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Central Asia: Rumsfeld Wraps Up Visit To Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan

  • Antoine Blua --> U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld paid a visit to Central Asia this week aimed at strengthening military ties and assessing future security needs. RFE/RL looks at the visit and what it accomplished in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Prague, 26 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Following trips to Iraq and Kuwait, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan this week as part of a three-day trip to Central Asia.

Rumsfeld held talks with the countries' leaders on prospects for expansion of military relations.

During his third visit to Uzbekistan in the past two years, Rumsfeld stressed that U.S.-Uzbek military relations are "growing stronger every month." He thanked President Islam Karimov for supporting the U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan. "We have benefited greatly in our efforts in the global war on terror and in Afghanistan from the wonderful cooperation we've received from the government of Uzbekistan," he said.

Uzbekistan became a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism in 2001 when Tashkent allowed U.S. forces to use the Khanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan for military operations in Afghanistan.

Alex Vatanka is editor in chief of "Jane's Sentinel: Russia and the CIS," a security-assessment publication based in London. He says Rumsfeld's visit underlines the importance of the role of Central Asia -- particularly Uzbekistan -- on the way the Pentagon envisages the new allocation of its troops around the world.

"Uzbekistan -- I'm sure, at this stage -- is being examined in this context. The U.S. is very likely to reconsider how its troops oversees are distributed. One of the logical deductions one can make is that there will be a shift away from Western Europe to areas where there are more risks for instability. And obviously Central Asia being close to the Middle East [and] to Afghanistan, and in itself being a fairly unstable place, would make a suitable place to act as a new base for American military personnel," Vatanka told RFE/RL.

In an interview with the Associated Press on 21 February, Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadyk Safaev left open the possibility of a long-term U.S. presence in the country. However, Rumsfeld said Washington does not intend to establish permanent bases in the region.

"We have no plans to put permanent bases in this part of the world [Uzbekistan and the region]. We have been discussing with various friends and allies the issue of -- I guess you would call them operating sites that would not be permanent as a base would be permanent, but would be a place where the United States and coalition countries could periodically and intermittently have access and support," Rumsfeld said.

Uzbekistan was the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid among the Central Asian nations -- receiving $86 million in 2003. Kazakhstan received the most U.S. assistance last year -- $92 million. This spring, the U.S. administration will have to decide whether to certify Uzbekistan for broader assistance programs. All direct assistance will be suspended if Uzbekistan is decertified due to lack of political and economic reforms.

From Uzbekistan, Rumsfeld moved on to the oil-rich nation of Kazakhstan. After talks with Prime Minister Danial Akhmetov, Rumsfeld praised the country as a model for successful disarmament. "Had Iraq followed the Kazakhstan model after 17 UN resolutions and disarmed the way Kazakhstan did, there would not have been a war," he said.

When Kazakhstan seceded from the Soviet Union in 1991, it had one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world, which it unilaterally surrendered by 1995.

Kazakhstan has responded more guardedly than Uzbekistan to Washington's emergence as a major power broker in Central Asia. Astana has nonetheless offered the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan the use of a Kazakh airport for emergency landings and refueling. Kazakhstan also deployed about 30 peacekeeping troops to Iraq in August to help with demining and restoring water supplies.

"Kazakhstan is an important country in the global war on terror and has been wonderfully helpful in Iraq, and I came here to personally say 'thank you' and express our appreciation," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld asked Kazakh officials to become more actively involved in NATO's Partnership for Peace program. He said Washington is committed to ensuring the security of Kazakhstan's portion of the oil-rich Caspian Sea, an area of interest for Washington as it seeks to diversify its crude-oil supply away from the Middle East. "We talked about the U.S. support for Kazakhstan's sovereignty and independence, and our important military-to-military relationship," Rumsfeld said.

U.S. security efforts will focus on helping Kazakhstan's military ensure the security of pipelines and installations around its Caspian coastline. The U.S. is to spend $5 million this year on weapons, armor, and training to help the country build up its navy. Kazakhstan decided last year to set up its own navy and will take delivery of its first battleships in coming months.

The Associated Press quoted the Kazakh Defense Ministry as saying the two countries signed a five-year cooperation plan last September that envisages the delivery of helicopters, military cargo aircraft, and ships for Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea forces. Under the plan, the United States will also reportedly supply equipment for Kazakh troops and provide antiterrorism training.

Interfax quoted James Kenney of the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan as stressing that Washington is not planning to create a military base on the Caspian.

The states bordering the Caspian Sea -- Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Russia -- are engaged in a dispute over sharing the sea's resources.

Rumsfeld is in Afghanistan today, where he will end his regional tour.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek and Kazakh services contributed to this report.)