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Central Asia: U.S. Can Expect Varied Levels Of Support

  • Bruce Pannier

With the United States making great efforts to form an international coalition prior to any military reprisals against terrorists in Afghanistan, the CIS Central Asian states find themselves at the center of the geopolitical stage. Three of the countries -- Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan -- lie on Afghanistan's northern border, but the level of aid the U.S. can expect from the region varies greatly from country to country.

Prague, 24 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As the world watches and waits for the anticipated U.S. strikes against terrorist bases in Afghanistan in retaliation for the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington, more and more attention is being focused on the CIS Central Asian states just north of Afghanistan.

Unconfirmed reports are already circulating of U.S. military planes landing outside the Uzbek capital Tashkent and even in southern Tajikistan. And at a news conference today, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev indicated the U.S. military may be allowed access to that country's air bases as well:

"We have already given a general agreement to participate in all measures [against terrorism]. There are no concrete requests as of today. If such requests are made, then Kazakhstan will look upon them favorably."

Asked by journalists if this support meant allowing the U.S. to use military facilities and air bases in Kazakhstan, Nazarbaev said "everything you have just enumerated" will be included in the country's show of support.

Nazarbaev also said his country and others in the region were already fighting the battle against terrorism. The Central Asian governments have for years warned against problems coming out of Afghanistan. One of the terrorist groups alleged to have training bases in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, which has caused problems not only in Uzbekistan but in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also.

Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have tightened security along their borders with neighboring CIS Central Asian states in response to the IMU threat.

U.S. President George W. Bush mentioned the IMU in his address to Congress on 20 September, linking the group to international terrorist Osama bin Laden, who is currently living in Afghanistan and has been named the primary suspect in the U.S. attacks:

"The evidence we have gathered all points to a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as Al-Qaeda. [This] group and its leader, a person named Osama bin Laden, are linked to many other organizations in different countries -- including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan."

The IMU is believed to have at least some ties with the Taliban. In an interview with RFE/RL earlier this year, Zubair ibn Abdulrahim, a leading figure in the IMU, indicated that although his group and the Taliban are pursuing different goals, they are acquainted:

"We are following our own goals and the Taliban knows what those goals are. But IMU fighters are not fighting alongside the Taliban."

President Nazarbaev's words of support may be welcome as the U.S. works to build its international coalition. But of all the Central Asian states, Uzbekistan's support may be the most desirable from a U.S. military perspective. Uzbekistan has a 137-kilometer border with Afghanistan. Agence France Presse and Russia's Interfax news agency have both reported U.S. military cargo planes landed at an Uzbek military base outside Tashkent in recent days. Uzbek and U.S. officials have denied those reports.

The U.S. military is familiar with Uzbekistan's military and the air base outside Tashkent. U.S. troops have participated in military training exercises with Uzbek, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz troops as part of the Centrazbat exercises held under NATO's Partnership for Peace Program. Several of those exercises took place at the Chirchik military base outside Tashkent. Uzbekistan has also been active in courting U.S. support since the country became independent in 1991, often at the expense of Uzbekistan's relations with Russia.

Ties between the U.S. and Uzbekistan waned following parliamentary and presidential elections in Uzbekistan that drew heavy criticism from the U.S. government. But the threat posed to the region by the IMU was taken seriously in Washington, which put the group on its list of most dangerous terrorist groups last year. During a visit to the region by then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright in 2000, the U.S. pledged several million dollars in military equipment to Uzbekistan, and U.S. special forces have trained Uzbek troops in counter-terrorism methods and mountain warfare.

The Taliban today asked the people of Uzbekistan not to support their government in helping the U.S. in its preparations for counter-terrorist actions. Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Mutawakil said a spy plane shot down by the Taliban in northern Afghanistan this weekend belonged to the U.S. and flew into Afghanistan from Uzbekistan.

Tajikistan has a 1,206-kilometer border with Afghanistan. Like their Uzbek counterparts, Tajik officials deny any U.S. planes have landed on Tajik territory. There have also been rumors of U.S. military planes landing in southern Tajikistan. The Tajik government, which initially offered wide support to the U.S., later backed down from that offer after pressure from Russia, which leads a large force of border guards keeping watch on the Tajik-Afghan border and has its 201st division stationed in Tajikistan. Additionally, Tajikistan's government, as a result of a peace deal ending a five-year civil war, is sharing power with its former Islamic opposition. That opposition, while not tied closely to the Taliban, will be sensitive to the concerns of the Islamic world.

Turkmenistan has a 744-kilometer border with Afghanistan. Of all the countries in Central Asia, Turkmenistan has the best relations with the Taliban. Turkmenistan has always used its UN-recognized status as a neutral country to avoid becoming entangled in the region's problems but may come under increasing pressure to side with one side or the other. The Turkmen government condemned the attacks in New York and Washington but has not offered any support in retaliatory strikes.

Turkmenistan's media has not covered the attacks or the preparations to respond in any depth, leaving the population to rely on rumors and speculation. The Turkmen government finds itself in a difficult predicament should the U.S. strike targets inside Afghanistan. Turkmenistan is the most likely place for Afghan refugees to try to make their way out of Afghanistan.

The border region is along fairly level ground but is sufficiently long to make secure patrols difficult. Thousands of Afghan refugees have crossed the border during fighting in northern Afghanistan only to be later expelled. But their ability to cross over indicates the border is porous and may lead to a destabilization in the country should refugees begin to arrive again.