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Central Asia: Rumsfeld Looking To Reinforce Coalition Support

  • Bruce Pannier

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has completed a tour through Central Asia and Afghanistan. Rumsfeld visited U.S. troops stationed in Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, and made stops in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Rumsfeld also managed to stop off briefly in Herat, Afghanistan, where he met regional leader Ismail Khan.

Prague, 29 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made a short tour through parts of Central Asia and Afghanistan last week and over the weekend. Part of the trip was to boost morale among U.S. troops serving in Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan and to show support for the interim Afghan government. But the trip probably had another task: to attract other regional players to become more involved in the fight against terrorism.

Rumsfeld started his trip in Kyrgyzstan, where some 1,900 coalition troops, mainly American, are stationed near the Manas international airport outside the capital, Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan, as with neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which Rumsfeld did not visit on this trip, has offered strong support to the U.S. in its antiterror coalition. The country has allowed U.S. and French warplanes to launch combat missions from its bases. Rumsfeld spent little time meeting with Kyrgyz officials and spent the bulk of his stay with troops at the airfield.

From Kyrgyzstan, Rumsfeld headed to Afghanistan, where he made an unexpected stop in the western Afghan city of Herat to visit with regional leader Ismail Khan. Before the arrival of the hard-line Taliban regime in the mid-1990s, Khan had ruled in Herat for several years. When the Taliban took Herat, they captured Khan, who eventually escaped and fled to Iran. It was from Iran that Khan returned to Afghanistan to wage a campaign against the Taliban, and exactly how close his relations are with Iran remains a question.

Rumsfeld afterward described his talks with Khan as "useful" and said he did not believe Khan was helping Iran to interfere in Afghan affairs. But he did add that, "Iran has its own interest and it has not always been notably helpful with respect to Afghanistan."

After Afghanistan, Rumsfeld flew to Turkmenistan for a brief stopover. Few high-ranking U.S. officials have ever visited "the hermit kingdom," as some have dubbed the country. Of the five former Soviet Central Asian states Turkmenistan, is playing the least active role in the military campaign in Afghanistan, but it has been active in providing a corridor for humanitarian aid shipments to Afghanistan.

Officially, Rumsfeld limited his comments on Turkmenistan to the humanitarian effort. "I took the opportunity to thank the president [Saparmurat Niyazov] and the people for their very fine cooperation with respect to humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan. Their humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan have undoubtedly saved lives and have been a significant contribution," Rumsfeld said.

Western and Russian news agencies reported that one area of concern that Rumsfeld did not mention publicly in Turkmenistan was something he mentioned at in Afghanistan on Saturday.

"It is impossible, in my view, to perfectly seal these borders [of Afghanistan]. However, it is not impossible to find concentrations of Al-Qaeda and Taliban and go after them and deal with them."

The Turkmen government never made any secret of its good relations with the Taliban government. Since the Taliban was toppled from power, there has been speculation that former members of the Taliban have fled across the border into Turkmenistan.

Rumsfeld's stop in Kazakhstan yesterday resulted in a visible success. Following talks with President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Kazakh Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev said Kazakhstan had offered the U.S.-led coalition use of military airbases in the southern Zhambyl and Shymkent regions and said coalition planes could use the airport in Almaty in cases of emergency. Altynbaev also said some Kazakh officers would go to the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, and that Kazakhstan was ready to send its "Kazbat" battalion to Afghanistan to participate in the International Security Assistance Force there.

(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)