The United States is engaged in a strategic power grab in central Asia of epic proportions. In previous eras, this sort of expansionism would have been called colonialism or imperialism. It would be portrayed as a dutiful mission to civilize the less fortunate of the world or as a legitimate expression, perhaps, of America's manifest destiny. Now it is simply called the "war against terrorism".
If moral justification were required, there is no need, it seems, to look beyond Ground Zero. Current American certitude of the rightness of its cause is as unshakable as that of any Victorian missionary society or Palmerstonian gunboat skipper.
Ideologically, the US case appears - to many in the US, at any rate - to be equally unanswerable. Freedom, democracy, security and free trade are the supreme gifts bestowed upon those who acknowledge Washington's tutelage. And are these not the great, universal shibboleths of our time? Proselytizing hawks within the Bush administration and Republican party certainly believe so. They see no good reason why any country should be denied such felicity and are determined to extend these benefits to all.
Even if such considerations are set aside, the war in Afghanistan has presented regional political, economic and defense opportunities that the US has long sought and which are now within its grasp. In September 2000, for example, General Tommy Franks - the man who made his name running the Afghan war - was already touring central Asia, waving a military aid checkbook. But on the whole, during the Clinton years, keen US interest in beating a path to central Asia's oil and gas riches remained largely stymied - especially after the 1998 cruise missile strikes on Afghanistan which followed the al-Qaida embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
Only a brief 18 months ago, indeed, the geo-strategic chit-chat was still all about a reassertion of Russian power in former Soviet territories such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. Moscow's newly-installed president, Vladimir Putin, was particularly interested in the destabilizing impact of Taliban-backed fundamentalists (whom he linked to Chechnya). "The actions of Islamic extremists in central Asia give Russia the chance to strengthen its position in the region," said a memo from the then Russian defense minister, Igor Sergeyev.
China, worried about unrest among its own western Muslim Uighur minority and alive to central Asia's strategic and economic potential, also moved in June last year to extend its regional influence through a new Shanghai pact.
But in the wake of September 11, and as the US-Russian dynamic in particular changed, Putin agreed (against the advice of some senior generals) to allow the US to negotiate the first, limited base and operational facilities with Afghanistan's neighbors. China, too, while objecting in principle to US intervention, in practice recognized the serious consequences of trying to thwart the US. Both countries hoped to benefit in other ways from helping the Americans - and have done so to a limited degree. The US has begun to treat Putin as a partner, even suggesting a closer relationship with NATO. Rows with Beijing over human rights and trade, after last spring's Hainan spy plane fracas, have been avoided. China's WTO membership has gone through without a hitch.
All the same, both countries increasingly have good reasons to regret their accommodating stand. Having pushed, cajoled and bribed its way into their central Asian backyard, the US clearly has no intention of leaving any time soon. Romantics who believe this demonstrates a commitment to rebuilding shattered Afghanistan can dream on.
The US's top priority remains, as ever, the pursuit and destruction of al-Qaida. That focus is now shifting elsewhere, into Pakistan, Somalia, even Iran. What is left behind in Afghanistan is for "coalitions of the willing", such as the under-powered security assistance force led by Britain, or aid agencies, or UN diplomats, or anybody but the Bush administration to deal with. In short, the former can build nations; the US builds empires.
The task of the encircling US bases now shooting up on Afghanistan's periphery is only partly to contain the threat of political regression or Taliban resurgence in Kabul. Their bigger, longer-term role is to project US power and US interests into countries previously beyond its reach.
Thus Uzbekistan now finds itself home to a permanent American base at Khanabad, housing 1,500 personnel; Manas, near Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, is described as a future "transportation hub" housing 3,000 soldiers, warplanes and surveillance aircraft; more airfields are under US control in Tajikistan and Pakistan; and the Pentagon has begun regular replacement and rotation of troops, thereby institutionalizing what were at the outset temporary, emergency deployments.
The temptations for the host governments are plain enough. Military cooperation typically works both ways. With the bases comes US agreement to provide training and equipment for local forces. Economic aid packages and trade agreements then follow. Thus previously neglected Uzbekistan received $64m in US assistance and $136m in US Export-Import Bank credits in 2001. In 2002, the Bush administration plans to hand over $52m in assistance to Kazakhstan, some partly for military equipment. The US security umbrella provides shelter from other predatory powers and effectively entrenches a group of mostly unpopular incumbent regimes.
According to Human Rights Watch, in its annual report published this week, these deals have been cut despite well-documented concern about authoritarian governance, a chronic lack of democracy and respect for human rights - torture of political prisoners is endemic in Tajikistan, for example - and often non-existent press freedoms across central Asia.
For US empire-builders, like imperialists through history, the answer to such contradictions is that exposure to superior values and standards will have an ultimately positive, uplifting effect. Meanwhile, the potential benefits for the US are enormous: growing military hegemony in one of the few parts of the world not already under Washington's sway, expanded strategic influence at Russia and China's expense, pivotal political clout and - grail of holy grails - access to the fabulous, non-Opec oil and gas wealth of central Asia. If the Afghans behave themselves, they even may get to run the pipeline.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002