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Central Asia Report: October 11, 2001

11 October 2001, Volume 1, Number 12

UZBEK TERRITORY AVAILABLE FOR SEARCH-AND-RESCUE AND HUMANITARIAN PURPOSES ONLY... Uzbekistan's government was at pains to present an atmosphere of normalcy this week, and to downplay its own contributions to U.S.-led strikes against Afghanistan, even as bombs rained down on Kabul and Kandahar.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Uzbekistan on 5 October as part of a five-nation, coalition-building trip that included stops in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Oman, and Turkey. While Rumsfeld's three-hour visit to the Uzbek capital Tashkent highlighted Uzbekistan's strategic importance to the United States in its campaign against the Taliban, his decision to meet Uzbek President Islam Karimov face-to-face could also be seen as an attempt to strengthen the backbone of a wavering ally. Karimov appeared last week to be retreating from earlier public statements indicating that his government would fully support the Pentagon's military operation in Afghanistan. The potential scope of Uzbek support, described by Uzbek Foreign Minister Adbulaziz Komilov on 17 September as "all possible forms of cooperation," had shrunk to the use of Uzbek airspace "for humanitarian and security purposes" by 1 October, when Karimov chaired a meeting of the National Security Council.

The Uzbek president communicated four salient points of his agreement with Rumsfeld via a formal statement and subsequent remarks to journalists on 5 October, reported by local media and Western news agencies. 1. Karimov confirmed that Uzbekistan would open its skies to the U.S. Air Force. 2. He said that Tashkent would "upgrade and step up" its intelligence-sharing with Washington, Reuters reported. Such exchanges are crucial to the success of American efforts against the Taliban, according to Rumsfeld, since the Uzbeks can offer valuable insights into Afghanistan, according to AFP. 3. Karimov announced that a military airfield would be made available to American cargo planes and helicopters. Speaking on live Uzbek TV he stressed that "only one airfield" would be at the Americans' disposal, and only partially, since "we are not giving them complete control of the airfield. Our military planes will remain there." Karimov merely said the base in question was about 500 kilometers from Tashkent without naming it, but analysts have identified it as Hanabad, which is located 15 kilometers outside the city of Qarshi in the south of the country and 250 kilometers from the Afghan border, and is where the Uzbek air force's Su-24 jets are stationed.

4. Finally, as a condition of the three preceding points, Karimov said "we will permit these American aircraft and helicopters to be used only for search-and-rescue, I reiterate, search-and-rescue missions, and for humanitarian purposes." That message was hammered home in an explicit expression by Karimov of "our principled stance on two important matters," which was reprinted, in slightly polished form, in the government newspaper "Halq so'zi" on 6 October: "1. It is impermissible for military ground operations to be conducted against Afghanistan from the territory of Uzbekistan. 2. It is forbidden for bombing operations to be conducted from the territory of our republic."

Taken as a whole, Karimov's public offer of cooperation with the Pentagon most likely represents much less than Washington was hoping for, and certainly less than many analysts were predicting. Uzbekistan was the main launching pad for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and has the most extensive military infrastructure in Central Asia. Karimov announced on 5 October that a legal document spelling out the agreement between Tashkent and Washington was being drawn up and would be made public in order to prove that "we have no secret deals, no covert negotiations with the United States," Reuters reported. Foreign Minister Komilov revealed on 8 October that the document had been signed, Interfax reported, but he still did not reveal its contents.

...BUT OFFICIAL POSITION NOT THE WHOLE STORY. Notwithstanding Karimov's promise of transparency, an air of secrecy persisted around recent developments in Uzbekistan connected with the U.S.'s counterterrorist campaign. He told journalists on 5 October that the number of U.S. troops on Uzbek soil "would not reach triple digits," Interfax reported on 5 October. But hours before Karimov made the statement, approximately 1,000 light infantrymen of the elite army 10th Mountain Division had already left their base at Fort Drum, NY, and were flying to Uzbekistan, AFP reported. Karimov denied that the division's arrival had even been mentioned in the talks between himself and Rumsfeld, ITAR-TASS reported on 5 October. Nevertheless, an Uzbek Defense Ministry spokesman belatedly confirmed on 7 October that American military personnel had landed in the country on the day after Karimov's denial, AFP reported. The troops' mission was strictly of a technical nature, preparing the airbase's equipment and runway, the spokesman said. Uzbek television mentioned additional tasks such as protecting humanitarian convoys, securing roads, and servicing military aircraft. In fact, as AFP noted, the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division are also specialists in providing ground security for combat search-and-rescue and helicopter assaults, and could offer back-up to any U.S. special operations forces executing missions within Afghanistan.

