To be honest, Sheraly Akbotoev does not look like a homicidal fanatic. I was not sure what to expect as I waited, on a sweltering summer’s day, in a visitors’ room of the special prison in the secret-police headquarters in Bishkek, the capital of the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan. Then the barred door swung open and they led him in, a man in his early 40s, clean-shaven, affable, and dressed in a white football jersey with light blue numbers. In appearance, he was about as far as you could get from the Taliban prisoners–bearded, emaciated, obsessively fumbling their prayer beads–whom I had interviewed in a Northern Alliance jail in Afghanistan last fall. And yet, until a few months before we met, Akbotoev, too, had been a warrior of God, a member of the Taliban’s Islamist International.

On September 11, he was living in Kabul, one of more than a thousand militant Islamic guerillas from places like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan–former Soviet Central Asian republics that became independent in the early 1990s. Akbotoev was a part of a secretive group called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose members had come to Afghanistan to train in Osama bin Laden’s terrorist camps and learn from the Taliban how to overthrow their own government and set up an Islamic state. But unlike bin Laden, Akbotoev didn’t see America as his enemy. Rather, his anger was directed at the corrupt, authoritarian former communists running his country.

Indeed, when he first heard about the attacks on New York and Washington from a news broadcast on the Russian-language service of the BBC, he claims that his first reaction was sympathy: “We thought it was a terrible tragedy. We’re people too, after all.” But a few weeks later, Akbotoev was ordered to Logar, a province just south of Kabul and a Taliban stronghold. There, at the local mosque, he was ushered into a funeral service for the IMU’s charismatic military leader, a man who went by the nom de guerre Juma Namangani. Namangani and his soldiers had been holding the line in the northern city of Kunduz against the U.S.-supported troops of the Northern Alliance.But when they tried to fall back to the city of Mazar-I-Sharif, the IMU convoy was attacked by U.S. planes firing missiles. The better part of the IMU’s thousand or so active fighters were slaughtered; the jeep carrying Namangani and his bodyguards was shredded. What was left of their bodies arrived at the designated mosque for burial wrapped in blankets in the back of a minibus–“but there wasn’t much,” says Akbotoev, “just meat.”

The grisly destruction of the IMU represented one of the greatest but least appreciated strategic triumphs in America’s war on terrorism.U.S. forces not only removed–at least for the time being–the chief force for militant Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia, but also won, in return, U.S. military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Almost overnight, American military and political power achieved a presence in Central Asia. Now Washington is poised to put that presence to work unlocking the region’s vast, largely untapped oil reserves, which could be used to bolster the independence of the new Central Asian states from jealous neighbors. And if the United States can eventually get that oil to market, it could undercut OPEC’s hammerlock on world oil prices.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the United States suddenly finds itself the guarantor of peace and stability in this brittle, deeply impoverished part of the Muslim world–a role it appears to have little interest in fulfilling. Instead of building bridges of friendship to the people of Central Asia, we are instead aligning ourselves with the brutal dictators who oppress them. As a result, America may well become the new great enemy of the remnants of militant groups like the IMU–men like Akbotoev–and their millions of peasant sympathizers. If the U.S. presence in Central Asia were to bring peace and prosperity to the region, we might reap gratitude rather than hatred. Instead, the Bush administration has scorned nation-building–even in Afghanistan, still the source of most of the region’s instability–and invited a backslide into Islamic fundamentalism. For anyone wondering how the Middle East might look after a U.S. invasion of Iraq, Central Asia provides an ominous and disturbing precedent. Having won the war, we are doing our best to lose the peace.

To most Americans, Central Asia is a long way from anywhere, but for most of human history it has been an important place. Even before the 19th century, when the British and Russian empires competed for its control in the “Great Game” storied by Kipling, the region was an incubator for remarkably successful nomadic invaders like Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. For most of the 20th century, Central Asia–a vast area bounded by the Caspian Sea in the west and the Urals in the north, running south to Iran and east to China–was occupied by five Soviet republics. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, all five abruptly became independent countries–now named Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan–squashed, for good measure, between four of the world’s nuclear powers: Russia, China, Pakistan, and India. (To view map, click here.)

