist Islamic state. It has grown quickly in Central Asia and has been met by heavy-handed repression, which threatens to radicalize members still further and sow the seeds of greater Islamist extremism in the region.

Opposition parties in the region are either fictitious groups that exist only on paper, as in Kazakhstan, or opposition groups in name only, as in Uzbekistan, where all five opposition parties support President Islam Karimov. Turkmenistan'sPresident Sapamurat Niyazov has gone as far as to dispense with the pretense of democratic rule and brazenly declared himself president for life, a move that demonstrates his confidence that his dictatorship will go unchallenged by the world.

This situation has not gone unchallenged by the United States. In July of 2004, after careful review of the state of political reform in Uzbekistan, the Department of State decided that Tashkent is not fulfilling the terms of a 2002 Strategic Partnership Framework agreement that mandated "substantial and continuing progress" on democratization, and decided to deny certification to Uzbekistan.

In Uzbekistan, religion becomes criminal in that country as soon as it strays out of the official state-controlled Islam. The Uzbek government is behaving much as did its Soviet predecessors.

Following massive arrests in Uzbekistan of followers of the two leading militant groups, adherents of the movements have gone underground. Yet their numbers are swelling in the region, particularly among unemployed youth paid to distribute the information put forth by these militants who manipulate religion for a terrorist political agenda.

Thus, the dependence of many governments throughout Central Asia on tyrannical rule does not only fail to adequately address the problem of Islamic extremism but serves to fuel the terrorism that stems from it.

We, and the other open societies, must therefore condition our assistance to Central Asian states not only on their cooperation on the terrorism front, but also on their taking concrete steps toward the establishment of the rule of law, supporting the growth of civil society, and building democratic institutions.

With the role of the United States in Central Asia, the region faces the best possible scenario to solve its problems jointly. We are uniquely placed to press for regional cooperation and to monitor regional states' commitment to the real improvement of social, economic and political conditions.

This is why I have exerted congressionaloversight through hearings and briefings and recently introduced a resolution condemning the current state of human rights in Central Asia. Specifically, this resolution calls for economic and politica- reform efforts to be taken into account when determining the level and frequency of U.S. diplomatic engagement with the governments of the Central Asian nations, the allocation of U.S. assistance and the nature of U.S. military engagement with the countries of the region.

We must not stand idly by as leaders silence their people and dissolve opposition parties. Only by assisting the region's development into a bastion of stable free-market democracies that respect the fundamental human rights of their citizens can we hope to address the underlying factors which help the rise of extremism and related violence.

Only by helping to create an environment where freedom and prosperity can flourish will the United States be able to guarantee the success of efforts in the war against terror and oppression.
    Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, serves as chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia .

Washington Times (Estados Unidos)


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