Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov is making his second appearance at a NATO summit; but it's the first time that a Turkmen president has attended such a gathering. Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and Karimov will sit beside NATO leaders long critical of their authoritarian governments' lack of human rights and democracy.
Which begs the question: What do the trans-Atlantic alliance and these iron-fisted leaders have to talk about? The answer is more than meets the eye, including Afghanistan and the war on terror.
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, both of which border Afghanistan, have a big stake in what happens in that South Asian state -- and a potentially major role to play in NATO's efforts there. Russia is also seen as an emerging noncombat contributor to NATO's Afghan operations.
U.S. President George W. Bush has already signaled that he will call for greater NATO participation in the ongoing battle against Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. Some countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are also considering helping, but their support looks set to be purely logistical.
"The Russians, I think, are offering some kind of a land route for logistical supplies to forces in Afghanistan, which would go over their territory, I think, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan," says John MacLeod, a senior editor at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. "So there's a degree of coordinated planning going into this sort of second round of Uzbek participation."
According to a report in the Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on April 1, that land route would traverse Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. It would also involve railway routes, some of which would need to be built, to carry supplies to the CIS-Afghan border.
Russia, however, has already suggested that NATO's access to such a land route might depend on other key issues to be discussed at the summit, such as the Ukrainian and Georgian bids to join the alliance. "The key thing is that Russia is attending, that Russia is giving the lead, and again it's about politics in general, security, and economics," McLeod says. "It's not an uncoordinated engagement."
What do Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan want from NATO, besides listening to proposals to increase security in Afghanistan?
Karimov is interested in security and Afghanistan. Since 1999, there have been several terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan, and most of the groups involved in those attacks had links to Afghanistan's Taliban and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.
After September 11, 2001, Uzbekistan let U.S. forces use the Khanabad base for operations in Afghanistan but later ordered them out in response to U.S. criticism over Uzbek troops' use of deadly force against protesters in Andijon in May 2005.
Another base at Termez, used by German forces as part of NATO's Afghan efforts, remained opened and just last week the U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan revealed that U.S. troops are also using the Termez base "on a case-by-case basis."
Uzbekistan appears to be courting better ties with the West again, particularly with the United States. The reasons are fairly clear.
Karimov's regime is tenacious in its pursuit of Islamic militants, casting a wide net that rights groups say often catches more innocents than militants. Some neighboring countries have even accused Uzbek security forces of hunting militants on their territory. This seemingly relentless pursuit has made Karimov's regime the main target of many Central Asian extremist groups.
There are limits to how far Uzbek security can roam. It's in this sense that NATO -- and the United States, in particular -- is useful to Tashkent.
Most remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the leading militant group seeking to overthrow Karimov, are now in Pakistan's tribal areas. That has put them out of reach of Uzbek forces -- but not of unmanned U.S. Predator drones.
Several Uzbek militants in the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan have been killed this year alone in strikes by Predator drones.
Coincidentally or not, the first such strike came on January 29, less than a week after Admiral William Fallon, then head of U.S. Central Command, met with Karimov in Tashkent. That strike, which killed senior Al-Qaeda commander Abu Laith al-Libi, came two days before the first U.S. troops reportedly used the Termez base.
Neither NATO nor Uzbekistan views the other as an ideal partner, but Tashkent cannot deny that the alliance is working against some of the same militants that want to attack the Uzbek regime. Likewise, NATO clearly sees Central Asia as a potential boon for its Afghan operations.
And while the Uzbek government has been reestablishing military ties with Russia, including recently rejoining the Russian-led CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization, policymakers in Tashkent remember that when the IMU first appeared in 1999, it was Russian border guards in Tajikistan who carried them by helicopter into Taliban-held Afghanistan as part of a quick-fix deal to stop fighting.
As for Turkmenistan, MacLeod suggests that part of the reason Berdymukhammedov will attend the summit is as part of his bid to lift Ashgabat from the isolation left by his late predecessor, former Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov.
Part of that isolation was founded on the principle of Turkmenistan's never being a member of a military alliance, though ironically Ashgabat in 1994 became the first Central Asian state to sign on to NATO's Partnership for Peace program.
Several days before the summit, Berdymukhammedov said he wants Ashgabat included in NATO peacekeeping efforts. He recalled that Turkmenistan has UN-recognized status as a neutral country, which makes it well suited to host peace talks in a region where conflicts are on the rise. That would clearly boost the Turkmen president's bid to improve Ashgabat's international image and reduce its isolation.
Berdymukhammedov has also been listening to offers for alternative export routes for Turkmen natural gas. While the NATO summit will focus on security, it’s reasonable to think the Turkmen leader may also discuss pipeline deals with European leaders on the sidelines of the Bucharest gathering.