But Central Asia in the early 21st century enjoys enormous reserves of oil and natural gas, most of it in the area around the Caspian Sea.That fact was not lost on the Clinton administration, which in the mid-1990s devised a plan for countering the influence of competing great powers while simultaneously boosting the energy security of the West. The United States and its allies would help the Central Asian republics–known in policyland as the “CARs” or, more laddishly, as “the Stans”–to build pipelines, bypassing Russia and Iran, that would bring the oil and gas from the Caspian region to world markets. Do it properly, some wonks mused, and the United States might even persuade new oil powers like Kazakhstan to see the benefits of scorning OPEC membership.

The Clinton plan faced some serious challenges, though. First, it depended on long-term thinking and detailed knowledge of a group of complex, obscure, far-away countries–in other words, it didn’t exactly play to the strengths of U.S. foreign policy. Second, though oil-rich, Central Asia was a region rife with problems.The Stans were poor during the Soviet era, and their economies disintegrated even further after independence. They were deeply corrupt. Their authoritarian leaders were economic incompetents and intolerant of even the mildest expressions of dissent.(They also had a remarkable capacity for survival: Four of the five leaders who ruled at the time independence was achieved remain in power a decade later.) The CARs were also riven by ethnic vendettas, layer upon layer of them–from the millennia-old divide be-tween Turkic peoples (like today’s Uzbeks) and the Farsi nations (like today’s Tajiks), right down to the tribal violence between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz that took thousands of lives at the beginning of the 1990s.

To be sure, oil wealth could ameliorate at least some of these problems–but years, perhaps decades, would pass before it begins to flow. In the meantime, as some locals saw it, there was a quicker fix at hand: religion. Most people in the region adhere to a relatively tolerant, Sufi-influenced tradition of Islam, and decades of enforced Soviet secularization had provided some inoculation against fundamentalism. Unfortunately, the leaders of the new countries, all men of the Soviet system, seemed incapable of distinguishing between the inevitable religious revivals that accompanied the collapse of communism and rising fundamentalist challenges to their own regimes.In Uzbekistan, for example, merely expressing an excessive interest in the Koran was enough to get you in trouble with the police–perhaps even land you in a labor camp.In a sad irony, by judging the slightest sign of political awakening among Muslims as an intolerable provocation, the Central Asian regimes created the perfect preconditions for a faith-driven insurgency.

Indeed, some people were nursing the dream of an Islamic state even earlier.Akbotoev was one of them. In Soviet times, he attended a covert religious college, and in the early 1990s, as the religious renaissance that had awakened a few years earlier began to peak, he did his best to agitate for the Islamist idea. For a while, when the Central Asian despots proved all too adept at quashing the nascent fundamentalist movements, it looked as though the dream had faded. But then, in the mid-1990s, Akbotoev and his fellow believers began to hear about a man named Juma Namangani.

Namagani never gave interviews, photographs of him were almost nonexistent, and his ideology was vague. And yet, in a part of the world where rumor has often proven as important as fact, it was his legend that inspired men like Akbotoev. He and others heard the unlikely tale of a Red Army paratrooper turned holy warrior, who had found his way to the faith after fighting on the Soviet side in the war in Afghanistan, and had tried to introduce sharia law in his hometown in Uzbekistan at the beginning of the 1990s, only to run afoul of the ruthlessly secular Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov. How the defeated believers, fleeing a wave of government repression that left thousands in jail, had fled to neighboring Tajikistan, where they heroically–in the Islamist reading–fought on the Islamist side in that country’s savage five-year civil war. And then, in a tragic twist, how the valiant Namangani was betrayed by his friends there, when the war ended with a cynical peace agreement that excluded Namangani and his fighters. Namangani retreated to his hideouts in the mountains of Tajikistan, taking his men and their weapons with him.

The saviors, in this cautionary tale, were none other than the Taliban and their patron, Osama bin Laden. It was they who gave Namangani support and refuge after all else had failed, and their rationale for doing so was unassailable. Namangani was a seasoned military leader, clearly devout, and he had already put his life on the line for the cause. The Taliban and bin Laden viewed the Central Asian states as ripe targets for insurrection, and Namangani appeared to be just the man to lead it. But Namangani also offered the Taliban a kind of drug-smuggling synergy. The Afghan mullahs were making enormous amounts of money by exporting heroin through Tajikistan and onward, via the other Central Asian republics and Russia, to the truly lucrative markets in Western Europe. Namangani and his fighters controlled some of the prime routes through the mountains, and he was happy to ink a corresponding management deal with his new sponsors. The jihad could begin.

