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Is Central Asia on the Verge of a Water War?

A new kind of conflict is rising in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
September 27, 2012, 7:00am

Whether it's Israel maybe pre-emptively striking Iran, Afghanistan spiralling into sectarian violence, Libya becoming home base for Al-Qaeda or Syria continuing to be the site of a government-led genocide, there's no shortage of potential dirty wars and ominous harbingers in the Middle East and Central Asia. While everyone is focusing on the recent turmoil in Benghazi, a new kind of conflict is rising in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that could eventually lead to the first water war of the 21st century.

It's fair to say that when Louise Arbour, the hard-ass former UN prosecutor of war criminal Slobodan Milošević, lists her bets on future wars, the rest of us should take her seriously. In December 2011, writing for Foreign Policy, Arbour predicted Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, two obscure Central Asian countries to most Westerners, as potential combatants in a war over quickly depleting water resources. Judging by current tensions between the two, she might be right.

Basically, the Tajiks, who are already plagued by an Islamic insurgency, plan to build the Rogun dam on the Vakhsh River. The river is a major tributary to the Amudarya – the main water vein for downstream Uzbekistan. While the hydroelectric power from the proposed dam would make the Tajiks rich, it'll make the Uzbeks thirsty. This has been a problem for Uzbekistan since Stalin's failed plan for the Transformation of Nature during the 1940s drained the Aral Sea (Uzbekistan's main water reserve) to irrigate cotton fields.

Pissing off the Uzbeks, however, may not be what the Tajiks want to do. Besides being geopolitical wildcards, Uzbek President Islam Karimov is widely considered a tyrant, ruling over his country's oil reserves and national wealth since a questionable 1991 election. He's also a cheap imitation Saddam. And like any delusional dictator, he's known for his outlandish behavior: like rewriting history books to make himself the spiritual descendant of the warlord Tamerlane, owning a soccer team in the national league (who are conveniently champions nearly every year) and allegedly ordering the assassination of a political dissident hiding in Sweden. Human Rights Watch even accused his regime of systematic torture, including boiling rebels alive.

One former diplomatic employee of a country in the region, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says the lack of Western sanctions on Karimov is no surprise: "There's the general feeling that Karimov gets off very lightly from the international community because of his violent campaign against Islamic extremists and the war on terror, which is really an excuse for a political crackdown." Meanwhile, the Karimovs enjoy total rule over the state: "It's modern tribalism. One family rules the country for two decades, keeping the population poor so they can use them as a cheap labour force under the loose tenants of communism," the source added.

When, or if, a war will erupt is unknown. "I don't want to speculate on the probability of a war breaking out", says David Trilling of Eurasianet, "but Islam Karimov did up the ante [recently] by suggesting that attempts by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to build giant hydropower dams upstream could lead to war".


According to Trilling, tensions have been escalating for years, as the Uzbeks pressure the Tajiks by pulling classically dirty diplomatic moves the Russians are known for, like cutting off vital gas deliveries, mining their shared borders and possibly resorting to covert attacks. "Late last year", Trilling said, "all rail traffic to southern Tajikistan stopped when a rail bridge in a remote part of Uzbekistan mysteriously blew up. Tashkent blamed terrorists, as it is wont to do, but a visitor to the site described signs of deliberate sabotage".

Joshua Foust, a Central Asian expert with the American Security Project, isn't convinced war is inevitable, but says, "the potential is definitely there for that dispute to become violent […] if the Tajiks stopped releasing enough water to feed all of the Uzbek cotton fields, that might push things over the edge". According to Foust, while internal violence in Central Asia by a state against its people is all too common, state to state violence is pretty rare. Yet, he does admit there are ominous signs and the conflict needs to be monitored: "The reason why this hasn't deteriorated into open violence is because both parties are keenly aware of the potential for violence."

For NATO countries, another conflict in the 'Stans might not mean more body bags and beheading videos. When asked to describe an American response to a war, Foust was blunt. "There is definitely not an appetite in Washington for initiating another armed conflict, that's part of the reason there's been no response in Syria. What the US would do immediately is focus itself on the humanitarian response. If there were American assets and citizens being targeted, you'd see a very sharp response, but I don't think that would involve troops on the ground."


Foust also described the disruptive contest between superpowers in the region, as Russia, America and China jockey for influence. "Although the contest is real, a war won't happen until one of these outside powers funds their proxies against one another directly." In other words, each superpower would look to pin down another in an Afghan-Soviet or Vietnam type of war, which, among other things, spawned the mujahideen (precursors to Al-Qaeda) and severely taxed the infrastructure of the US Army, respectively. The US interest is simple: these countries are strategic supply routes for the eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan. If they were compromised it would only leave Pakistan as an option, which some see as an extremist hornets' nest, buzzing with anti-American sentiment.

Whether foreign interests are already stirring the pot is the real question. Foust told me that US Special Forces recently trained Kyrgyz soldiers. "They've also been training border guards and set up a counterterrorism training centre in Tajikistan. But this is mainly to train domestic police forces against internal terrorists and, as far as I've heard, they're not being used to help execute violent espionage […] but if, say, that train blowing up was confirmed to be the work of an intelligence service, that would be a precursor for actual violence." And Putin's Russia, or his USSR resurgent, are just as involved: "Russia is negotiating with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to host military bases while they have an investment in training Tajik border guards to secure their southern borders. They also have the ultimate goal of a sort of Pan-Eurasian economic union, modelled loosely on the EU."


To confuse things even more, China's commercial entities have been infiltrating all levels of economies in the area. And like everywhere else in the world, China is winning favour financially: "If they can make money somewhere, they'll try. They've mainly focused on infrastructure building on a credit to debt basis, especially in Kyrgyzstan." By all indications, Central Asia is becoming the crossroads of the three global superpowers. If history is any indication, this often leads to death and destruction.

As for the regional players, when Tajikistan fought its civil war in the 90s, it claimed an estimated 100,000 victims, proving that when they go to war, they do not fuck around. A full scale armed conflict with Uzbekistan (who is allied with Kazakhstan, another emerging player) would likely drag in the Kyrgyz.

The Krygyz have not only battled a bloody internal uprising in 2010 that involved the ethnic cleansing of Uzbeks, but they continue to skirmish with them on their own shared borders. While, at the moment, it may seem unlikely, a water war could potentially be the spark that would upgrade the region's brewing geopolitical shit-storm to a full blown shit-hurricane.

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