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The Eurasian Sand Table

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Director: Arthur Waldron, Ph.D

This project is a collaboration of a multidisciplinary team at the University of Pennsylvania, UPenn’s Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response (ISTAR), SAIC, and International Assessment and Strategy Center. The Project team will involve experts and institutes from several countries in region, e.g., Iran, India, Japan, Korea, Pakistan and Russia.

Project focus is on the "heart of Eurasia," which is to say the five Central Asian states that were long part of the Soviet Union: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Geographically, this is the group of states that one can think of as having the Ferghana Valley (a key link in the "Silk Road" long before even Alexander the Great), in the far south just north of the Pamirs, as its heartland, and as pivoting or balancing just to the north of the key area where Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and China converge. Running from the Middle East to Kamchatka to Sri Lanka to SE Asia, Eurasia is a single phenomenon consisting of several interacting parts. The only way to make sense of it and its future is to examine those parts and their relationship.

This area and its northern extension into Kazakhstan is rich in energy resources (oil and natural gas), and metals such as gold, iron, and aluminum. It is however landlocked and difficult of access, though it possesses (as empires have shown over and over in history) a location of great strategic value. The future will probably bring major changes to this heartland. The present boundaries were imposed by the USSR and divide both populations and key geographical features. Already substantial economic development is under way, although this has not been matched as yet by the sorts of political changes that tend to accompany such growth. Governments in the region have changed relatively little from their Soviet forms; ordinary people are quite poor, and issues such as health, water supply, and carrying capacity of the environment have not yet been systematically addressed.

In addition, if we think of this Eurasian heartland as an economic and strategic core, then we must also pay attention to the implications developments there will have for neighboring states. These include Russia, China, Pakistan, India, and Mongolia—with several other states, notably Iran, Turkey, South Korea, and Japan, also involved and concerned. We have identified five data sets to which we felt priority should be given in research and in mapping. These are: (1) Terrain (2) Trade flows (3) Population 4) Infant Mortality (5) Water Resources In addition, we will devote substantial attention to the political future, both domestic and international—which, of course, will depend to a large degree upon the variables already mentioned. Among scenario building topics: (1) Resource Flows and the Economic Future (2) Health and the Demographic Future (3) Water Resources and the Ecological Future (4) Internal Change (5) External Linkages, and the Political Future.

Finally, Islamist militancy is a major presence in the region with implications from the center to the periphery. Within Central Asia, several opposition groups exist. One is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which in summer 1999 made armed incursions into Kyrgyzstan, from bases thought to have been in northern Afghanistan. In 2000 several Americans were held hostage by IMU. In addition to propagating Islamic reform, the IMU appears to be interested in taking control of drug trafficking routes through the Ferghana Valley, which take heroin produced in Afghanistan to Europe. Targeted by the US in its Afghan operations, the IMU appears now to be sending its fighters from Afghanistan into Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. A second group is the Hisb-ut-Tahrir, founded in Jordan and Saudi Arabia in 1953, which seeks to unite the Central Asian states. Although not considered terrorist, it is not allowed to register as a legal party. Note that the idea of Islamic unity, under the rule of a Caliph, is fundamental to Islamic thought and that current patterns of rule are highly discrepant. One may also wonder what has become of the Sufi orders, such as the Naqshbandiyya, that in traditional times provided the larger political linkages in a region that consisted mostly of city states.

These issues provide important linkages to the west, in particular to Iran and Turkey, which one way or another support change, and to the east, where change is feared, but enabled by the vast sanctuary and base of operations Central Asia provides.

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