Almost immediately after the terrorist attacks against the United States on 11 September, the name of Osama bin Laden surfaced as the possible mastermind behind the carnage. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday confirmed that Washington considers bin Laden a prime suspect in its investigation, increasing the odds of retaliation against Afghanistan's Taliban regime, which has long harbored the indicted terrorist. How do Afghanistan's neighbors in Central Asia feel about being near the potential frontline of what U.S. President George Bush has called the "first war of the 21st century"? What risks could their participation engender?
Prague, 14 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The chorus of official support for the United States coming from Central Asia masks unease among the region's leaders and people about the consequences of possible military action against Afghanistan.
Three Central Asian states -- Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- share borders with Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan, which does not, has periodically battled fundamentalist rebels who used Taliban-sponsored training bases in Afghanistan.
The United States, which is trying to assemble a coalition of partners should it go into battle with the Taliban, is urging Central Asian governments to fall into line with Washington.
Immediately after the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan John Herbst made the following statement:
"At this time, it is very important for all civilized people to stick together to destroy the threat of terrorism and vanquish those who committed these acts."
Similar appeals were made by U.S. emissaries in all the Central Asian capitals. Kazakhstan's foreign minister, Yerlan Idrisov, speaking today in Almaty at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- which groups together Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- said the organization's members had issued a statement pledging support for possible U.S. military retaliation:
"This statement implies that the support will be given to a rightful retaliation against the groups which support, sponsor, and carry out terrorist acts throughout the world."
Ahmed Rashid is a leading expert on the Taliban and a Pakistan-based correspondent for "The Far Eastern Economic Review." He tells RFE/RL that the Central Asian leaders have little choice:
"First of all, all the Central Asian states are members of the Partnership for Peace with NATO. Under that treaty obligation and the fact that there are already U.S. officers and troops training Central Asian armies -- which has nothing to do with this incident but is related to the threat they face from the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, the IMU -- the Central Asian states are certain to be major operational bases for any kind of American military campaign against the Taliban."
Russia, too, which has 25,000 border troops in Tajikistan alone, can be expected to offer its assistance, although the extent of what help Moscow would be prepared to give has yet to be determined. But in exchange, Rashid says, America will be expected to do more than just pursue bin Laden.
"Now clearly, the Russians and the Uzbeks are going to be telling the Americans, 'If you want our military cooperation, we also want you to target the IMU bases -- that is, that you take out not just bin Laden's camps but also IMU camps and you try and strangle the IMU as well.' And I see no reason why the Americans wouldn't go along with that because the Americans have already termed the IMU as a terrorist organization with links to bin Laden. But the danger is: What will be the IMU's reaction to that? Is there the possibility of them launching guerrilla raids into Central Asia, creating a military situation in Central Asia?"
And the IMU is not the only terrorist organization which the Taliban is sheltering. The United States, if it moves against Afghanistan, could soon find itself chasing down half a dozen other groups which could, in turn, wreak revenge on Central Asia.
"The problem in Afghanistan is that the Taliban have given sanctuary to dozens of foreign groups, of which of course the biggest is bin Laden's. The second biggest are probably some of the Pakistani groups, Kashmiri groups. And the third is the IMU. But there are also lots of other smaller groups. Most of these neighboring [states] are probably going to encourage the U.S. to take out all these groups in a military way. Now that is going to create a hornet's nest. It's going to create a hornet's nest in Pakistan, domestically. It could in Central Asia. And it could escalate terrorist attacks in all these neighboring countries also by these extremists."
This possibility has prompted some opposition politicians in the region to warn against drawing hasty conclusions about the perpetrators of this week's attacks. Muhitdin Kabiri, deputy chairman of the Tajikistan Islamic Revival Party, offered this caution:
"For Tajikistan, which is directly in the path of the sources of such actions, this is a very important issue and because of that, our party has expressed deep concerns and asked for further investigation about the action itself and who is responsible. The guilty must be brought to justice."
Those words were echoed today by Bolot Kudaibergenov, deputy speaker of the lower house of Kyrgyzstan's parliament:
"If the situation is to be understood correctly, as long as no guilty politician or leader [behind the terrorist acts] has been found, no measures must be taken."
As the United States weighs the consequences of its possible military actions, Rashid says, it must remember that behind the facade of unity, regional leaders will be pursuing their own aims. The Russian military may have doubts about using Central Asia as a possible springboard for attacking Afghanistan. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said today he sees "no basis" for such action. But Russia's political leadership is seeking justification for its policy line that it has always fought the "good fight" against Islamic terrorism, both in Chechnya and elsewhere. Rashid says:
"It needs a kind of legitimacy. It doesn't want to have a repeat of the Chechen operation where Russia went in alone against the Chechens and what it said were Islamic extremists and then got castigated by the Western world. If it can rope in NATO, Partnership for Peace, the Americans, the Europeans, into suppressing Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia, then Russian actions get a kind of legitimacy, a global legitimacy."
Central Asia's more authoritarian leaders are likely to seize the chance for U.S. military and political support to consolidate their own power. But this, Rashid predicts, will lead to greater oppression of the local population -- which could paradoxically create more fertile ground for future terrorists.
On the sidelines, for the moment, is perhaps the region's most authoritarian leader. Turkmenistan's president, Saparmurat Niyazov, has reacted coolly to U.S. calls for a war on terrorism. In his initial condolence message to U.S. President George W. Bush on 12 September, Niyazov expressed sorrow for the enormous loss of life but made no mention of the terrorist perpetrators.
Turkmenistan, which is officially neutral, has supplied the Taliban with both natural gas and electricity. In a speech to foreign diplomats earlier this year, Niyazov said it was time the world changed its policies toward the Taliban.
"They are being beaten, sanctions [are imposed]. Listen, give them a chance to create a state, to create the structures of state governance, a united power, a structure of parliament."
But Rashid predicts Turkmenistan will now be squeezed by both Washington and Moscow to radically alter its policies.
"Turkmenistan will have no choice but to fall in line with the Americans and the Russians because it's in a precarious situation. It has a lot of pressures, domestic and foreign, and I don't think it can buck the international community. And the Americans -- Colin Powell and Bush -- have made it very clear that either you're for us or against us. There's no question of neutrality. And that message will be delivered very strongly by the Americans and the Russians to President Niyazov. There's no question of Turkmenistan, I think, being allowed to maintain a kind of neutral stance, when it borders Afghanistan, when bases in Turkmenistan will be required."
For the more than 1 million ethnic Turkmen currently living in Afghanistan, a change in Ashgabat's political stance could have unforeseeable consequences. The geopolitical map could be about to change and Central Asia will bear the brunt of those changes.
(All of Radio Free Europe's Central Asian services contributed to this report, as did Michael Lelyveld in Almaty.)