Policy Insight

Nazif Shahrani on Greater Central Asia, Regional Integration, and Stability


Nazif Shahrani, Professor of Anthropology at the Indiana University, has been studying Central Asia for decades and knows the region very well. His initial field research (1972-1974) was a study of the cultural ecological adaptation of a small Turkic-speaking Kirghiz pastoral nomadic group and their sedentary neighbors, the Wakhi, in northeastern Badakhshan, Afghanistan. Hence his first book is The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers (1979). Since the early 1980’s, his research has been directed toward an understanding of the impact of Islam upon the social imagination of the people of Afghanistan concerning their future, and the impact of such images of the future upon their present actions and activities. More specifically, he was examining how former Soviet Central Asian Uzbek have experienced and managed their lives and careers as individual members of Uzbek Muslim families within the broader context of Soviet colonial rule, and the particular demands of the dominant Soviet «political culture of scientific atheism».

You are a well-known scholar and have led many anthropological studies in Central Asia. In recent years, the idea of a greater Central Asia, where post-Soviet Central Asia is viewed in connection with South Asia and Afghanistan, has gained in popularity. In your view, how are these theories grounded anthropologically? How have 25 years of independence fostered people-to-people exchanges (if indeed they have)? Is it correct to say that while there are migration flows, tourism, and educational exchanges, political and economic ties remain underdeveloped?

Yes, I think these are good questions. It is not too late. Unfortunately, it has taken too long for the leaders of Central Asian countries to realize it. These regions share common interests with each other far more than they probably do with Russia or with Western Europe. The relationship between Central Asia, Southwestern Asia and the Middle East has a very long history, going back more than 1,300 years to the arrival of Islam, and even further to ancient times. Historically, at least since the rise of Islam, these regions—Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Iran and Turkey, and the Arab Middle East and North Africa—have had very close relationships, commercial as well as political, cultural, educational, and religious. Moreover, the sooner these areas connect with each other, the better it will be for the peoples of these regions.

Sadly, national borders were created and imposed by outsiders—by Russians in Central Asia and by France and United Kingdom in southwestern Asia as well as the Middle East. Of course, we all know the Europeans themselves fought over their national borders in the 18th century and created independent countries with their own flags, names, national anthems, and so forth. During the last 65-70 years, however, they have realized that those borders were not very helpful, so they created the European Union. The EU has eradicated the significance of those borders for the creation of which they had fought bitterly. Unfortunately, Central Asians and others in the neighboring regions did not create their own borders, they did not fight over the borders in Central Asia with each other or in the Indian subcontinent—or in the Arab world, for that matter. Their national borders were created for them by Europeans; since then, they have become firmly solidified and now they are ready to fight against each other to protect them.  These artificial, European-imposed borderlines have kept kinsmen and co-ethnics apart. Their common cultural traditions have also grown distinct, moving in different directions. In the former Soviet Central Asian republics, they have become Russified and directed toward Russian culture; in the Indian subcontinent, they have become more Anglicized and moved toward British culture. Some Arab and North African countries are influenced by France.  So it is about time that the leaders of these countries tried to come together and create their own Central, Southwestern and Middle Eastern Union in the region to protect their own interests from the Chinese, Russian, Western European, and American interests that penetrate their region.

How can we connect this diverse region in terms of bitter ethnic and religious conflicts? Is such connectivity actually needed? Are there any lessons to be learned from history? 

I don’t think current conflicts in this region and beyond have religious roots. It is Europe and Russia that are trying to convince us that these conflicts are religious. They are not. They are fundamentally political. They emanate from competition for access to the vast natural resources of these regions. The Russians want to continue to control the resources of their former colonies and the Americans want their share, and now the Chinese are entering the picture, and of course the Europeans have been involved in it for a long time. So I think we need to understand that our religious-sectarian differences over Islam are not, in themselves, the source of conflicts. But instrumentalization of our religious faith by outsiders—as well as by uncaring local ruling elites in the countries of the region—is. National leaders allege that the conflicts are religious in order to justify their own dictatorship and oppressive rule. This is the core of the problem. I think the people of this region need to realize this and demand that local political systems become more democratic, paying more attention to human rights on the basis of the Islamic values of justice and peaceful coexistence, values which have helped the peoples of this region live together as Muslims—without consideration of language, ethnicity, and sectarian differences—for thousands of years. We can reclaim the relative calm of pre-colonial times if we recognize that the politicization of religion, language, ethnicity, and nationality is the poisonous legacy of Western colonialism. The problems created for us by border closures and border disputes are utterly new, hindering trade and exchanges, blocking the flow of people, education, knowledge, goods, and services within and between regions. Now, due to artificially created countries and oppressive conditions, people from Central Asia, Afghanistan and Southwestern Asia are forced to look for work in Russia, Western Europe, or even America, exacerbating the problem of “brain drain.” This is the true nature of the problems facing the region. In my view, if the national leaderships of regional countries could work through their interpersonal differences, they could create an environment where Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East formed a powerful economic and political bloc, one that could resist future penetration by China as well as counter the current Russian, American and European exploitation of regional resources, which has caused poverty and conflicts within and between the regions. But this requires wise leadership on the part of these countries, as well as insistence on better and more just governance by the people of this region. A more inclusive political and economic system in this region might be able to address the region’s myriad problems, including poverty, unemployment, and a lack of opportunities for the burgeoning younger generations in the countries of the region.

