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Central Asia: The Give And Take Of A War Against Terror

  • Bruce Pannier

The nations of Central Asia find themselves the focus of the world's attention as the United States assembles an international coalition ahead of its anticipated military operations against Afghanistan, where suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding. The five Central Asian states have pledged their cooperation in the fight against terrorism. There are reports such cooperation could even involve the use of military bases in the region by U.S. troops. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at what the Central Asian states may stand to gain by allying themselves with the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign and what political changes could result.

Prague, 26 September 2001 (RFE/L) -- Long accustomed to playing minor parts on the international stage, the five states of Central Asia -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- are now finding themselves in a starring role in the global effort to force Afghanistan's ruling Taliban to hand over suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and members of his Al-Qaeda organization.

Martha Olcott of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says one important role that the Central Asian states can play in the war on terrorism is clear:

"I think the Central Asian states could play the role of a launching pad for military engagement."

Oksana Antonenko of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies says there is more that the Central Asian states can offer any coalition against terrorism.

"Tajikistan, with Russian forces present there, as well as Uzbekistan, have been maintaining a close relationship with the Northern Alliance [the group fighting the Taliban inside Afghanistan] and understand quite well how they operate. They have provided them with equipment. So the Northern Alliance fighters have been trained how to use the equipment. So if the United States decides to use the Northern Alliance as the main force in whatever operation they undertake, I think the expertise that has been developed in these countries [Uzbekistan and Tajikistan] can be important."

Even Turkmenistan -- which has had good relations with the Taliban and which has so far offered the use of its air space solely for humanitarian shipments to Afghanistan -- could offer assistance. Antonenko says:

"Turkmenistan can offer the opportunity to maintain a dialogue with the Taliban because -- although they don't have an official relationship and they do not recognize officially the Taliban -- they did establish an informal dialogue with the Taliban over the last three or four years."

That is what the Central Asian states can offer the coalition. What are the reasons motivating these states to pledge their support to the new global war against terrorism?

Antonenko points out that terrorism is nothing new in Central Asia:

"The Central Asian states, over the last decade or more, have been experiencing the direct impact of the terrorism emanating from Afghanistan on their territory. They have been trying to develop capabilities to deal with it. Of course, these capabilities are very limited."

Extremists calling themselves the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, fought against Kyrgyz and Uzbek troops in 1999 and 2000. U.S. President George W. Bush has named the IMU as one of those organizations whose bank accounts and assets will be frozen in the United States.

Olcott says U.S. troops -- should they use military bases in Central Asia to strike targets in Afghanistan -- would also be looking for members of the IMU.

"The destruction of the IMU is one of the goals of this campaign as well. [The IMU] has been linked to Osama bin Laden. The president [Bush] introduced it to the American people as a target. So I think we are unlikely to leave the region without [the IMU] destroyed, as well as the terrorist camps of bin Laden."

Olcott and Antonenko admit that Western criticism of human rights abuses among the Central Asian states may be muted in the coming days, weeks and months as the Central Asian states ally themselves with the international coalition. Olcott:

"I'd like to think that ignoring these issues [human rights and democratic reform] will be a temporary phenomenon, that as we move into the next phase of this military operation, from targets to rebuilding, these societies will pay closer attention to these issues. I think if we don't, we're looking to create new sources of terrorism down the road."

Antonenko agrees, but says this sudden thrust into the international spotlight and their newfound importance to the West may end up modifying the internal politics of the Central Asian states:

"I think over the long run -- if one looks beyond the immediate military operation -- [if] the Central Asian states [want] to diversify their relationships and [want] to develop a long-term partnership with Western countries, they would have to address the issue of human rights in whatever relationship they are going to develop, with, particularly, European institutions, such as the Council of Europe or OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe]."

Olcott says this new situation is forcing the Central Asian governments to play a new, more mature role on the world stage:

"I think from the point of view of Central Asia, this is really a new stage of state-building. These states now are engaging with international actors for greater global needs as opposed to pulling in the U.S. and Russia to help them deal with their own security problems. This is a much more complex role that they're playing in the international community, and this means that they've kind of come to some degree of maturity as states."

The tragic events of 11 September now offer the Central Asian states a unique opportunity to become more assimilated into the world community. As international strategies are planned for battling global terrorism, it appears as if the Central Asian governments will not be able to return to business as usual if they wish to maintain the favorable positions they occupy at the moment.