It was in the summer of 1999 that Namangani’s guerillas appeared in Akbotoev’s hometown, a village in a remote province of Kyrgyzstan. It was Namangani’s first attempt to strike out from his mountain hideouts to the strategic heartland of Central Asia, the fertile, densely populated Ferghana Valley basin. After intense fighting with the hopelessly ill-equipped Kyrgyz army, Namangani’s probing force withdrew; some observers say it was because the Kyrgyz simply paid Namangani off. In the summer of 2000, he tried again. The direct military effects of both attacks, which involved small numbers of fighters, were negligible, but in a region of brittle stability the resulting tremors were felt far and wide.

The Uzbeks, with the biggest population and the biggest army in the region, responded to Namangani’s incursions by mining their borders and bombing their neighbors–just the thing to anger the Tajiks, in particular, who have never quite managed to stomach the loss of their ancient homelands to the Uzbeks when Stalin drew up the republics in the 1920s and 1930s.When the IMU kidnapped four hapless American mountain climbers during its campaign in the summer of 2000, the feat earned it the dubious distinction of membership in the State Department’s official list of terror organizations. But no one in Washington seemed to care particularly about the potential collapse of regional security. Eventually the Clinton administration managed to come up with $3 million for “non-lethal aid” to the Kyrgyz army, which had taken the brunt of the attacks, and a few handouts for the other countries. Otherwise, life went on.

And what a life it was. In the 1990s, Central Asia was the sort of place that just couldn’t have been farther removed from the warm embrace of a Pax Americana. My favorite destination was the city of Osh, in the Kyrgyz part of the Ferghana Valley. The local security forces certainly had their hands full. When it wasn’t the trade in Afghan heroin, coming up the mountain highway from the south, it was underground activity by Islamist radicals or the black-market hanky-panky of Uighur separatists–Turkic-speaking Muslims operating in concert with their ethnic brothers the Kyrgyz over the border in nearby China. Of course, none of it could possibly outdo Tajikistan, still deep in the aftermath of its horrific civil war. I remember arriving once in the capital of Dushanbe at a moment when the entire staff of the local hard-currency supermarket had been kidnapped by a member of the new coalition government, who quite openly expressed his indignation at the inadequate protection money he’d been receiving from the store’s management. Kalashnikov-toting rowdies in SUVs were a frequent sight, assassinations an everyday occurrence. You might find yourself dining in one of the few decent restaurants next to a couple of hard-eyed Russians in ill-fitting civilian clothes–just another indication of the huge Russian military presence (at its peak amounting to around 25,000 troops) that made the country into a virtual protectorate of Moscow. The truly adventurous might easily make a trip up into the Karategin Valley, the stronghold of Islamist rebels during the civil war and a favorite haunt of Namangani’s men once the war was over. As recently as the fall of 2000, a visitor to the town of Tavildara, in one of the valley’s remotest corners, could watch heavily armed mujahedin loading up their donkeys for yet another trip into the high mountains, where they were presumably preparing for the next trip to Afghanistan, at Mullah Omar’s invitation, or their next jaunt into some neighboring Central Asian state.

Then came September 11. When President Bush laid out his war aims in a speech to the nation shortly after the attacks on New York and Washington, few Americans paused to wonder why he took the trouble to single out an obscure Central Asian guerrilla group as one of the prime enemies in our new struggle. The reason for the IMU’s new top billing was simple enough. The Central Asian leaders had offered a deal: “We’ll give you bases if you kill our bad guys.” If the United States wanted to conduct a military campaign against al Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan, it urgently needed bases in Central Asia. By adding the IMU to the target list, the United States assured itself of the Central Asians’ support. And by wiping out Namangani and most of his forces once the campaign started, the U.S. military eliminated the region’s most immediate security threat and cemented its own presence there, while giving its freshly consecrated regional allies a new lease on life. These were all things to be happy about. They were also part of the problem.

