BISHKEK: US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Central Asia on Saturday for a five-day, five-nation tour of the “Stans,” to reassure them they will not be forgotten.
Concern is mounting in the region that, as the US operation in Afghanistan finally draws towards a close, Washington will lose interest in its landlocked northern neighbours.
He landed at Manas airport outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek and headed in to meet President Almazbek Atambayev and Foreign Minister Abdyldaev Erlan Bekeshovich.
Senior US officials see Kerry’s visit to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as “very timely” as the region seeks outside reassurance.
The Central Asian economy has already taken a hit from falling oil prices and the knock-on effect of international sanctions against their former Soviet master Russia.
And now the self-styled Islamic State (IS) group is recruiting fighters from the region including a US-trained special police chief raising the spectre of extremist violence.
Washington also has concerns that the young republics, never paragons of freedom, may overreact to the crisis and crack down further on their own populations.
This in turn could provoke religious violence in the mainly Muslim region of the kind that has dragged nearby Pakistan and Afghanistan into violent conflict.
In Tajikistan, for example, President Emomali Rahmon’s regime banned the main opposition party and jailed many of its leaders, accusing them of fomenting Islamist extremism.
“I don’t know how much that was because of fear and a threat and how much it was a consolidation of power,” a senior US official told reporters just ahead of the visit.
“Certainly I think there’s probably some playing up of those anxieties by some quarters.”
Central Asia researcher Edward Lemon, of Exeter University, who has studied Islamic radicalisation in Tajikistan and the broader region, goes further.
“I think the danger posed by the Islamic State is in fact less than the danger posed by the regime,” he told AFP, warning that persecution provokes radicalism.
“There’s this kind of Soviet system of close regulation of religious practices and that’s more likely to cause people to turn to resort to violence and rebel against the state.”
Certainly, the IS group recruits Central Asians the International Crisis Group estimates their number at between 2,000 and 4,000.
But both the US official and the British expert said that most of these were radicalised and recruited while working in Russia and that there is little danger so far at home.
“We’ve not seen any real indication of ISIL activity in Central Asia but the recruitment is worrisome and that is what we watch,” the US diplomat said, using another name for IS.
But the group’s most high-profile defection showed the weakness of these monitoring and anti-radicalisation efforts he was one of their own.
Gulmurod Khalimov was not only the commander of an elite Tajik police unit, he had received US-funded counter-terrorism training in the United States.
Earlier this year he disappeared then resurfaced in Syria starring in an IS recruitment video, issuing dark threats and urging more Central Asians to follow him.
“That has really shaken not just the Tajiks but all the region,” the US official admitted.
“He had undergone some of our training. I think it was a shock to everyone that he had been radicalised and recruited by ISIL.”
Several governments in Central Asia have responded to the threat, real or imagined, of radicalism with even tougher measures to control Muslim religious expression.
In Tajikistan, children and youths under 18 are banned from mosques and Islamic seminaries and men with beards seen as a symbol of their faith are persecuted.
Amnesty International says torture and disappearances are endemic in the region, and the State Department’s own annual human rights report is scathing.
US officials said Kerry intends to take up the issue of rights at each of his stops in the region, but also to reassure his hosts of ongoing US security cooperation.
Kerry’s visit will also serve to remind Washington’s friends in Central Asia that the United States supports their sovereignty at a time when President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is asserting itself in another neighbour, Ukraine.
The trip begins in Bishkek, where Kerry will open the American University of Central Asia, and will take him to all four other republics, notably to the historic city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan.
There, he will hold the first meeting of a new diplomatic grouping bringing the US secretary of state together with all five Central Asian foreign ministers.