Today, the green banner of Islam inspires almost as much fear as the red Soviet flag did several decades ago. This fear is not entirely unjustified. Of course, it would be silly to label Muslim culture “aggressive” or “intolerant”; yet too many acts of aggression and intolerance have been conducted under the green banner in the last 50 years. Christian fundamentalism rarely, if ever, crosses national borders. Admittedly, people who oppose a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy do feel a certain solidarity with people of similar beliefs elsewhere in the world. They go to all sorts of international conventions; they try to influence the “global village” through the Internet; they distribute their flashy brochures worldwide. But it is unimaginable that a Christian fundamentalist group would form an army of its own, unleash civil war at home and then threaten to export warfare to foreign lands. Yet this is precisely what is happening with the Islamic Taliban movement. Having gained control over Afghanistan after a ferocious civil war and imposed the strictest fundamentalist regulations on its own people, the Taliban has begun exporting its model of militant Islamic statehood to neighboring countries.

In terms of prospective expansion, the Taliban does not have many choices. Pakistan to the east and south is too advanced a nation to be lured into any kind of Islamic fraternity. Also, though its capital is called Islamabad, Pakistan is more interested in conflict with India than in its own religious identity. To the west lies troubled Iran, the nation that coined the concept of an Islamic state 20 years ago and is now paying for this dearly, as it slowly and painfully locates the path leading back to the modern world. So if the Taliban is to expand (and its powerful ideological charge says it might), its only likely targets are the nations to its north: the five post-Soviet Muslim republics of Central Asia.

Currently, the Taliban stands accused of training guerrillas to operate in that part of the world and exporting weapons and jihad instructors to stir up trouble in the region. The trouble is there, indeed. The governments of the five Central Asian countries have been terrified by recent fundamentalist insurgencies, suspecting that they might gain even more momentum and therefore apply for foreign help. Russia is already planting mines on the border between Central Asia and Afghanistan. Military commanders in Moscow do not exclude direct military clashes between Russian troops and Taliban militants in the very near future.

Both Russia and the five Central Asian countries have feared exactly this kind of development for the past 10 years, ever since the Soviet Union collapsed. Moscow continued to encourage authoritarianism in the area for this very reason, hoping that tough governments would be able to nip any unrest in the bud. It even closed its eyes to the anti-Russian policies of the new Central Asian elites. Let hundreds of thousands Russians be ousted from their Central Asian homes if this will strengthen the authoritarian regimes. In other words, Moscow has sacrificed both human rights and nationalism for the sake of geostrategy. The results are there for all to see, and they are extremely disheartening: The shoots of democracy that were so conspicuously visible in Tashkent and Alma-Ata back in 1990, have been extinguished; ethnic tension, Russophobia included, are thriving; and now, on top of everything else, the region is subject to Islamic fundamentalist penetration.

The future does not look good. The people of Central Asia have every right to be dissatisfied with their governments. Problems inherited from Soviet colonialism, such as poverty and environmental disasters, have gotten worse; the new rulers, fostering personality cults, are obsessed with costly, megalomaniac projects and secret police reports. The degree of corruption is extraordinary, natural resources such as oil and gas have not brought in the huge revenues expected earlier, local economies are becoming increasingly dependent on opium-growing and the re-exporting of arms.

The historical experience of Central Asia throughout the last century has been a sad one. The Russian czars sent Cossacks there instead of teachers and engineers. The communists used teachers and engineers to turn Central Asia into a monotonous cotton field, designed to supply the Red Army with shirts and pants. The nationalists of the 1990s promised people the earth but gave them a mouthful of dirt. Perhaps an Islamic state will actually give them what they want — security, prosperity and dignity. If Islamic fundamentalism does turn violent in Central Asia, as many suspect it will, this is not going to be Islamic fundamentalism’s fault.

Right now, Russia is involved in feverish activity in the area, seeking allies like China and India to prevent the spread of the Taliban’s influence further north. The eventual success of this rescue mission is problematic. First, it is hardly possible to rescue corrupt and ineffective regimes from their own people. Second, Russia can scarcely wage two wars against Islamic fundamentalists simultaneously: Rebellious Chechnya in the Caucasus is more than enough to keep the Russian Army busy. Third, any military operation on Central Asia’s southern borders would present Russia with enormous logistical problems: Afghanistan is 1,600 km away from Russia proper.

Last but not least, the Russian Army has not been known for its victories over Muslims. Relatively recently, it has lost two major wars against them — in Afghanistan in 1979-1988 and in Chechnya in 1994-1996. Also, after the heavy casualties incurred in Chechnya, it is going to be very hard for Russian President Vladimir Putin to inform the nation that more zinc coffins might be coming home soon. The Afghan War, which followed the Soviet invasion of Kabul at Christmas, 1979, left a strong aftertaste in Russia. Indisputably, it contributed enormously to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Engaging in another round of fighting with Afghan warriors would entail major domestic problems.

This does not mean, of course, that the Central Asian countries will be left to their own devices. China, experiencing revolts in its Muslim areas, is likely to render assistance. Some concerted action by the West is also a possibility: Arguably, Central Asia is no less crucial than the Balkans, and the collective evil genius of the Taliban is definitely more threatening than Slobodan Milosevic.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.