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8.7: Central Asia and Afghanistan

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Understand that Central Asia is a landlocked region that receives little rainfall and has to rely on water from major rivers flowing from the mountains in the east.
    2. Summarize how Central Asia has been transitioning from a Soviet-dominated region to independent states and what has been occurring in the various states to adapt to the new economic environment.
    3. Describe how the Aral Sea has been affected by the practices of water use in the region and the environmental consequences that have resulted from water use policies.
    4. Explain the geopolitical history of Afghanistan and why this area has been so difficult to govern under a central government.
    5. Learn why there is continual conflict in Afghanistan between Western military forces and local Taliban insurgents.
    6. Understand the principle that globalization of the economy forces political units to compete over natural resources.

    Central Asia (a.k.a. Turkestan)

    Central Asia is a region in the Asian continent that extends from the mountains of western China to the shores of the Caspian Sea. Pakistan and Iran create the southern border of the region, and the vast expanse of Russia is to the north. Afghanistan is considered a part of the region even though it was never a formal part of the Soviet Union. Central Asia was located on what was known as the Silk Road between Europe and the Far East and has long been a crossroads for people, ideas, and trade.

    Central Asia has an extremely varied geography, including high mountain passes through vast mountain ranges, such as the Tian Shan, Hindu Kush, and the Pamirs. The region is also home to the vast Kara Kum and Kyzyl Kum Deserts, which dominate the interior with extensive spans of sand and desolation. The expansive treeless, grassy steppes that surround the desert regions are considered an extension of the steppes of Eastern Europe. Some geographers think of the Eurasian Steppes as one single, homogenous geographical zone.

    Under the sand and prairie grasses lay the some of the most extensive untapped reserves of gas and oil on the planet. Natural resources are the main attraction of the region driving the economic forces that determine the development patterns of individual countries. Multinational corporations have vigorously stepped up their activity in the region.

    The political systems are adjusting from the old Soviet Union’s socialist policies to new democratic systems that are subject to high levels of authoritarian rule and corruption in business and politics.

    The five countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan were part of the former Soviet Union until its breakup in 1991. Today, with Afghanistan, they are independent countries that make up the region called Central Asia. The term stan means “land of,” so, for example, Uzbekistan is the land of the Uzbeks. Central Asia is also referred to as Turkestan because of the Turkish influence in the region. The people of Turkey did not originate from the Middle East; they originated from northern Asia. They swept through Central Asia and dominated the region on their way to the Middle East. The Turkish language and heritage have had the most significant impact on the people of Central Asia. Turkmenistan’s name is another reminder of the Turkish connection; it means “the land of the Turkmen.”

    Most of the groups of Central Asia were nomadic peoples who rode horses and herded livestock on the region’s vast steppes. This way of life continued until the 1920s, when the Soviet Union forced many of the groups to abandon their lifestyle and settle on collective farms and in cities. Most of the people of Central Asia continue to identify culturally with their nomadic past. Central Asians who live in cities often demonstrate a mix of local and Russian culture in terms of dress and food because of the large influx of Russian populations in the region. More than six million Russians and Ukrainians were resettled into Central Asia during Soviet rule. Russian is often used as a lingua franca.

    One of the primary ways in which people distinguish themselves culturally is through religious practices. Despite the area being part of the Soviet Union, where religious activities were discouraged, Islam was and still is the dominant religion. Most Central Asian Muslims are Sunnis.

    Figure 8.58 Central Asia, Formerly Part of the Soviet Union


    Afghanistan is also usually included as part of Central Asia, though it was never officially part of the Soviet Union.

    Updated from map courtesy of University of Texas Libraries.