One of the juiciest prizes gained by the United States and its allies in their deal with the Central Asians is Ganci Air Base, located on the outskirts of Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. Ganci AB (named after a New York firefighter who died in the World Trade Center) offers a perfect–if unintended–lesson in the way that modern military power also serves as an avatar of globalization. Right now, there are 3,000 soldiers from eight nations (six NATO countries as well as Australia and South Korea) holding up a 24/7 work routine at the base, from refueling planes to flying combat sorties. The obligatory base tour takes you from the giant gymnasium to the air-conditioned eight-man tents to the Internet room–all flown in from halfway around the world. The PX is filled with Butterfingers, PlayStations, and cans of Skoal. Everyone agrees that the best cappuccino comes from the caf run by the French soldiers, but it’s the Dutch and the Scandinavians who have the best recreation hall–known, with predictably pedestrian wit, as “Valhalla.” By the end of August, the base had pumped some $34 million into the Kyrgyz economy.(The national budget of Kyrgyzstan is $250 million.)

Western civilization, in short, has arrived in Kyrgyzstan. Nowadays, when you travel to Osh, you won’t be greeted by a surprise army checkpoint on the lookout for infiltrating IMU fighters. The conspiracy theories in the papers are no longer devoted to the next maneuverings of Namangani and his puppet-masters in Kabul. Now it’s Washington that supplies the oracles, and it’s Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, whose words get all the parsing. One of the biggest news stories in Tajikistan recently has been the return of the U.S. Embassy staff, who chose to spend most of the 1990s in the considerably safer capital of Kazakhstan, hundreds of miles to the north. Inspired by their spirit of adventure, I decided, a few weeks ago, to visit Namangani’s old headquarters in remote Tavildara, a bone-crushing eight-hour drive from the capital, Dushanbe. Where his mujahedin had been swarming just two years earlier, there were now no fighters to be found.

Instead, local officials welcomed me with tales of the latest visits by their new friends from the CIA, and showed off their souvenir shot glasses from Langley to prove it. “They got in a helicopter and flew up into the mountains,” the head of the local KGB told me. “They went to look at Namangani’s old camps, and they were able to confirm that they were all empty.” Certainly, some of the credit for this change goes to the Tajiks themselves, along with their well-wishers in the international community who worked out the peace deal that ended the civil war and persuaded indigenous Islamists to put down their arms. Still, most of Namangani’s fighters are now consorting with the virgins of paradise largely due to the painstaking work of the U.S. Air Force and its army of spotters on the ground in Afghanistan.

But how long will it stay this way? On the face of things, all is quiet on the Kyrgyz front. Take a closer look, though, and the problems loom. Stationing troops in a country that has proven vulnerable to a dedicated guerrilla enemy is never a long-term solution. And if you’re not the Roman Empire, prepared to crucify your political opponents at the slightest sign of dissent, you’d better have a decent counter-insurgency program on hand–or, at the very least, some talented PR people. So far the United States has not been able to come up with either, in Kyrgyzstan or elsewhere. In March, the Kyrgyz president, Askar Akayev, presided over the shooting of six unarmed protesters in an anti-government demonstration, triggering a wave of opposition that has nearly pushed him out of office. The Bush administration responded by inviting Akayev to Washington and presenting him with a juicy aid package to sweeten his White House handshake.

Most Kyrgyz, meanwhile, say that they’ve seen little economic payoff from the presence of the new base, and explain this with whispers about the president’s family members, who are alleged to be the real beneficiaries. (His son-in-law happened to win the contract to supply the base with aviation fuel. Another presidential relative, members of the opposition say, controls the airport.) A Kyrgyz parliamentary deputy, who claims to have received plenty of mail protesting the new U.S. presence, is planning a big protest this fall.

Local Islamist groups–the unarmed kind–have been railing against Ganci in their propaganda leaflets. Kyrgyzstan is ostensibly an ally in the war against terrorism–but these days soldiers from the base are allowed to go into town only once a week, and then in groups. “We’re in a more complicated region of the world than most of us are used to spending our time in,” was how the affable Air Force major who showed me around put it. “If this wasn’t a complicated part of the world, we wouldn’t have to be here for this operation.”

In short, the American presence in Central Asia adds up to an excellent lesson in how not to win hearts and minds in a part of the world where you urgently need to make some friends outside the walls of the presidential palace. And Kyrgyzstan, arguably the most liberal of the five republics, is the best-case scenario.

