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Looking at a map, Central Eurasia - or, as U.S. scholars prefer, the Caspian region, from the Caucasus through to Central Asia and Afghanistan - looks so important, lying as it does at the center of Eurasia, surrounded by Russia, China, India, and the Middle East. Hence the fascination the area holds for geostrategists, who have a chessboard model of international relations - geopolitics as a game won by whoever holds the key territory. Weisbrode, a researcher at the prestigious London-based Institute of International Strategic Studies, argues that this chessboard view of geopolitics is badly outdated and that Central Eurasia is no prize. Despite all the enthusiasm in the mid-1990s about the region's energy potential, the reality is that the area has experienced a decade of socioeconomic decline, with falling income, shorter life expectancies, and lower literacy rates. He points out that the region has many zones of conflict, three of which he examines in detail. Karabakh has been fought over by Armenia and Azerbaijan for a decade. Afghanistan has been continuously at war for twenty years. And Islamists have kept in turmoil for almost that long the Ferghana Valley, the 100-mile-by-200-mile valley with ten million inhabitants that is the economic center of three countries (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgzia). Each of those conflicts has been at least as much of a problem as an opportunity for the neighboring powers such as Russia, Iran, and Turkey, as well as for outsiders such as the United States.

Weisbrode recommends achieving stability in Central Asia through the major powers acting in concert. The alternative approach to stability, he argues, would be for the United States to establish semi-protectorates to limit the influence of other powers, which would require a "ruthless policy of power projection." Perhaps post-September 11, the United States is prepared to make that commitment. Still, is the prize worth the effort?