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Central Asia: States Reject Participation In Possible War On Afghanistan

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

While the U.S. is drumming up international support for decisive action against terrorist organizations blamed for the deadly 11 September attacks, Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors have officially stated that they would not participate in a military campaign against the Taliban. Although U.S. officials believe that Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan could be of strategic importance should Washington decide to attack Afghanistan, these former Soviet republics have little room to maneuver.

Prague, 21 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Efforts by the United States to garner international support against Afghanistan suffered an apparent blow when the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan earlier this week (19 September) officially stated that they were not considering allowing the U.S. or its allies to use their respective territories for possible strikes against their southern neighbor.

Washington is calling for a united front against terrorism in the aftermath of last week's devastating attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. President George W. Bush's administration has made it clear that any military action will be focused on Afghanistan and its ruling Taliban militia, which it says is sheltering Osama bin Laden, a Saudi-born Islamic militant and the prime suspect in the attacks.

U.S. officials have said that Afghanistan's predominantly Muslim northern neighbors could play a major role in concerted military operations against the Taliban and bin Laden's alleged Taliban-sponsored training camps in Afghanistan. Both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- which has the largest and best-trained armed forces in the region -- still have military facilities that the Soviet Army built in the late 1970s prior to invading Afghanistan.

Yet Uzbek Foreign Ministry spokesman Bakhodir Umarov said on 19 September that his country had neither considered nor discussed the possibility of letting its territory or airspace be used by the U.S. or its allies for strikes on Afghanistan.

Foreign Ministry officials in neighboring Tajikistan made similar comments, saying that the possibility of letting U.S. military aircraft use the national territory for possible strikes against Afghanistan was never looked into.

Not surprisingly, these statements followed a rushed Central Asian tour made earlier this week by Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo. Although the Kremlin supports U.S. calls for global action against international terrorism, it has expressed concern that Washington might use the opportunity of military actions against the Taliban to increase its presence in a region Russia considers its backyard.

All Central Asian states are members of NATO's Partnership for Peace program, and most regional armies are being trained by U.S. officers.

Of all of Afghanistan's immediate neighbors, only Tajikistan is a member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty. It is also the only regional country in which Russia keeps a significant military presence, notably along the border with Afghanistan.

By contrast, Uzbekistan has been cultivating warm relations with the U.S. since it gained independence 10 years ago in a bid to counterbalance Russia's influence in the region.

Olivier Roy is an Afghan and Central Asian expert at France's National Center for Scientific Research, or CNRS. Roy told RFE/RL that, in his view, Uzbekistan would benefit from its participation in a U.S.-led military coalition against the Taliban and bin Laden. But he made it clear that the Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, had little room to maneuver:

"Objectively, it is in Uzbekistan's interest to participate in a coalition, notably because -- with the exception of the Islamic circles, of course -- its sympathies lie with the U.S. While Uzbekistan's relations with Israel are excellent, the Arabs have almost no influence in the country. To participate in such a coalition would allow Uzbekistan to boost its ties with Washington while avoiding criticism on human rights and counterbalancing the influence of the Russians. Although the Uzbeks have moved closer to Russia recently, they remain very, very wary of [this country]. But the Uzbek leadership is overcautious and it is certainly not willing to appear on the frontline. Therefore, one can imagine that the Uzbeks will provide all facilities required by the Americans while refraining from going too far like, for example, providing troops. This they will not do."

Some experts have suggested that Karimov could trade his support for U.S.-led strikes on Afghanistan against America's help in quelling fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), who have been responsible for several armed incursions into the country's southern provinces over the past few years. Human rights activists have expressed concerns that the authoritarian Uzbek leader would use the opportunity of a global war on terrorism to clamp down on all forms of political and religious dissent.

In the mid-1990s, IMU militants fled Uzbekistan to find refuge in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Although IMU leaders have admitted that there was a connection between their movement and the Taliban, the true nature of their relations with Afghanistan's rulers and bin Laden have raised many questions.

Addressing the U.S. Congress earlier today, Bush singled out the IMU and its military leader, Juma Namangani, among alleged terrorist groups affiliated with bin Laden's Al-Qaeda organization.

