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Uzbekistan: Cooperation May Increase Stability, Security

  • Bruce Pannier

Uzbekistan has cleared the way for U.S. planes to use its airspace and several of its strategically located airfields in the expected U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is headed to Uzbekistan to discuss the arrangements. The advantages to the U.S. of a closer relationship with Uzbekistan are clear. But what can Uzbekistan expect to receive for its part in the international coalition against terrorism?

Prague, 3 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- This week, Uzbekistan's president officially offered his country's airspace and three air bases to the United States for use in any attacks on suspected terrorist bases inside neighboring Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan shares a 137-kilometer-long border with Afghanistan, making the former Soviet republic's support a strategic asset to U.S. warplanes in planning an attack.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is headed to Uzbekistan to discuss this possibility. The international media are just discovering this heretofore little-known Central Asian nation, but U.S. defense officials are already well-acquainted with Uzbekistan, with which it has had cooperative military exercises in the past.

For the U.S., the benefit of the new partnership is clear: The U.S. would value a clear corridor through Uzbekistan's airspace and access to its bases. For Uzbekistan, the rewards of cooperation are less clear. What does Uzbekistan stand to gain from supporting the U.S.?

Galima Bukharaeva is the project coordinator for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Speaking from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, she described the U.S.-Uzbekistan military relationship to date.

"For several years now, Uzbekistan and the United States have had relations in the military field. The U.S. periodically supplies military-technical aid to Uzbekistan. U.S. military instructors have come to Uzbekistan and held joint exercises, and our troops have also trained in the U.S. Uzbekistan is also in organizations like [NATO's] Partnership for Peace."

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher also described this cooperation at a press conference last week.

"We have worked for a long time with Uzbekistan and with other governments in the region on the fight against terrorism. We've supported their efforts. We have cooperative training. We had meetings together with other governments in the region. The problem created by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and [Al-]Qaeda have been things that we have been working on for many years."

The U.S., in leading an anticipated assault on Afghanistan, is seeking the elimination of the Al-Qaeda terrorist group and its leader, Saudi-born extremist Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden is the primary suspect in last month's terrorist attacks on the U.S. and is living in Afghanistan under the protection of that country's ruling Taliban militia.

For Uzbekistan, a major payoff for its cooperation with the U.S. would be the elimination of the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The Uzbek government has blamed the extremist group for a number of crimes in the country, including attempts to assassinate President Islam Karimov in 1999 with a series of car-bomb explosions in Tashkent.

Later that year, the IMU battled government forces in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, and last year fought Kyrgyz and Uzbek troops. Tajikistan has also experienced violence it attributes to the IMU. This year, however, the IMU has been conspicuously absent from both countries, leading to speculation they have joined forces with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

If this is true, any attacks inside Afghanistan would target not only the Taliban and Al-Qaeda but also the IMU. A decisive victory over these groups would prove a boon to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. But Uzbekistan is best suited to act as a U.S. military ally. The other two nations, as members of the CIS Collective Security Treaty, are not entirely free to forge bilateral relations with outside nations.

Its airbases add an extra advantage. Uzbekistan has two southern airfields close to the Afghan border -- the Kakaida airbase outside the border city of Termez and the Khanabad airbase in Karshi. The Kakaida airbase is less than 40 kilometers from Taliban forces across the Amydarya River. The Khanabad airfield, located further to the northwest, is sufficiently far from the border to be safe from attacks launched from Afghanistan.

Journalist Arkady Dubnov filed this report for RFE/RL's Turkmen Service yesterday from Karshi:

"Next to Karshi is Khanabad and the large, Soviet-era airfield. In recent days there has been a lot of activity there, jeeps and fuel trucks coming and going. And there are increased security measures. The local people are sure that if one approaches too closely to the airfield the guards will open fire without warning. But no one has seen a U.S. plane there."

Uzbek and U.S. officials have declined to comment on several rumors of U.S. planes landing at a military base outside Tashkent in the last 10 days. "The Washington Post" reported today that the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division deployed more than 1,000 combat troops to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan yesterday.

There are also fears that the U.S., in focusing on Uzbekistan as a coalition partner, will overlook the country's poor human rights record. Western think-tanks and human rights organizations have repeatedly lodged complaints regarding Uzbekistan's history of censorship, alleged vote fraud, arbitrary arrests, show trials, and death sentences. Some even blame the government's crackdown on the country's Muslim population for creating the IMU, an opposition movement that was radicalized only after being forced underground by the state.

Some critics say the Uzbek government, in its efforts to combat the IMU, has arrested thousands of Muslims who have no apparent ties to the IMU or its alleged crimes.

U.S. State Department spokesman Boucher stresses it is important for countries like Uzbekistan to draw a careful distinction between peaceful Muslims and Islamic extremists.

"We have made the case in Central Asia and elsewhere that a recognition of the legitimate right of believers in Islam is an important part of separating the people who would use violence and use the religion as a pretext or pervert the religion into some kind of weird justification."

Boucher added that human rights have not and will not be forgotten as the U.S. forges closer ties with Central Asia.

"I can't tell you that human rights is mentioned in every conversation with every person, whether they have anything to do with human rights or not. But I can tell you that we've been in close touch with the governments in Central Asia and elsewhere and we've maintained a consistent stance vis-a-vis human rights, and we have not dropped it in any way from our agenda."

If terrorism is successfully eliminated in Central Asia, the area will experience the first period of security since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Afghanistan has been involved in nearly constant military conflict throughout the past decade. A civil war raged in Tajikistan from 1992 until 1997. Recent attacks by the IMU in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have further deteriorated any sense of post-Soviet stability in the region, with Central Asian governments using the unrest to justify autocratic forms of rule.

A stable Afghanistan and the elimination of the IMU from the regional scene could offer the Central Asian states a chance to break out of a 10-year cycle of chaos.