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Central Asia: A Political History from the 19th Century to Present

Map of Central Asian States

Map of Central Asian States

by Alexander Cooley

An in-depth look at the geo-politics of Central Asia, from the Great Game to present-day political power struggles in the regions. This is an excellent essay to be used in the context of a world history class. Did you know that the U.S. Civil War influenced supply and demand that led to power struggles in Central Asia? And that Kabul and Kandahar were strategic cities long before the 21st century. Read on!

Central Asia has always been left out in the study of politics. For the Cold War, it basically means US-Soviet Union—the Soviet Union was ruled by the Russians—in fact, the term “Soviet” and “Russian” were often used interchangeably. No one really cared about these Central Asian republics, except for a small group of Central Asian sociologists. But in term of mainstream press coverage, Central Asian has been off the map.

Central Asia, while probably in the news about 100-120 years ago, has only been in the news because of 9/11 and the current military built-up. In fact, it is remarkable that how many people want to know about the politics of Uzbekistan, foreign aid, technical assistance to the Kazakhs and the democratization of Central Asian states.

This essay will lay out three frameworks for understanding the comparative, historical, and political framework for understanding Central Asia, including the competition over the region by various great powers in the 19th century (the Great Game), the period of the Soviet rule, and the current trends of the region.

Historical Background
The metaphor of “the Great Game” describes the power competition between Russia and Great Britain in the 19th century over the future of Central Asia. It describes a period of Russian expansion and the moves made by Britain to counter what they thought was Russian aggression in the region. Indeed, the Great Game had a stake that was much greater than Central Asia. The stake was India. There was a perception that Russia’s ambition would not limited to incorporating Central Asia. Central Asia was the gateway into Afghanistan, and Afghanistan was the gateway into India (via Khyber Pass for example).

A lot has been said by the British about the viability of such a conquest. There was, in fact, a lot of war hysteria and ignorance on both sides. Ignorance can be seen in the Russo-phobic publications in 19th century in which the authors had no idea of the terrain of Central Asia. The actual terrain of Central Asia is barren and rough. In fact, the Russians had attempted to enter this area in numerous occasions in the 18th century and failed, mainly due to weather.

There are a number of reasons why the Russians wanted to move southward into Central Asia. First, there was an economic reason, that is, to create markets for Russian goods. This motive became even more acute in 1860s as a result of the U.S. Civil War, when the south was isolated and cotton was in short supply. Cotton was a prime motive not only in initiating expansion, but also to consolidating the territory of the Russian political and economic system as rapidly as possible.

The Russians also saw the expansion into the east and the south as their civilizing mission, their version of “Manifest Destiny,” in order to bring the savages of the Central Asian people under control.

There is also an issue of slavery. Certain Khanates had regularly raided in the Russian area around the Caspian Sea. They brought back Russians and sold them as slaves. This was the public motive to justify the expansion in Central Asia. This is something that the British had caught on to and actually vigorously lobbied for the release of the Russians.

The Russian administration of Turkestan at the time was actually quite similar to the strategies employed by the European powers. One similarity is the military was in charge of the territory and politically organized them. But this created tension between authorities in Moscow and regional commanders who always wanted military solutions and expansion. It is unclear how much tension there was in India between the two. The over-zealous aggressive military (by local commanders) was an excellent excuse for politicians in St. Petersburg to apologize to the world when they conquered new territory. It must be remembered that communication in that period was poor. Military governors could do all they wanted to do in their communities.

In the British side of the equation, the British were split between the Hawks who favored forward strategies in the region as a mean to preempting any Russian maneuvers; and there were defensive positionalists who believed these strategies might do more harm. The basic concern here is the Russian had gained a foothold in Central Asia, and hence they had gained a foothold into Afghanistan, the critical buffer state. Cities like Herat, Kandahar, and Kabul were considered to be key cities. In the two Afghan Wars (1840s and 1870s), the British attempted to dethrone the then Afghan regime and installing a compliant puppet that would ally with them rather than the Russians. However, the British were forced out.

Persia or Iran was the second component in the Great Game. Persia was also served as a link to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The British were concerned the Russians would do deals with the shah. The Russians also had concerns over the British over a few incidences; one of which was the Persian venture into Afghanistan. This was the prelude to the first Afghan War.

The Great Game came into a dramatic halt in the early 20th century as a result of external events, one of which is the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5. The Japanese destroyed the Russian navy, but also damaged the Russian pride and prestige in the international community. Also, with the outbreak of WWI, the Russians and British were fighting as allies against the Germans and so forth. With the new geo-political alignment, the antagonism and the rivalry created by the Great Game was no longer productive for either side. They switched their focus from Central Asia to Europe.