RIA-Novosti reported on 8 October that Uzbek specialists were working together with Americans to install navigation equipment at Hanabad airfield, where two U.S. military cargo planes were expected to land around 12 October, carrying humanitarian cargo for Afghanistan. U.S. President George W. Bush pledged $320 million in humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people on 4 October, AFP reported.

While Uzbek officials consistently underscored this week that their territory in only available for humanitarian and search-and-rescue missions in Afghanistan, defense analysts have pointed out that such restrictions could severely hamper U.S. military operations against the Taliban and consequently have speculated that, secretly, Tashkent is giving the Pentagon a much freer hand than it publicly admits. Reports by Russian and Western news agencies that two American aircraft carrying reconnaissance equipment and other materiel landed on 22 September at Tuzel airbase outside Tashkent, and that a C-130 Hercules touched down at Hanabad on 30 September, remain unconfirmed. After meeting Rumsfeld, Karimov was adamant that "special operations forces will not be deployed on the territory of Uzbekistan," AFP reported on 5 October. Secretary of the Uzbek National Security Council Mirakbar Rahmonqulov was denying to journalists as late as 8 October that there was any "build-up of serious military forces on the Uzbek-Afghan border," specifying that "there are no Rangers, no special forces, no soldiers from the 10th infantry division" in Uzbekistan, Uzbek TV and AFP reported. But dpa news agency reported on 4 October, citing military sources in Tashkent, that American special forces had already been in Uzbekistan for 10 days placing radio beacons along the Afghan border to assist aerial navigation. According to "The New York Times" on 10 October, troops from the 5th Special Forces Group and an advance party from the Special Operations Command at Tampa, Florida's MacDill Air Force Base had been dispatched to Hanabad, as well as four Chinook and three Blackhawk helicopters. All in all, 60 planes had delivered supplies to the American forces in Uzbekistan and 110 more would arrive in the near future, the newspaper said.

Tashkent's extreme reluctance to be seen to be cooperating militarily with Washington may well be connected with fear of reprisals by the Taliban, which threatened again on 6 October to attack Uzbekistan if it collaborated in an American operation against them, Reuters reported. On the same day, Interfax said that Taliban troops were moving long-range artillery and multiple-rocket launchers toward the Uzbek-Afghan border, some of them within firing range of the Uzbek city of Termez, while a spokesman for the Taliban said they were massing 8,000 fighters in the area, AFP reported on 8 October.

An emergency meeting was duly called at the Uzbek Defense Ministry, and the country's armed forces were put on high alert immediately following the first bombing raids against Afghanistan, ITAR-TASS reported on 8 October. AFP added on the same day that Uzbek civilians were being evacuated from the border area. However, Uzbek officials quickly denied that evacuations were occurring, or that there was any danger of a Taliban incursion into Uzbekistan, or that there was any concentration of fighters on the frontier at all. Secretary of the Uzbek National Security Council Mirakbar Rahmonqulov, speaking at a press conference on 8 October, particularly blamed Russian news agencies for "various irresponsible inaccuracies," denied that Uzbek troops were being moved to reinforce the border, saying "there have been no movements of military units on the territory of Uzbekistan," and called the "sensational reports" of massed Taliban forces preparing military actions against Uzbekistan "yet another myth," Uzbek TV and RIA-Novosti said. Meanwhile Foreign Minister Komilov denied that the Taliban had declared war on Uzbekistan, telling ITAR-TASS in an interview on 8 October that a report to that effect was "the fruit of the imagination of those engaged in wishful thinking." He did not specify whose wishful thinking he meant. Government officials did not deny that President Karimov ordered a call-up of the nation's armed forces and boosted its reserve forces, as reported on 4 October the news website.

