Book Reviews

cover Eric Margolis, War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet (New York: Routledge, 2000). 250 pages. $26.00

Reviewed by Scott B. MacDonald

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With the "War Against Terrorism" focused on Afghanistan, Eric Margolis’ book, War at the Top of the World is a must read. The author is a contributing foreign editor to the Toronto Sun and has spent considerable time in the region that he examines. Writing in a somewhat manly style of "I was there with the guys", he recounts his experiences in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Tibet. He states in the beginning of the book: "I have covered or explored South Asia as a political journalist, war correspondent, and old-fashioned adventurer for the past twenty-five years." This is decidedly an easy, well written book for anyone interested in how the crisis with Islamist terrorists developed. Moreover, the author is very concerned about the future line-up of China and Pakistan versus India.

Margolis regards the problems posed by South and Central Asia as the nuclear rivalry between India and China, the potential for internal collapse of China, Pakistan and India, and the clash of civilizations between Islam and the West and possibly between Islam and Hindu India. The most significant threat, though is tension between India and China. As he states: "History demonstrates that new powers, or resurgent older ones, invariably challenge the status quo, which we euphemistically term ‘stability’. As new powers expand and flex their strategic muscles, they must clash with the old powers of the status quo, and inevitably, destabilize the existing world order. In Asia, we see the unique spectacle of two ancient nations that are fast emerging as the newest superpowers in the midst of a fragmented, unstable region composed of small, weak states and a wounded, revanchist Russia." He believes that there is a good chance that within the next two decades India and China will clash.

Margolis also has a view on Osama bin Ladeen, who he regards as partially created by U.S. involvement in Afghanistan’s war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. He rightfully points out that bin Ladeen "was widely seen as a hero across the Islamic world, a Muslim David standing up to the American-Israeli Goliath."

Margolis also contends that Afghanistan’s problems are homegrown. Although the United States walked away after the Soviet defeat, it was the Afghans who "won the war, but the lost the peace. Jealousy, tribalism, and the lust for power had replaced the holy war. It was a demoralizing spectacle, humankind at its lowest ebb: politics as usual." This of course, opened the door to the rise of the Taliban, supported closely by Pakistan. As for the Taliban, Margolis notes: "Led by the one-eyed Sheik Omar, the new faction preached a medieval faith that often employed Islamic terminology to foster the most archaic customs of tribal Afghanistan."

For anyone looking for a scholarly book with a sea of footnotes and theoretical posturings, War at the Top of the World is not for you. It is a highly journalistic account of the hot spots in Central and South Asia, based on first hand experiences and written in a breezy style. This is good travel reading.

Olivier Roy, The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations (New York: New

York University, 2000). 222 pages

Reviewed by Scott B. MacDonald

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Central Asia is back. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, Central Asia gave birth to five new countries - Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kirghizstan, and Uzbekistan. This large region, ranging from the borders of Russia and Iran to Afghanistan and China, was regarded with considerable interest. Long isolated from the rest of the world during the Soviet period, these new states were busy establishing governments, recasting institutions, and reforming both their economies and societies. Moreover, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan had vast reserves of oil and natural gas, which soon gained the attention of major Western energy companies. In many regards a new world has opened up. However, slumping commodity prices in the mid-1990s, corrupt and inefficient governments, and geographical remoteness brought a sharp decline in interest from the outside world. Russian influence remained strong, especially in Tajikistan, which underwent a civil war involving a pro-Russian quasi-Soviet style government on one side and a divergent coalition of Islamists and democrats on the other. With Afghanistan caught up in a long civil war and then the Taliban regime, Central Asia sank into a sense of relative isolation by the end of the decade. The Great Game of rivals over oil and gas became a shadow game, largely beyond the glare of media scrutiny.

9/11 changed the fortunes of Central Asia. The U.S. "war against terrorism" has suddenly propelled the Central Asian states into the glare of media attention. U.S. troops have landed in Uzbekistan and bases in Tajikistan are under consideration for use by U.S. bombers. The Taliban has threatened to send troops against Uzbekistan, which is fighting its own radical Islamists in the Ferghana Valley.

Outside a handful of U.S. oil companies and a few academics, Central Asia remains largely obscure to the vast body of the public in the West. One book worth reading to provide an excellent background on the region is Olivier Roy's The New Central Asia. Although originally published in French in 1997, the book retains significance due to what the author calls "the evolutive geostrategy of an area in the making". While not covering Afghanistan, Roy focuses on the painful creation of states in Central Asia. He believes that one major problem for the Kazakhs, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kirghizs and Turkamens is the legacy of Sovietism, which functioned not so much as an ideology, but as "an apparatus, a techinque of power and an organization of the social". The result at independence in 1991 was the adoption of "the model of the strong, personalized state tending towards a monolithism which is challenged not by democracy but by regionalist factionalism and ethnic diversity." That monolithism was defined by efforts to create Kazahk, Tajik and Uzbek nationalism, based partially on ethnic identity, but largely precluding Islam. Against this was another tendency, that of "the continued existence...of traditional society, with its new potentates, its clanism and ethnic quarrels that date back to the beginnings of time." As opposition forces were sidelined (mainly democratic groups seeking to play by the "rules"), the role of opposition fell to a number of Islamic groups, some of which were ready and willing to take up arms against the state.

Roy also argues that geography is playing a major role in Central Asia's political development from the standpoint that all the nations are landlocked. This has meant that Russia plays an ongoing role in the movement of any goods. The other choice, Iran, is not appealing to the region's leadership. Consequently, the new states must contend with the challenges of integrating with regional blocs and attracting external assistance, i.e. Europe or the United States. This, of course, has not pleased the Russians and has lead to a degree of tension at times. The new round of politics related to the U.S. war on terrorism and the quest for regional bases must be observed in this light.

Roy provides an important background to a critically strategic region. He has conducted research and provides insights as to how Central Asia is now responding to the rise of the Taliban (which threatened in a religious and ethnic sense vis-a-vis the secular regimes) and the U.S. campaign against radical Islam. Sadly, he also provides us with an understanding of the difficult nature of the land in planting the seeds for Western-style democracy. Central Asia's political development will not be easy. For anyone wanting to gain a better graps of the geopolitically important region astride Afghanistan, The New Central Asia is worth reading.

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Editor: Dr. Scott B. MacDonald, Sr. Consultant

Deputy Editor: Dr. Jonathan Lemco, Director and Sr. Consultant

Associate Editors: Robert Windorf, Darin Feldman

Publisher: Keith W. Rabin, President

Web Design: Michael Feldman, Sr. Consultant

Contributing Writers to this Edition: Scott B. MacDonald, Keith W. Rabin, Keiichiro Kobayashi, Jonathan Lemco, Jonathan Hopfner, Darin Feldman, Uwe Bott

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