In ancient times Central Asia was considered the center of the entire world. In the nineteenth century Sir Halford Mackinder described it as the political center of the world and predicted whoever controlled it would wield enormous power. But after 9/11, U.S. newspapers reported that 80 percent of Americans couldn’t find Central Asia on a map and had never heard of the “5-stans”?the countries of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.
That’s significant because at that time the U.S. was rushing to establish military bases there as part of its strategy to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. In addition, Central Asia, with its internal instability and vast oil wealth, is destined to become a player in another “Great Game” between Russia, China and the United States. The U.S. now has troops and aircraft only 200 miles from China’s border in an area once considered part of the old Soviet Union.
Former communists and corrupt leaders rule over some of those states with repressive policies that fuel dissatisfaction, which is then manipulated by groups seeking to convert men to serve Islamic extremism. In addition, repression of rival secular political parties has left a void that Islamic extremists may fill. Some leaders have been accused of massive corruption, including siphoning off oil revenues into Swiss bank accounts. Poverty is rampant and unemployment is high. Healthcare and education have collapsed in some quarters. Public unrest and dissatisfaction continue despite the infusion of millions of dollars in U.S. aid and over $1 billion in loans from the World Bank. Some leaders seem to be thumbing their noses at the Bush administration’s request for reforms.
If you’re wondering why you have heard so little about this new recruiting ground for terrorism, look no further than polls on the viewing habits of average readers. Polls conducted by regional newspapers routinely show that people are least interested in international news, and most interested in local news. Editors-in-chief who are directed to “cut back” on the news must pick a category to cut back on, and that means international news. Unfortunately, they rely on such surveys to make their decisions. Ditto for broadcast news.
How can news agencies call themselves watchdogs of government when in reality they pander to whatever people want to see and hear? The popularity of local news is why many broadcasts feature segments on the proverbial cat stuck in the tree, or the local little league baseball team. Look at your local newspaper and listen to area broadcast advertisements. How many times do you hear the word “local” in the marketing? That’s part of a strategy.
News media need to strike a better balance between local and international news. They could start by spending more time helping people to see the importance of a region or topic. In the meantime, the average American probably still won’t hear or read about the “5-stans” until more terrorism arises from the area and hits America hard.