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Central Asia Report: May 2, 2002

2 May 2002, Volume 2, Number 17

PENTAGON CHIEF'S WHIRLWIND TOUR... U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld embarked on a grueling three-day tour of three Central Asian countries and Afghanistan on 25 April -- his fourth visit to the region in the last seven months, AP and Reuters reported. En route to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, his first stop, Rumsfeld told journalists that, as the weather in Afghanistan improves, he anticipated new attacks by Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces against "[Hamid Karzai's] interim authority and opposing factions in the country as well as U.S. and coalition forces," Reuters said. Thus a certain urgency characterized his consultations with the Washington's Central Asian partners in the antiterrorism coalition.

...COMMENCES IN KYRGYZSTAN. On 26 April Rumsfeld landed at Bishkek's Manas airport, where some 1,000 American and over 900 European and South Korean servicemen are now quartered, with another 2,000 more international forces due to arrive shortly, AP reported. His 90-minute visit to the Manas base included a pep rally for U.S. troops, during which he urged them to prepare for an extended war, not only in Afghanistan but elsewhere in the world, against the "evil of mass murderers...evil that can't be appeased," the agency said. Asked how long American forces would be based in Kyrgyzstan, Rumsfeld said, "As long as necessary." On the same day he told Defense Minister Esen Topoev that the war against terrorism would last years, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported.

On 27 April Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev received Rumsfeld, who thanked Kyrgyzstan for its "spontaneous support" of U.S.-led counterterrorism operations, AP said. Kabar news agency added that Akaev and his guest concurred that the troop deployment at Manas served three positive functions: it created a "security belt" around Afghanistan, promoted regional stability and democratic processes in Kyrgyzstan, and spurred its economy by making it a transit country between Europe and Asia. Meanwhile a spokesman for the U.S. forces at Manas said that Washington had pumped about $14 million into the Kyrgyz economy since December, AP noted on 26 April.

TURKMENISTAN THANKED FOR AID EFFORTS. Rumsfeld left Bishkek for a grueling tour of Afghanistan on 27 April -- visiting Bagram air base, Kabul, and the western city of Heart in a single day, AP said -- and then headed north for an hour-long meeting on the next day with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in the town of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk), at his summer palace on the Caspian shore. Rumsfeld also met with his Turkmen counterpart, Turkmen Defense Minister Redjepbai Arazov, and Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov also participated in the closed-door discussions, Reuters said. Talks focused on military cooperation in the framework of NATO's Partnership for Peace program, and possible U.S. technical assistance to Turkmenistan to improve controls of its borders and thus reduce drug smuggling (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 April 2002). But according to Rumsfeld neither bin Laden nor Al-Qaeda were discussed, AP reported. Rather, he thanked Niyazov for opening Turkmen airspace for coalition overflights and for channeling humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Reuters noted on 28 April that the only American troops in Turkmenistan are technical personnel helping to refuel cargo planes transporting aid to Afghanistan.

U.S. TO USE KAZAKH BASES. Rumsfeld flew on to Kazakhstan's capital Astana to meet Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev on 28 April, ITAR-TASS reported. A press conference followed, at which Rumsfeld's counterpart, Colonel General Mukhtar Altynbaev, announced plans to sign a memorandum with Washington permitting antiterrorism coalition forces to use the Chimkent, Lugovoi, and Almaty airfields for use in "emergency situations" or if facing bad weather, Reuters said. Kazakhstan has made its airspace available for Western warplanes and aid flights since last year. Altynbaev also announced that one general and two other senior Kazakh military officers would be going to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, joining staff from some 30 other coalition member states who are there coordinating military and humanitarian efforts as part of the "Enduring Freedom" operation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 April 2002). Furthermore, Altynbaev stressed his country's readiness to sell petroleum, grain, and other foodstuffs to Afghanistan, as well as providing it with humanitarian assistance by air and railroad, Interfax-Kazakhstan said on 28 April.

Mindful of the benefits that Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have reaped from their basing agreements with Western forces, Astana has practically been begging the Pentagon for months to make use of its airfields. As Khabar news agency noted on 22 April, after the Americans declined Nazarbaev's offer of a basing agreement, Astana asked Washington at least to use a Kazakh airport as a "reserve base." Since that too was refused, Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev said on 22 April that he hoped the Pentagon might "at the very least" touch down on Kazakh airstrips to refuel, Khabar reported. Although Astana now has secured a limited agreement with the U.S. on use of its airfields, AP commented on 30 April that the Kazakhs are eager for a much broader, long-term bilateral military relationship and are lobbying the Bush administration for a binding defense agreement, or even a mutual defense treaty.

IRANIAN PRESIDENT CRISSCROSSES REGION... While U.S. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld traveled through Central Asia consolidating support for U.S.-led antiterrorism operations, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was also tacking across the region, following on from the Caspian summit in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat on 23-24 April (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 25 April 2002). Ironically, in view of Rumsfeld's mission, Khatami punctuated his meetings with regional leaders with statements denouncing the Western military deployments in Central Asia. AP commented on 26 April that Khatami's tour of the region was widely regarded as an attempt to reassert his country's interests in Central Asia. On the same day, RFE/RL noted that Iran was eager for Central Asian energy export routes to pass southward across its territory, rather than westward across the Caspian (as Washington would like), and thus one of major objectives of Khatami's Central Asian trip would be to lobby for the former option.