Despite the government's show of confidence in its nation's security, strong hints emerged from Karimov's joint press conference with Rumsfeld on 5 October that Tashkent is worried about its security environment during and after the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban. Responding to a question why Uzbekistan would not permit American special forces to stage attacks from its territory, Karimov said, "We are not quite ready for this," explaining that "we do not have any guarantees that tomorrow we will not find ourselves face-to-face with these terrible terrorist forces and so we do not want to allow ourselves to be used by anyone," Reuters and AFP reported. Karimov indicated that Uzbekistan wanted security guarantees in return for its cooperation with Washington. Earlier this month, Karimov had said that he was seeking some kind of guarantee of his country's "security and borders" from the United Nations' Security Council. But speaking in Tashkent on 5 October, Rumsfeld said, "there have been no specific quid pro quos" offered in exchange for Uzbekistan's support, Reuters reported.

DUSHANBE REVERSES ITS STANCE ON MILITARY STRIKES, HOSTS CIS MEETING. Tajikistan, which has repeatedly said that its territory would not be made available for military operations against the Taliban, reversed its position on 8 October when it declared in a government statement "its readiness to open its airspace to the U.S. Air Force and, should it prove necessary, its airports for carrying out measures against terrorism," Reuters reported. The announcement came one day after the Pentagon began bombing Afghanistan. On 9 October AFP said that the two U.S. military experts in search-and-rescue missions arrived in the Tajik capital Dushanbe.

The Tajik government's volte-face on 8 October had been predicted to journalists earlier in the day by Japanese presidential special envoy Muneo Suzuki after he emerged from talks with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov about joint approaches to terrorism and refugees in the country's capital Dushanbe, Kyodo News Service reported on 8 October. Suzuki went on to Tashkent, where it was agreed that Japan and Uzbekistan would share intelligence relating to terrorism, RIA-Novosti reported on 10 October. On the same day, Mainichi Shimbun news agency's website said the police of Saitama Prefecture had arrested two Uzbeks and were investigating 10 others in Japan who are suspected of being linked to the terrorist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which was responsible for kidnapping four Japanese engineers in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan in August 1999.

Meanwhile in Tokyo, Japanese Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka promised urgent economic assistance to Tajikistan to cope with the effects of strikes against Afghanistan, complementing a Japanese aid package to Pakistan worth $40 million, RIA-Novosti said on 8 October. Impoverished Tajikistan, which is threatened by mass starvation this winter in the aftermath of a disastrous harvest, has also expressed fears of being swamped by Afghan refugees, and Rakhmonov announced on 20 September that its border with Afghanistan was closed. Secretary of the Tajik Security Council Amirqul Azimov reiterated his country's closed-border policy on 9 October, ITAR-TASS reported.

A further reason why Rakhmonov has been sensitive about overt collaboration with Washington is that his government's Islamist coalition partners, brought to power by the terms of the June 1997 peace agreement that concluded Tajikistan's five-year civil war, have been thought to be broadly sympathetic to the Taliban. But significantly also on 8 October the chairman of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, Said Abdulloh Nuri, announced that his party did not support the Taliban's jihad against Western forces, RIA-Novosti reported. Insofar as air strikes represented an attack on the Afghan people, Nuri criticized them, saying, "when one fights against terrorists or criminals, one has to make sure that innocent people will not suffer." But he also conceded "it is necessary to fight against terrorism." Thus Nuri, even while saying that military actions against Afghanistan should be undertaken under the auspices of multilateral bodies such as the UN, OSCE, and Islamic Conference Organization, implicitly supported punitive strikes per se and thus gave Rakhmonov more political latitude to participate in them by offering military aerodromes for the Pentagon's use. However, a Tajik Defense Ministry spokesman stressed that its own soldiers "will not get involved in any kind of conflict or military action in other countries," alluding to the defensive nature of the Tajik military doctrine," Reuters reported on 8 October.

Meanwhile a two-day extraordinary meeting of CIS Security Council secretaries, chaired by Russian representative Vladimir Rushailo, ended on 9 October in Dushanbe, Russian television and RIA-Novosti reported. Topics of discussion included the need to militarily strengthen CIS borders with Afghanistan and implement more stringent passport and visa regimes; expediting humanitarian deliveries; the mission and financing of the new CIS antiterrorism center in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek; and "a peaceful settlement for Afghanistan in the future which would not pose a threat to its neighbors," Rushailo said, adding that meeting participants agreed unanimously that CIS member states should play "a special role" in working out Afghanistan's future. They also adopted a final document proposing the establishment of an interstate security committee, and supported the idea of an "Islam Against International Terrorism" conference in Moscow, RIA-Novosti reported on 9 October.