What are your views on the American and Chinese regional initiatives? How do Russians view such connections (even if they are not happy with the Greater Central Asia theory)?

Both of these countries have imperial ambitions globally. The new shape of twenty-first century empires is as “empires of trust” or “empires by invitation.” These new empires keep the countries they target in constant political and/or economic turmoil so that these smaller countries will call on the big powers (like America and China) to intervene, like a big brother, to resolve local, regional or national problems. This is something that needs to be understood as an entirely new form of imperialism. The new empires of “trust”/invitations are part of the reality of our times, whether they pertain to America, Russia, China, India, or the EU. They can be helpful or harmful; regional citizens and governments need to be smart in exploiting these new empires’ presence in the area. For example, China’s new initiative, One Belt, One Road—which revives the old Silk Road—is a very good idea, but China should not be allowed to be the sole beneficiary of this development project. We need to act wisely to promote our own interests alongside those of China, America or Europe. I think starting land and sea communication to ease the flow of energy transnationally and increasing trade and exchange in the region are all very positive developments.  But natural resources, hydrocarbons, and hydroelectric energy should not be taken out of the region and used by the great powers while leaving the people of these countries in poverty; local people should benefit from their own natural resources and growing human capital, such as their young population. You remember that this region has a very young population and if they are educated properly with effective knowledge and appropriate skills, they will be the greatest resource of Central Asia, Western Asia and the Middle East. But again, it requires wise, caring and smart leadership to harness the opportunities that the great powers bring to the region, especially with the revival of the old Silk Road.

Does Central Asian religious radicalism have its roots in Afghanistan? How justified are the fears of extremist spillovers?

There is no doubt that the problem in Afghanistan for the last 40 years has its roots in the invasion of the country by the former Soviet Union. It was that unwise decision by the Soviet leadership that led to Islamic jihad resistance against Communism and the Soviets in Afghanistan. The Americans, Saudis and some Europeans used it as an opportunity to fight a proxy war with the former Soviet Union. It was indeed the Afghans’ popular resistance against Soviet transgression that resulted in the globalization of jihad—that is, Muslims from all over the world came to the aid of the Afghan Mujahideen. Many thousands of Muslims from all over the world participated in jihad in Afghanistan; their training involved ideological radicalization alongside military skills. In 1989, the Soviets were defeated and (humiliatingly) forced to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan.

What followed the collapse of the USSR opened an entirely new phase of political radicalization in the region. The implosion of the Soviet Union plus the American invasion of Iraq in the first Gulf War were critical in defining the trajectory of radicalism in the region and globally. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the successor states of Central Asian republics became extremely autocratic toward their own people and adopted very harsh anti-Islamic and anti-religious policies. The Afghan Mujahideen’s military triumph did not herald the formation of the promised Islamic state. Instead, bloody internecine wars ensued for a variety of complex reasons, eventually effecting the rise of the Taliban movement. These developments were accompanied by the first signs of global terrorism against the US, culminating in the September 11, 2001 attacks, the subsequent US-NATO intervention in Afghanistan, and the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.

As was indicated earlier, the root of the problem is not religious; it is not Islam.  The problem is rooted in the policies of the superpowers in the region, which have supported, aided and abetted oppressive governments in most of the countries of the region and thereby promoted hostility to Islam.  Local peoples are not allowed to feel that they are part of their own governance systems.  Governments seem like something alien imposed upon them by external forces. Again, religion is not at the core of the regional problems.

Therefore, religion cannot be expected to provide the solution, either.  Rather, it will depend on whether and how national and regional leaderships will help create more inclusive governance and economic structures in response to prevailing challenges, both domestic and global. They must face the fact that in order to solve critical local, national and regional problems, they will have to rely on their own values, their own religion, and their own ideology, instead of dismissing them and becoming hateful toward their own people and culture. So far, however, the latter has been more in evidence among the elites of the region—be it Central Asia, Afghanistan, the Indian subcontinent, Iran, or Turkey—though to varying degrees.

Any interesting projections for Afghanistan-Uzbekistan relations under the new president of Uzbekistan, in view of his regional initiatives?

I have heard recently of some initiatives from the new president of Uzbekistan to be launched in the region and we hope that his initiatives result in improved relations and better connections, not only with Afghanistan but also with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, the citizens of these countries have long suffered because of the idiosyncracies and personality clashes of particular rulers. We hope the situation will improve after the consolidation of the new regime in Uzbekistan. Certainly, the peoples of Afghanistan and Uzbekistan have much in common, and they would welcome any improvement in bilateral relations. Both countries could benefit from closer ties with each other and they should not be afraid of one another.