...PROTESTS PENTAGON DEPLOYMENT IN KAZAKHSTAN. Khatami was in Almaty on 24-25 April, where he and Kazakh President Nazarbaev discussed bilateral relations, trade, and the possibility of exporting oil from Kazakhstan via Turkmenistan and Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 April 2002). Bilateral trade turnover in 2001 reached $220 million, ITAR-TASS noted on 24 April. However, the two sides aim to increase cargo traffic between their countries, including Kazakh grain exports, and the new Almaty-Tehran railway which opened last month was an important step in that direction, Nazarbaev said. The presidents also signed a protocol on commercial, technical, and cultural cooperation, as well as a declaration on friendly relations, Kazakh TV said. The television added that Khatami spoke at the Eurasia Media Forum in Almaty, where he called on global media to promote peace and morality, and received an honorary doctorate from Al-Farabi State University for his "Dialogue Among Civilizations' initiative.

Meanwhile in Almaty, Khatami lashed out against the basing of American and other foreign forces in Central Asia. Telling a press conference that "the presence of armed forces of large nonlocal states in Central Asia prompts Iran's concern," Khatami went on to say that it was "a humiliation for the peoples of those states," AP reported on 25 April. Referring to Washington, he said, "One must not get entrenched on this or that territory, setting up bases under the disguise of an antiterrorist campaign," and added, "This is sheer humiliation for our nations that have the right to resolve their problems on their own and decide themselves what is good and bad for them" (see "Iran: Khatami Tours Central Asia To Press For Iran Energy Routes, Lower U.S. Presence,", 25 April 2002). His vehemence was such that, according to some experts' speculations reported by on 26 April, Rumsfeld's sudden trip to Kazakhstan may have been organized as a form of damage control in order to counter any effect Khatami's words might have had.

PARTNERSHIP WITH U.S. IS OUR BUSINESS, KARIMOV SAYS. President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, where Khatami arrived on 26 April for a three-day visit, was quick to head off any potential criticisms of Tashkent's strategic alliance with Washington, however. At a joint press conference following their talks, Karimov asserted that the nature of U.S.-Uzbek relations were "no secret to anyone.... There are no issues that we would want to hide from anyone, including Iran," AP reported. Khatami duly conceded that countries followed policies to suit their national interests, and promised that Tehran's policy was "noninterference in other countries' internal affairs."

There was a further dimension to that promise, given that U.S. intelligence officials, quoted in "The Washington Times," accused Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in early April of having trained fighters from the terrorist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), who aim to topple Karimov and establish an Islamic caliphate in his place. At the press conference on 26 April, Khatami refused to comment on these allegations, but condemned Islamist militancy as represented by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while Karimov said he would continue to hunt down extremists belonging to the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir party, Uzbek TV reported. In this context, Khatami's pledge of noninterference in Uzbekistan's affairs may be taken as a promise not to aid or abet indigenous groups hostile to Karimov such as the IMU or Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Other issues discussed by the presidents included prospects for bilateral cooperation, including in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, and upgrading Uzbekistan's transport infrastructure to enable Uzbekistan to export goods via the Persian Gulf and Iran to ship goods via Uzbekistan to China (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 April 2002). They signed documents on simplifying the visa procedures for transit vehicles, trade, and industrial cooperation, and vowed to cooperate against terrorism, organized crime, and drug trafficking, Interfax and Uzbek radio reported. IRNA added that Khatami traveled to Bukhara on 27 April, toured the sights, and prayed in the Grand Mosque. He opened an Iranian-owned pharmaceutical plant in Samarkand on 28 April, the agency said.

OUTSIDERS CAUSE REGIONAL TENSIONS, KHATAMI TELLS KYRGYZ. Khatami continued his tour of Central Asia on 29 April, arriving in Bishkek for talks with President Akaev to discuss bilateral relations, regional security, and postwar reconstruction in Afghanistan, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. The presidents signed agreements including regularizing customs procedures and cooperating in the fight against narcotics smuggling. Meanwhile, in a comment that was widely understood as another allusion to the American military presence in the region, Khatami told reporters: "We [in this region] more than anything need security. And I'm certain that the root of our tensions comes to us from outside," AP reported on 29 April. He added that Iran's contribution to regional security was "huge," asserting that Tehran's backing for the Northern Alliance had been a crucial factor in the Taliban's overthrow, the news agency said. Khatami also delivered a speech to the Kyrgyz parliament, where he reiterated Iran's key role in regional stability and called for Central Asian states not to let their neighborhood turn into "a center for competition and conflict of interests of the big powers," IRNA reported on 29 April. RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau further noted that Akaev accompanied his guest to Bishkek University, where Khatami opened an Iranian and Islamic Research Center, and was presented with an honorary doctorate.

PARTING SHOT FROM DUSHANBE. Khatami wrapped up his Central Asian trip by visiting Tajikistan on 30 April for talks with President Imomali Rakhmonov. On the previous day in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, Tajik Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov met the Iranian co-chairman of the Tajik-Iranian intergovernmental commission and trade and economic cooperation, Mahmud Hojjati, Tajik TV reported. They agreed on expanding cooperation in industry, agriculture, tourism, and energy, and paved the way for the presidents' summit on 30 April, the television said. Khatami and Rakhmonov signed seven documents in all, on matters ranging from opening more air routes and better coordination of taxes and customs to closer cooperation against drug trafficking, AP said on 30 April. The idea of constructing a highway between Tajikistan and Iran via Afghanistan was also mooted. Most attention-grabbing, however, was a final warning from Khatami about the danger that U.S. military deployments present for Central Asia. "The United States must not prevail in the region," AP quoted Khatami as saying, "Their presence must not harm the other states here."