Roy notes that links between the Taliban and the IMU have become much closer in the recent past, with Uzbek militants helping the Afghan religious militia fighting late Ahmed Shah Massoud's Northern Alliance:

"There have been a number of precise clues over the past year. Last June, for the first time, IMU fighters launched an attack against Massoud in cooperation with the Taliban. Up until that date, they had refrained from fighting in Afghanistan, saying that this was not their war. This period is over now. In addition, Namangani is believed to have become a member of Al-Qaeda. Of course, one has to be very careful with these kind of rumors. Yet, it is clear that links [between the IMU and the Taliban] are very close."

But some specialists disagree with the idea that Karimov might be willing to negotiate his support for a U.S. military action for domestic purposes. Ethnic Uzbek journalist Sanobar Shermatova specializes in Central Asian and Caucasian affairs for the Russian weekly "Moskovskie Novosti." In an interview with RFE/RL, she said the Uzbek leader is unlikely to agree to his country's direct involvement in a military action against the Taliban for fear of political backlash:

"Whether Uzbekistan will participate [in a U.S.-led coalition] or not, the IMU problem will remain. Why? Because the IMU problem is not a mere question of fighting against terrorism. It is much broader. It is a political problem, a social problem [that cannot] be solved by simply letting Uzbekistan participate in a U.S. operation in Afghanistan. Moreover, for Uzbekistan this would amount to declaring itself a U.S. ally in Central Asia and becoming the primary target of those religious groups that will remain in the region after the war. This would put the country under great danger, and I think that the position adopted by [Karimov] -- that is, to support the U.S. fight against terrorists while refraining from siding with the U.S. in this war -- matches Uzbekistan's long-term interests."

Although Russia has always denied helping the IMU, its troops stationed in Tajikistan have kept a benevolent attitude toward Karimov's religious opponents, letting IMU militants freely come and go through the Tajik-Afghan border. But relations between Moscow and Tashkent have changed since Uzbekistan earlier this year joined an economic forum known as the "Shanghai Five" that originally grouped together Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Roy says Moscow is likely to adopt a more cautious stance toward the IMU now.

"The Russians eventually got what they wanted, that is, to force Tashkent back to the fold. Therefore, it is not in their interest to retain an ambiguous attitude now because that would convince the Uzbeks that Moscow is a danger to them. I believe that the Russians got what they wanted when Tashkent joined the 'Shanghai Five' group. It is in their interest to keep some means of pressure on Karimov, but not to destabilize him. That would be too great a risk for them."

Another Central Asian country had denied it would participate in any anti-Taliban coalition. In a statement released on 19 September through its Foreign Ministry, Turkmenistan brushed aside any such scenario, saying that it would run counter to its neutral status.

Of all the regional states, only Turkmenistan openly maintains good relations with the Taliban, although it has not recognized the militia as Afghanistan's legitimate government.

As Shermatova recalls, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov is anxious to avoid any confrontation with the Taliban regime. Six years ago, she said, Ashgabat and Afghanistan's rulers signed an agreement under which the Taliban said they would refrain from any subversive action against its northwestern neighbor:

"Every country has two options [when it comes to national defense]. The first option is to protect itself militarily and the second option is to sign non-aggression pacts with its neighbors. Turkmenistan has opted for the second solution because it has neither the resources nor the money required to keep an army. Turkmenistan is governed by its own oriental laws according to which [Niyazov] has decided that his country would not assist the U.S. in a war against the Taliban."

Plans to build a gas pipeline stretching from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan were shelved after U.S. oil company Unocal withdrew from the project four years ago following a shift in Washington's policy towards the Taliban.

Niyazov is now considering alternative routes through Russia and Iran. But Roy believes that the Central Asian leader still views Afghanistan as a potential outlet for his country's huge hydrocarbon reserves. Roy also notes that ethnic Turkmen living in Afghanistan have often had good relations with the country's majority Pashtun ethnic group from which the Taliban originates. These factors, he says, have contributed to Turkmenistan's pro-Taliban stance.

Roy concludes: "Niyazov could have many surprises in store. He will not confront the U.S., but one has to keep in mind that Turkmenistan and the Taliban have very close interests which have nothing to do with ideology."

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