BISHKEK: US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Central Asia on Saturday for a five-day, five-nation tour of the "Stans," to reassure them they will not be forgotten.
Concern is mounting in the region that, as the US operation in Afghanistan finally draws towards a close, Washington will lose interest in its landlocked northern neighbours.
He landed at Manas airport outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek and headed in to meet President Almazbek Atambayev and Foreign Minister Abdyldaev Erlan Bekeshovich.
Senior US officials see Kerry’s visit to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as "very timely" as the region seeks outside reassurance.
The Central Asian economy has already taken a hit from falling oil prices and the knock-on effect of international sanctions against their former Soviet master Russia.
And now the self-styled Islamic State (IS) group is recruiting fighters from the region — including a US-trained special police chief — raising the spectre of extremist violence.
Washington also has concerns that the young republics, never paragons of freedom, may overreact to the crisis and crack down further on their own populations.
This in turn could provoke religious violence in the mainly Muslim region of the kind that has dragged nearby Pakistan and Afghanistan into violent conflict.
In Tajikistan, for example, President Emomali Rahmon’s regime banned the main opposition party and jailed many of its leaders, accusing them of fomenting Islamist extremism.– Agencies