In Tajikistan a leading member of the democratic opposition has been accusing the U.S. embassy of denying access to the State Department’s annual report on human rights. The embassy response? Deafening silence–and some hugs for the dictatorial president, who, as rumor has it, has allowed U.S. special forces to operate from his territory. Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan–now home to another big U.S. base–recently got his own Rose Garden photo op, despite thousands of opponents languishing in jails and concentration camps, some on charges as serious as wearing long beards (allegedly an outward indicator of Islamist inclinations). Meanwhile, both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have been registering a startling uptick in the activities of a group called Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an unarmed but fanatically anti-Jewish Islamist group that has been expanding its activities to places hitherto untouched by fundamentalist propaganda. And they’re finding receptive listeners.

Corruption and contempt for the most basic norms of the law, remain as entrenched as ever. Economies in most of the region continue to deteriorate, complicated by a high birthrate which is generating huge numbers of unemployable young men–the recruiting ground of terrorists to come. Even the heroin trade is alive and well, thanks to the incapacity of the new Afghanistan government to cope with its poppy growers.These were all problems before the Americans arrived. The big difference now is that the United States is implicated in them, thanks to its ostentatious support for the area’s dubious regimes.

But this wouldn’t be impossible to change. First, we could expand aid efforts that benefit populations rather than corrupt rulers, beginning with such fundamentals as schools for the region’s children–boys and girls alike. This is easier said than done, but we have little other choice. Second, we must forcefully push the republics’ leaders to coordinate their policies with each other and cooperate across borders, especially in the all-important Ferghana Valley. To that end, we should, wherever necessary, aggressively seek pragmatic alliances with international organizations, ranging from the OSCE to the Aga Khan Foundation, that have already done pathbreaking work on this front–however multilateralist such a strategy might sound.Third, in keeping with that approach, we should think up a strategy for solving the region’s problems that can break through our own government’s bureaucratic firewalls as well as the borders between individual countries. It’s a strategy, by the way, that should include training programs for the local militaries–as well as measures to get local armies cooperating rather than threatening each other. Finally, we should step up our efforts to get the oil flowing, not to mention devise ways to ensure that oil wealth actually reaches the people of the supplying countries as well as their rulers. A big step has already been taken in that direction with the start of work on the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline in September.

Even if we do all these things, though, there’s one other piece of business that has to be taken care of before we can feel sure about the fate of Central Asia, and that’s to win the peace in Afghanistan. When Gen. Franks came to Tajikistan on his recent visit to the region, President Emomali Rakhmonov had one big request to make. He wanted the United States and its allies to deploy the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan to places beyond the city limits of Kabul–the key, as most experts would acknowledge, to any serious effort to build a new Afghan state. Like his colleagues in office, Rakhmonov may be a dictator, but he’s no idiot. He knows that all of his own work to keep his job will be in vain unless the anti-terrorist coalition can live up to its state-building obligations in the country that so recently provided a haven for a full assortment of international troublemakers. If we can’t even manage to build the highway from Kabul to Kandahar, we will hardly be in a position to ensure stability in Central Asia.

The reason is obvious: You can’t fight ideas with guns, and the Islamist ideal lingers on. Namangani may be dead, his forces scattered, but his myth continues to haunt. He was mysterious enough in life. Now, in death, he threatens to become what the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, one of the leading experts on the region, has astutely described as “the Che Guevara of Central Asia.”

Unless the United States can build on its military victory, there can be no guaranteeing that Namangani’s ghost will not rise again. And while it’s a sign of hope that Washington has announced fresh initiatives to invigorate the stalled state-building effort in Afghanistan–by re-emphasizing economic assistance and perhaps prodding our allies to expand peacekeeping beyond Kabul–the Bush administration’s efforts in Central Asia remain less than encouraging. Over the last few months, after all, this same administration has unveiled a bold new foreign policy paradigm to undergird their plans for war against Iraq. Instead of the feckless multilateralism of the Clinton years or the amoral realpolitik of the Cold War, they argue, the United States will seek to impose an imperial peace on the Middle East–to replace the thuggish authoritarian regimes that breed fundamentalism and terrorism with vibrant democracies. But in Central Asia, the Bush administration has allied America with the thugs–men not so different from a second-rate Iraqi despot the United States embraced, also for the sake of stability, some two decades ago. If our new Central Asian imperialism is prologue to our coming Middle East adventure, Iraq may turn out to be the first of many worries.