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.
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