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U.S.: Rumsfeld To Strengthen Support In Russia, Central Asia

  • Andrew Tully

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is embarking on a tour of Central Asia and Russia as concerns mount about civilian casualties in the U.S.-led military campaign against Afghanistan. Muslims, in particular, are distressed by the possibility of fighting continuing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. But defense analysts believe more practical matters will be on the agenda when Rumsfeld meets with regional leaders.

Washington, 1 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld begins a trip to Russia and Central Asia tomorrow at a time of growing concern that the allied military campaign in Afghanistan may continue during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The Defense Department has not yet announced which Central Asian nations Rumsfeld will visit, but most observers believe he will at least visit Uzbekistan, which shares a 140-kilometer border with Afghanistan and where the U.S. already has deployed some 1,000 troops.

A handful of predominantly Muslim nations allied in the U.S.-led war against Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network and the ruling Taliban, which harbors them in Afghanistan, recently urged Washington to end, or at least diminish, the bombing campaign during Ramadan. Ramadan begins this year in mid-November.

The strongest demand came from Egypt, which said that to continue the campaign during Ramadan would be what it called an "affront" to Islam. A softer call came from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who merely called for restraint.

Some may assume Rumsfeld is visiting Muslim states in Central Asia to assure their leaders and their people that the U.S. means no offense to Islam if the fighting does continue into Ramadan. But national security analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say that topic probably will be low on the secretary's agenda.

Instead, they expect Rumsfeld will ask Uzbekistan, for instance, for wider latitude in how the U.S. can deploy troops stationed in that country. For now, Uzbek President Islam Karimov says allied troops in Uzbekistan can mount only non-offensive operations.

Charles Pena is a senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington policy research center. Pena believes Rumsfeld is likely traveling to Central Asia in advance of some sort of substantial shift in the execution of the military campaign.

The coalition, Pena believes, is running out of valuable targets in the air campaign against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Pena says it is time for the U.S. to begin planning a ground offensive -- and persuading countries like Uzbekistan to grant permission to mount it from their territory: "We have reached a point of diminished, marginal returns with the air war and...we're going to have to do something different. And the 'different' means 'on the ground,' somehow. If we're going to do that, we're probably going to need more support, more access than what we've got right now."

According to Pena, this means Central Asian countries will want something in return: "There's always a quid pro quo, and that's part of the negotiations: What is it [that] they want in return?"

Anna Nelson, a professor of history at George Washington University in Washington who specializes in national security issues, agrees. She says it may sound cynical for a country to make demands on an ally in time of need but stresses that this has always been the reality of diplomacy.

"Whenever you want nations to be on your side, you generally have to give up something and negotiate what you're going to give up."

Uzbek President Karimov is battling an armed radical Muslim insurgency in his own country that is seeking the overthrow of his secular government. Karimov has responded with a crackdown that has resulted in the detention of large numbers of suspected insurgents -- a crackdown often criticized by human rights groups for its severity.

Nelson says Rumsfeld may be able to get Karimov to grant more latitude to U.S. forces in Uzbekistan if Washington agrees to help Karimov with his own fight.

"That's our strongest argument. That is, almost every one of these governments is in danger of being taken over by extremists. And my guess is they'll support us because they don't want the extremists."

The question is, what exactly will Karimov ask for? Pena and Nelson both say the easiest request for the U.S. to fulfill would be for arms. But Pena adds that the U.S. also may be asked to maintain a military presence in the country that could serve as a deterrent to any Islamic insurgency.

Pena says he doubts that Washington would agree to leave its forces in Uzbekistan. He says this could spoil America's new, friendlier relations with Russia, which sees itself as the influential power in the region.

As for Rumsfeld's visit to Moscow, he is expected to discuss a broad range of U.S.-Russian issues with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. The talks will deal with the war in Afghanistan, of which Russia is a strong supporter, and proposed modifications to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972.

U.S. President George W. Bush wants to deploy an anti-missile shield. Russia and even some American allies oppose the plan, saying it could lead to a new arms race like the one that characterized the Cold War. And Russian President Vladimir Putin notes that it also would violate the ABM treaty.

Bush has said Washington will abandon the ABM treaty if necessary in order to ensure an effective missile-defense system. He has suggested that the U.S. and Russia negotiate changes to the treaty that would permit deployment of the shield. Putin is on record as saying the treaty should not be modified, much less abandoned.

But there have been reports recently that Moscow and Washington are nearing a breakthrough on the ABM. And Rumsfeld said recently that the Pentagon is postponing some tests required for the early stages of planning for a missile shield: "We have said we will not violate the [ABM] treaty while it remains in force. In recent days, to keep from having it suggested that we might not be keeping that commitment, we have voluntarily restrained our ballistic missile defense test program."

If a breakthrough on the ABM treaty materializes, analysts say it could be timed to coincide with Putin's upcoming visit to Bush's Texas ranch on 13-15 November.

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