Unfortunately, Pakistan and Iran are meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs for their own regional interests. The security problem in Afghanistan, however, cannot be solved unless the governance problem is addressed. For the past decade and a half, we have had Americans and Europeans helping create “democratic” governments. Instead, what they have created are kleptocratic regimes that steal foreign aid and whatever else the country has, lining their own pockets instead of helping poor people and creating work.

The worst problem in Afghanistan today is the absence of good government. Western Europeans and Americans, instead of creating appropriate and effective government, have created the most corrupt government on Earth.

Uzbekistan also needs to relax its domestic policy toward its own people. I know that the people of Uzbekistan will never accept the Taliban’s harsh and inhumane interpretation of Islam. The same will also be true of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. Why should they be fearful of the Taliban? Criminal gangs such as the Taliban, which give Islam a bad name, will never succeed finding followers in these countries, because the peoples of post-Soviet Central Asia are far too educated and sophisticated to accept the Taliban’s corrupted and bigoted practices in the name of Islam. Central Asian reformist ulama, who understand the post-Soviet realities of their own environment, can—given the chance—provide a far more progressive and humane alternative to reclaiming Islamic knowledge and practices for the region. This is what must be promoted in the region if Central Asia does not wish to be negatively impacted by what is going on in Afghanistan. In my view, those who call themselves Taliban, Daesh, ISIS or any other name have no place in Central Asia, whether now or in the future; therefore, they should not be feared. Their interpretation of Islam is false and in the service of foreign powers wishing to harm Islam. As such, the Taliban version of Islam has no place in Central Asia.

What are the reasons for the recent failure to establish good governance in Afghanistan?  Can we separate myths from reality here?

Domestically, the main reason is the politicization of ethnic identities, excessive tribalism, nepotism, corruption, and oppression, resulting in the fragmentation of society in the hands of Afghanistan’s self-indulgent power elites who have collaborated with the international invasion forces. A small group of corrupt self-serving elites have ruled Afghanistan in the name of Pashtun tribes since the middle of the eighteenth century. These usurpers of the Pashtun tribal community’s power, often as clients of foreign powers, have come to think they have a monopoly on the right to govern the country. They have insisted on a personalized, centralized government system where they can dictate everything from Kabul, reward themselves and their kinsmen and cronies, and punish or ignore all other peoples, Pashtun and non-Pashtun alike. They have also adopted a policy of internal colonialism, encouraging and facilitating the resettlement of Pashtuns from the south and west to the north. This century-long project has borne fruit, culminating in the creation of a local support base for the Taliban’s war and violence in northern Afghanistan. This is the core of the problem in Afghanistan: a small, selfish contingent from one ethnic group thinks it has the right to rule over the rest of the country through a centralized regime with help from external patrons.

In order to stabilize the country, Afghanistan must adopt the principles of community self-government, a governance principle by which people at the district, provincial and national levels can elect their own political officers and legislative bodies, as well as recruit/hire their own professional staff, including judges, police commanders, accountants, teachers, agronomists, and so on. That is, they should have the right to elect their own provincial governors, district officers, the village headman and members of local, provincial and national councils, as well as parliamentarians. This allows communities to participate in their own governance without reference to tribe, ethnicity or sectarian affiliation. Why should the government in Kabul appoint everybody from governors to judges, from accountants and schoolteachers to clerks and custodians of a particular office? They should advertise jobs—whether in the judiciary, financial industry, education or healthcare—and anyone from any part of the country who wishes to apply should be able to do so.

How does Afghan society view its own future? Any hope here?

There is growing hopelessness. In 2002, after the Americans, NATO forces and Northern Alliance fighters combined to drive the Taliban out of Kabul, people were very hopeful. They thought that with Europeans and Americans coming to the country, the situation would stabilize and their lives would improve. The hope was that the country could have a better and more appropriate constitution, a better system of governance, improvements in their quality of life, and economic reconstruction. Unfortunately, none of these wishes have come true over the nightmarish last fifteen years, because the Americans and their NATO allies have busied themselves fighting al-Qaeda but not the Taliban, and wasted huge amounts of funding on so-called reconstruction projects.

Trump is now starting to put a little bit of pressure on Pakistan to cease their support for the Taliban and the Haqqani terrorist group, but we do not yet know what the outcome of these efforts will be. However, I do not think more war is the solution. If they had focused on establishing a honest government as their partner in Afghanistan and encouraged decentralized state institutions based on the principles of community self-governance, Afghanistan would not have become what it is today. People would have participated in their own governance, in their own economic development, and risen out of poverty and misery. Unfortunately, people have become extremely disheartened and some of them hopeless. That’s why a lot of the workforce, as well as educated and skilled youth, is trying to leave Afghanistan for good and move to Europe, though Europeans are not willing to take them in. Last year alone, 280,000 educated young Afghans and their families tried to get to European countries, most of them through Iran and Turkey. It is a major case of brain drain and it is the worst expression of hopelessness.  It is once again the result of Afghanistan’s inappropriate and dysfunctional political system.  The peoples of Afghanistan are fed up with the corrupt governments that the US and NATO forces have established in Afghanistan to serve their own interests. This was certainly not what they had expected to happen.



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