Central Asia: July 2024 Update


July 10, 2024: Much has changed in this region since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Central Asia is the nations of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. These five nations have a total population of 77 million and nearly all adults are literate, compared to 27 percent literacy in Afghanistan. Decades of peace have enabled the local economies to prosper, with total GDP growing from $347 billion in 2021 to nearly $500 billion by the end of the decade. Kazakhstan, which has oil deposits, has the highest per capita GDP of $33,000. Worst off is Kyrgyzstan, which has no known natural resource to export and a population of only 7.2 million, which explains its low per capita GDP of $6,300.

Central Asians are largely Moslem and their young men were aware of the fighting involving Islamic terrorists in the Middle East and neighboring Afghanistan. Over the last two decades, thousands of young men who sought to join Islamic terror groups could not do it in Central Asia. Instead these men had to travel somewhere else to act on their impulse to be active Islamic terrorists. Many Central Asian men joined ISIL, but not in Central Asia. With the elimination of the ISIL caliphate in Syria and Iraq in 2018, there were lots of documents and survivors, like families of ISIL men, some ISIL members, and local civilians, who could be questioned and lots of data analyzed. The results were some accurate numbers about Central Asian participation in ISIL though the end of 2018. As many as 5,000 Central Asians made it to Syria. Over half survived and got out. More worrisome was the fact that for every Central Asian who tried to get into Syria, two or three were stopped at the Syrian border in Turkey and turned back or, in a few cases, arrested. The Turks collected data on those turned away and some of those were later captured or killed in Syria. Some of those turned back eventually made it in, but few returned home to become active Islamic terrorists. That is the pattern; many get radicalized, leave, and never return.

Because the potential Islamic terrorists left Central Asia and few returned, during the twenty years there were few Islamic terror attacks in Central Asia. After each of these the response was swift and usually led to the capture of those responsible and others who were among the usual suspects but not known to be active. This effective counterterror response motivated many radicalized young men to seek a safer nation in which to defend Islam with extreme violence.

Most of the nations involved here used to be part of the Soviet Union and still have effective secret police and local dictators to ruthlessly suppress dissent. People are putting up with this so far but popular anger about corruption and inefficient government is growing. The region has become an economic and diplomatic battleground for Russia and China, and China is winning. This is something Russia doesn’t like to discuss, but among Russians the real threat is from the east, not the west. China brings trade and prosperity, which Central Asians take advantage of.

The one enduring problem in Central Asia is poor government. This is the result of decades of misrule by the Soviet Union until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the five Central Asian states among the fourteen states to emerge from the Soviet Union, which had long been called by westerners, the Prison House of Nations. Local rule soon devolved into a form of local dictatorship with the dictator forced to behave in order to prevent a violent revolution. This allowed the new free-market economy to prosper, provide a better life for most Central Asians, and enough money for corrupt local rulers to live well and protect the new economies.


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