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Central Asia: Presidents Grapple With Regional Security

Security concerns dominate in Central Asia this year -- even the Eurasia Economic Forum now under way in Almaty has seen much discussion of security instead of economics. At a summit last week in Tashkent, four of the five CIS Central Asian presidents discussed the militant threat they say emanates from Afghanistan. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports.

Prague, 28 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- At a summit of four Central Asian presidents last week in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, the president of the host nation, Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov, spelled out the agenda clearly. Karimov said: "There is only one policy here -- security, and again security, and again security, and peace for the people living here."

At the summit, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan signed a joint defense agreement aimed at stopping the expansion of Islamic militancy. Other agreements targeted narcotics trafficking and organized crime.

But all agreed the root of their security problems is the Taliban movement that rules some 85 percent of Afghanistan. Karimov said the solution to security in Central Asia is a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan. While fighting continues in Afghanistan, the Uzbek president said, there can be no peace for its neighbors.

Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmonov agreed. He said the international efforts to resolve the Afghan conflict have been futile.

"As concerns the Afghan problem, six plus two in practice does not work and is not providing anything."

The six plus two are Afghanistan's neighbors -- Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China -- plus the United States and Russia. This group and other countries and international organizations have been frustrated in trying to mediate a peace in Afghanistan for many years now.

For the first half of the 1990s, the Central Asian leaders were concerned mostly that Afghanistan's violence could spill over the borders. The worry now is the Taliban's ideology, and it's apparent willingness to allow any and all Islamic militant groups to set up training bases in Afghanistan. Recent events in the region suggest the presidents are right to worry.

The Taliban finally captured the northern areas of Afghanistan opposite Uzbekistan's border and parts of Tajikistan's border in late 1998. In February 1999, self-proclaimed Islamic militants exploded a series of bombs in Tashkent trying to kill President Karimov. Some of the same extremists were listed among the leaders of the militants who invaded southern Kyrgyzstan that summer. Throughout the region, literature appeared at bazaars encouraging people to overthrow the Uzbek government and create an Islamic state. And in all these cases, the governments of the four states said, there were links to Afghanistan.

Yet even given a common threat, the history of this region offers few examples of cooperation. When the militants struck southern Kyrgyzstan last summer, coordination was poor. Uzbekistan sent bombers to help the Kyrgyz, but they hit civilian targets in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. When one Kyrgyz village erroneously identified as held by the enemy was bombed, four civilians were killed. Kyrgyzstan requested Uzbekistan to stop helping.

Uzbekistan also sent troops and equipment to its border with Kyrgyzstan, apparently to come to the aid of the Kyrgyz army. But the general opinion of the population in southern Kyrgyzstan at the time was that if the Uzbek army crossed into Kyrgyzstan, it could remain even longer than the militants.

They say "desperate times call for desperate measures." But the question remains, are the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan desperate enough to work together?

(Abbas Djavadi of the Tajik Service contributed to this report.)