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Central Asia: Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan Balancing Relations With West, Russia

  • Bruce Pannier

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have become the latest Central Asian nations to allow foreign troops from the international coalition against terrorism to use air bases on their territories. The announcements came shortly before scheduled trips by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to the region. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at this new level of cooperation between Central Asia and the West and how it affects Central Asia's relations with its old ally, Russia.

Prague, 7 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are the latest Central Asian states to offer use of their military facilities to the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism.

Uzbekistan is already hosting more than 1,000 American troops, and French troops bound for northern Afghanistan are passing through Uzbekistan's Khanabad military air base. Now, coalition troops also have arrived in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and more may be on the way soon.

As part of the continuing wave of diplomats who have visited the region recently, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was in Tajikistan today, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is due to visit Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan in the coming days.

Prior to the campaign in Afghanistan, not much attention was paid to Central Asia. But as Jonathan Stevenson, the editor of "Strategic Survey" and a fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says, the region has proven very useful for the coalition's campaign: "The Central Asian countries have already proven to be invaluable -- particularly Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- to the United States and its allies in providing a location for the staging of military operations and for logistical operations."

Ivanov's trip to Tajikistan had several purposes. Naturally, the campaign in neighboring Afghanistan was a topic of conversation, and Ivanov also met with the interim Afghan government's foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah.

The Tajik government officially announced on 4 December that it will allow the coalition to use its air base at Kulob, about 40 kilometers from the Afghan border, which has already been inspected by the U.S. and Italian militaries. Part of Ivanov's visit undoubtedly focused on the presence of troops from Western nations in Tajikistan, a country that has some 20,000 Russian-led soldiers guarding the border with Afghanistan.

Ivanov seemed anxious to emphasize this last point. On his arrival in Dushanbe, he spoke about the role of Russian troops in Tajikistan, particularly a mechanized rifle division that has been stationed there since Soviet times: "We are ready to cooperate further with Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense [so] that the 201 [mechanized] division feels good here in the future, so that they do their combat training here. And, as I said earlier, help -- they already are helping -- Tajik forces by sharing their combat experience."

Ivanov's meeting with Abdullah reportedly centered on the post-Taliban government agreed to in Germany on 5 December. But analysts say Ivanov likely reminded Abdullah that, while the U.S. may have led the campaign that finally ousted the militia from power, it was Russia who had long been sending weapons to Northern Alliance forces.

About 20 planes and helicopters from the U.S. and its allies will be kept at the Kulob base, and soldiers -- possibly hundreds -- from the U.S., France, and Italy will be stationed there.

In Kyrgyzstan, the parliament approved allowing coalition forces to use the only air field suitable for its military aircraft -- Manas international airport, which serves the capital, Bishkek. Troops from the U.S. will undoubtedly be there, but Kyrgyz officials have said that France, Italy, Canada, Australia, and South Korea have also asked permission to use Kyrgyzstan's air fields.

The offers of cooperation by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan may not be as altruistic as they first appear.

Early on, Uzbekistan granted the coalition the use of its Khanabad base. An Uzbek delegation visiting Washington in late November received promises for $100 million in aid, followed by an announcement that international lending organizations -- such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development -- will also grant loans to Uzbekistan.

Alex Vatanka, who specializes in Russia and Central Asia for the London-based "Jane's Sentinel," says that while it may appear Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are somewhat late in making their air fields available to the coalition, they should be credited with supporting the cause in its first days: "If you look at the earlier statements from Kyrgyzstan and the Tajik government, they indicated very early on which side they were on and that they were prepared to support the U.S., although at the time that was seen as more symbolic."

The Russian defense minister's visit to Tajikistan could be seen as further proof of Moscow's long-time interest, and influence, in Central Asia. But the region is now seemingly being invaded by foreign troops, particularly those from NATO countries, such as the U.S., Britain, France, Italy, and Canada. Germany has pledged to send 3,900 soldiers to the region, as well.

Stevenson of the Institute for Strategic Studies says Russia should not consider this a NATO threat in its backyard: "The forces there are not there as NATO forces. They are there as bilateral partners of the United States, and members of, essentially, a coalition of the willing that's been gathered against terrorism. So they're not there under Article 5 [of the NATO charter requiring allies to come to the defense of another member if attacked] as a NATO force."

But Vatanka notes that U.S. government officials stress the antiterrorism campaign in the region will be long. Vatanka points out that Central Asia has its own homegrown terrorists -- such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan -- who have caused a great deal of trouble for Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

If the U.S. does not want the problem of terrorism to resurface, Vatanka says its troops may be there for a while: "If we look at the so-called sustained campaign against terrorism and look beyond this intensive stage of the campaign in Afghanistan and look ahead, then it does make sense for the U.S. to get a platform in the region beyond Uzbekistan, which thus far has been the most forthcoming to U.S. requests for assistance."

However, Stevenson said U.S. officials are aware that a prolonged presence in Central Asia would be difficult for Russia to accept: "I think the United States is very sensitive to the concerns of other regional actors, for example Russia, about its military presence lasting too long."

Though the major cities of Afghanistan have now all fallen to anti-Taliban forces, there are still hundreds, perhaps thousands, of foreign Taliban fighters in the country. And neither Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar nor Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has yet been caught.

Until these figures are accounted for, the U.S.-led coalition is unlikely to leave the region -- and the Central Asian states will have to pay close attention to how they balance their relations with Russia and the United States.

(RFE/RL's Tajik and Kyrgyz services contributed to this report.)

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