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Uzbekistan: Tashkent Could Be More Valuable Partner To West Than Islamabad

  • Bruce Pannier

Questions remain about how much support Uzbekistan is offering the U.S. in its military campaign against Taliban targets in Afghanistan. While the U.S.-Uzbek partnership caused a minor sensation when it was forged in October, few details have been forthcoming about what Tashkent is offering Washington -- and what it hopes to receive in return. And a string of visits by top U.S. and European officials to the Central Asian nation may herald even closer relations between the two countries. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports there are several reasons why Uzbekistan may make a better U.S. ally than another key regional member of the antiterrorism coalition -- Pakistan.

Prague, 2 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan may be increasing its role as a regional partner in the U.S.-led military campaign against Taliban targets in Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan was the first of the post-Soviet Central Asian states to make a concrete offer of support for the United States and its efforts to assemble a global coalition against the threat of terrorism.

Uzbekistan has opened its airspace to U.S. planes and is providing an air base in Khanabad, about 150 kilometers north of the Afghan border, for U.S. military use. Some 1,000 U.S. soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division have deployed there for humanitarian and any possible search-and-rescue operations in Afghanistan.

Now there is reason to believe the U.S. and its coalition allies may be asking for even more help from the Central Asian nation.

The commander of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, General Tommy Franks, recently held talks in Tashkent with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and other top officials. Franks described the talks as "full, free and frank."

A top-level delegation from the European Union stopped in Tashkent on 31 October as part of a Central Asian tour to discuss greater military and humanitarian cooperation in the war against Afghanistan.

And U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is expected in the coming days to make his second visit in weeks to Uzbekistan and other Central Asian nations in a bid to further consolidate support for the U.S.-led bombing campaign against the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan.

Ian Bremmer is director of the New York-based Eurasia Group, a consultancy organization that specializes in, among other areas, Central Asia.

Bremmer tells RFE/RL that there are basic reasons why Uzbekistan would provide a better staging area for future U.S.-led military efforts against Afghanistan than would Pakistan, the other regional country hosting American troops.

Bremmer says it would be easier to maintain the security of American forces in Uzbekistan. He points out that, in Pakistan, clerics have issued edicts against U.S. troops, edicts that have sparked protests and enflamed passions among Islamic extremists.

Bremmer said he believes these passions could eventually endanger the stability of the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf: "There is a danger that Musharraf himself could fall if the Americans were to use Pakistan's good offices particularly strongly."

Bremmer says Uzbek President Karimov, on the other hand, has what he calls a "better capacity to run his country."

Uzbekistan is an authoritarian state often criticized by the West for its poor human rights record. Clerics are approved by the state and protests are few. The few protests that do take place usually involve relatively small numbers of people, with police usually moving in quickly to quash any disorder straightaway.

Paul Burton of "Jane's Sentinel," a Britain-based journal covering security matters, agrees. He says Karimov has demonstrated an intolerance for opposition -- normally a quality condemned by the West but one which could make things easier in a practical sense as the U.S.-led military campaign continues in Afghanistan: "Karimov has ruled there pretty much with an iron fist for several years. It's highly unlikely that public protests along the lines of those we are seeing in Pakistan would be allowed by Karimov."

Analysts say another point worth considering is the ethnic makeup of the people living along the Pakistani-Afghan border. Burton says that cocktail of ethnicities could contribute to unrest in Pakistan during the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan: "Basically, it [the Afghan-Pakistani border] is so porous. The ethnic group, the Pashtuns, live on both sides of it, and they still regard themselves as one people. Therefore, [historically] they didn't recognize the border. It's virtually impossible to guard properly -- incredibly mountainous, very porous."

In contrast, the majority of people on the Afghan side of the Uzbek border are ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, most of whom are opposed to Taliban rule and support the opposition Northern Alliance.

Even in terms of military facilities, Uzbekistan probably has the edge. Bremmer notes that Uzbekistan was a major staging area for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, with much of the infrastructure from that time, including air bases, still in working order.

Burton agrees, though he describes the Uzbek bases as "Soviet relics." He also points out that the bases were designed to house large numbers of troops and equipment for strikes against targets in Afghanistan -- a fact which could be convenient for the antiterrorism coalition should the campaign in Afghanistan evolve into a ground operation.

Pakistan's best military facilities, by contrast, are more likely placed to counter threats from neighbor India to the east.

(Zamira Echanova of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)