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U.S. Risks Involvement in Regional Central Asian Disputes

The Pentagon, clearly unsettled by its proposed 2014 drawdown of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, has cast its net wide to retain a presence in Central Asia’s post-Soviet states.

Accordingly, its new potential best buddy is Tajikistan, but the U.S. Department of Defense’s new strategy risks inserting Washington into one of post-Soviet Central Asia’s most intractable problems, energy issues between Central Asia’s former USSR republics. A crystal ball would indicate that the end result will be bitterness and all sides.

But first, the politics.

On 31 March in the capital Dushanbe Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon received U.S. Central Command head General James Mattis, ostensibly to discuss the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking, which the Tajik state media breathlessly proclaimed “were the main topics of the talks.”

Almost as an aside, Rahmon told reporters, “Tajikistan would like to see further strengthening of the development of ties with the United States in the sphere of security and the establishment of peace and stability in the region." 

Mattis had indeed been busy, as last week he also held talks with the Turkmen and Uzbek leaders.

But the outcome of the Dushanbe lovefest was evident in a statement released by Rahmon’s office, which quoted Mattis as saying that the United States would continue providing assistance to Tajik security forces, with Tajikistan continuing transiting of nonmilitary supplies intended for NATO-led troops in Afghanistan.

So, why should this matter?

Because Tajikistan is the poorest, then and now, of the former Soviet republics, two decades after the USSR collapsed, but one in which now both the Russian Federation and the U.S. discern “strategic” interests. And because the U.S., with its grandiose pronouncements, will likely get sucked into Central Asia’s indigenous energy issues that have simmered since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. After the implosion of the “Evil Empire,” of all the former Soviet “stans,” Tajikistan suffered the most, as in 1992 the country descended into a brutal civil war slugfest between Communists and Islamic militants. When it ended in 1997 with an UN-brokered agreement, more than 50,000 Tajiks had been killed in a nation of only 7.5 million, and more than one-tenth of the population had fled the country.

What’s left?

The remains of the USSR’s hydroelectric network, which Dushanbe hopes can be upgraded and expanded to provide a source of export revenue to energy bereft neighbors such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Simply put, the hydroelectric facilities of alpine Tajikistan and its eastern neighbor Kyrgyzstan control the majority of the water flow that western downstream neighbors Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan need for their agricultural produce, and both nations are aggravating their former Soviet republican tovarishes by proposing new hydroelectric cascades, which their downstream neighbors fear will further disrupt their agriculture.

As Rakhmon has aggressively been beating the drum for years of foreign fiscal assistance to construct his hydroelectric edifices, several dating from Soviet times, it is most unlikely that he will not squeeze Washington to support his initiatives.

Not that Rakhmon has much choice – since April 2011, prices for gasoline and diesel have risen 50 percent in the wake of the Russian Federation's decision to raise its tariffs on oil exported to the impoverished nation.

So, the Rakhmon administration is pursuing its dreams of becoming Central Asia’s leading electricity exporter by seeking to complete the massive 3,600-megawatt Soviet-era Vakhsh River Rogun hydroelectric cascade, begun in 1976. Indigenous sources proved not up to the task. In December 2009 the Tajik government issued Rogun stock and made it compulsory for citizens to purchase nearly $700 worth of shares, a sum exceeding most Tajiks' annual income, in order to collect $600 million for construction to continue, before a World Bank survey of the project halted the initiative.

Any guesses as to what Dushanbe might ‘request’ from Washington in the form of assistance?

And should the U.S. government, seeking to transfer its footprint from Afghanistan to Tajikistan accede to such requests, then there only remains the minor problem of assuring Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan of the wisdom of such a move.

As the proverb puts it, you can choose your friends but not your neighbors - in such a case, Washington is going to have to explain to its new “friends” its decisions and why their crop harvests should suffer for Tajikistan's energy dreams.

By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com




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Leave a comment
  • Khusrav on April 13 2012 said:
    Mr. Daly, your article sounds like it was written by an Uzbek diplomat.

    First of all, there are 5 other Hydro-Electric Power Stations (HEPS) on the Vakhsh river, including Nurek HEPS, which produces 3.0 gigawatts (or 3000 megawatts) already.

    One important point your article is missing is that in order to produce electricity, you need to let the water run down the turbines. If Rogun is built, and Tajikistan reaches its dreams of diversifying its economic income from such 'clean' energy sources as Hydro-power (rather than from the 1 million labor migrants living and working in harsh conditions in Russia), and enter into international agreements to provide 'clean' energy to neighboring countries, it will need to have those turbines working at all times. This obviously means that there will be water running through the Vakhsh river most of the time.

    But, the most important point is that Vakhsh river is one of the many tributary rivers of Amu Darya. The main source of Amu Darya is Pyanj River (running between Tajikistan and Afghanistan), which has no HEPS on it. See:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Amudaryamap.

    After all, Tajikistan does not have many more options, such as selling oil and weapons(as some world powers do), while hydro-power is considered to be one of the most environmentally clean energy source.
  • Abarmard on April 14 2012 said:
    Seems Mr. Daly is political reporter, but not even journalist serving the interest of global community to know the truth how it is, but in contrary misleading people in this region and in the world. You just serving your interest on oil and gas of this region, nothing else...
    Just want to let you know that ROGUN is not the 'Tajikistan dream' as you noted, it is reality, it already have been built for more than 70% (even during the Soviet time) and there is no doubt that Tajikistan will finish for any possible price, and without US support (Dushanbe never asked US to subsidize it!). Tajikistan will build it if not in 2 years, it can take 5 or 10 years, but it will come definitely! Don't worry about it.
    Second, we want also to let you know that this is not just national project, or the project for national proud, but it is very important regional economic project in future serving the region's needs for irrigation as it was planned. We are thinking not about today interests (as many of you and your fellows do...), but about the future.
    But future starts today and it will start in Tajikistan if you wish or not....!
    Third, we think that it is enough to make image of Tajikistan very dark as you did also before: "Tajikistan is the poorest, then and now, of the former Soviet republics". It is enough and enough is enough....! The war in Tajikistan happened becouse of the interests of superpowers and all we know it well. Now Tajikistan is different, moving forward, you have to see it first and write something..!

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