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During this year's long debate over the U.S. policy for Afghanistan, one big question hung in the background. That question: how much does this country really matter? After all, terrorism is not necessarily linked to a specific place. And the United States paid little attention to Afghanistan in the years leading up to the 9/11 attacks, years when the Taliban were in power. Here, though, is something new. Analysts are now warning that neighboring countries in central Asia are at risk of being pulled into a larger regional conflict.

NPR's Tom Gjelten explains.

TOM GJELTEN: For many Americans and even more Europeans, the problems in far way Afghanistan or Pakistan, or in their neighboring countries, are not deserving of Western government's attention. That's a mindset Jean-Louis Bruguiere is determined to change. He is a European Union envoy on terrorism.

Mr. JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE (Envoy on TERRORISM, European Union): You have global problems in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. All is connected and especially with Central Asia.

GJELTEN: All connected, especially with Central Asia. That's a region we've not associated with the Afghanistan war. But Bruguiere highlights what he calls an arc of conflict: South Asia, the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and beyond.

Mr. BRUGUIERE: To Pakistan, Afghanistan, to Russia. And behind Russia, we have Europe.

GJELTEN: Bruguiere's new fear - and it's one shared by analysts intelligence officials - is that the conflict in Afghanistan could spread in other directions.

The concern stems from growing international collaboration between radical insurgent groups that had focused on their home countries. One example: the Afghan Taliban's alliance with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU.

IMU militants are now in Afghanistan, fighting as part of the Taliban-led insurgency there. The group originated to the north in Uzbekistan, but the IMU apparently has a broader vision these days.

Mr. PAUL QUINN-JUDGE (Director, Central Asia, International Crisis Group): It really does seem to be the central focus point for people who advocate overthrowing the regimes of Central Asia by force of arms.

GJELTEN: Paul Quinn-Judge is Central Asia director for the International Crisis Group. It's largely because of the IMU's alliance with the Afghan Taliban, he says, that the fighting in Afghanistan could spill north to the Central Asian countries that were once part of the Soviet Union.

Mr. QUINN-JUDGE: If the Taliban can consolidate themselves in northern Afghanistan, that's already going to be an excellent jumping-off point for the IMU and for other Central Asian Islamists. If the Taliban took over in that part of the region, I think it would be a very disturbing development for most of the countries of Central Asia.

GJELTEN: A latter-day version of the domino theory.

The IMU has been around for more than a decade. But David Sedney, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Central Asia, told a Senate hearing recently that Islamist groups, like the IMU, have in recent months emerged as a more serious threat in several Central Asian countries.

Mr. DAVID SEDNEY (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Central Asia): Local governments in the region share our concern about extremism. This issue has figured much more strongly at the end of this year than it did at the beginning.

GJELTEN: Here's one new factor: some U.S. military supplies for Afghanistan are now brought in overland on road and rail lines across Central Asia. Paul Quinn-Judge says that ties Central Asian governments directly to the Afghan war effort.

Mr. QUINN-JUDGE: In the mindset of the Taliban and other Islamist movements, Central Asia is now part of the general theater of war.

GJELTEN: Many of the Central Asian governments are authoritarian. Corruption and human rights abuses are rampant, and those problems have fueled the opposition in those countries, including the Islamist movements. And now the United States needs those very governments to help with its Afghanistan re-supply effort.

Mr. QUINN-JUDGE: The damage it's going to do to American prestige in the region is enormous, and the help it gives to radical movements is also significant. That is, now these radical movements can say, this is further proof that the Americans are backing these local thugs. The Americans have their own ulterior motives.

GJELTEN: It's a problem U.S. officials realize, but their options are limited. Again, David Sedney.

Mr. SEDNEY: The Department of Defense's primary goal in Central Asia is to support the war in Afghanistan.

GJELTEN: Worrying about those Central Asian countries is secondary.

Here's the problem: if the Taliban take over in Afghanistan, radical Islamist movements, such as the IMU, could gain a valuable foothold and be positioned to carry their fight to neighboring Central Asian countries. But ramping up the U.S. war effort in order to defeat the Taliban could pull Central Asian countries into the conflict anyway.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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