Russian ORT TV reported on 8 October that Tajik security forces had been recalled to barracks and put on high alert in the wake of the first assault against Afghanistan. AFP said last week that the Afghan-Tajik border was being reinforced by Russian troops following reports on 4 October that over 5,000 pro-Taliban mercenaries, including Chechens, Arabs, and fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan were massing in northern Afghanistan near the Tajik frontier. Some 18,000 Russian soldiers are stationed in Tajikistan and are responsible for guarding the country's borders.

KYRGYZ REINFORCE BORDERS, CONTINUE CLOSE SECURITY COOPERATION WITH RUSSIA. Kyrgyzstan's Southern Group of Forces, responsible for guarding the border area with Tajikistan, was put on red alert and its Defense Ministry was stepping up security throughout the country after the initial U.S.-led attacks on Afghanistan, ITAR-TASS and RIA-Novosti reported on 8 October. In recent years southern Kyrgyzstan's Batken region has suffered incursions by fighters of the terrorist Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, which is believed to have bases in the mountains of both Tajikistan and Afghanistan. In an interview with the newspaper "Delo No" on 3 October, General Miroslav Niyazov, vice chief of the Kyrgyz National Security Service, said that the country could experience a new wave of terrorist attacks sparked by a military operation against Afghanistan, although he noted that Islamists need not cross Kyrgyzstan's borders to commit acts of terror since they had already infiltrated the country and were in situ. Asked to comment on the likely outcome of American military operations against the Taliban, whose success, Niyazov said, was crucial to Kyrgyzstan's well-being, he predicted that the Taliban would ultimately be forced to the negotiation table and that a new "coalition government" would emerge, presumably between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Asked whether the United States and NATO might employ tactical nuclear weapons in Afghanistan, Niyazov said, "I suppose so."

At a press conference on 8 October, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Muratbek ImanAliyev also broached the idea of an Afghan coalition government that would take into account the views of all Afghan factions, ITAR-TASS reported.

Chairman of the Russian State Duma Gennadii Seleznev, during a two-day visit to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, reportedly caused a small furore when he said in a press conference, carried by Kyrgyz radio on 5 October, that it was an open question "whether the Russian military will have a presence or not" in Kyrgyzstan and that it should be decided at the state level. His comments attracted especial attention since on the previous day Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, who has been seen recently as increasingly open to a closer security relationship with Moscow, had stressed to Seleznev that Russia "has always been and will always be Kyrgyzstan's strategic partner and ally," ITAR-TASS reported on 4 October. But Seleznev subsequently backtracked from his statement, assuring journalists before his departure that Akaev had only agreed to the establishment of military depots to store the property and equipment of the CIS Collective Rapid Reaction Forces (CRRF) on Kyrgyz territory, and no Russian military bases were in the offing, AKIpress news agency reported on 5 October. Two-day tactical exercises of the CRRF, which comprises four battalions from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, are scheduled to take place in Kyrgyzstan's Batken region 11-13 October following six-day staff-and-command exercises in Moscow. Their theme is "fighting international bandit formations," the newspaper "Vechernii Bishkek" reported on 5 October.

Akaev met Russian Security Council chief Rushailo in Bishkek on 10 October to discuss the upcoming CRRF exercises and counterterrorist cooperation, especially within the framework of the CIS Antiterrorist Center, RIA-Novosti reported. On the same day, security officials of the so-called Bishkek Group of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization convened in the Kyrgyz capital for talks on the situation in Afghanistan.

Following reports by Russian news agencies on 3 October that Washington had offered to buy stocks of Soviet weapons and cartridges from Kyrgyzstan with which to supply the Northern Alliance, the Kyrgyz Defense Ministry first refused to comment, then denied that any such offer had been made officially, while sources acknowledged that it might have been discussed less formally with low-level officials, Interfax said on 6 October. However, Bishkek would only sell ammunition made by local defense plants, the news agency said. Such cartridges would only be compatible with Soviet-style automatic weapons.