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Kazakhstan: Musharraf's Visit Focuses On Taliban

Pakistani ruler General Pervez Musharraf is visiting Kazakhstan this week. While bilateral relations concern at least part of the trip, the situation in Afghanistan is also seen playing a role. Kazakh officials now say Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia, a pariah in the international community, is a force which cannot be ignored. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier says this hints at improving ties between the Taliban and neighboring states.

Prague, 8 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's neighbors in Central Asia have for years been pointing at instability in that country, and the rise of the Taliban militia there, as a major source of the region's problems, including terrorism and narcotics trafficking.

Officially most countries in the region say the Afghan civil war, which pits the Taliban against an opposition force based in the north of the country, can only be resolved through diplomacy. But most are also thought to be supporting one of the factions in the fighting.

That support, until recently, was mostly aimed helping groups opposed to the Taliban, but the visit this week to Kazakhstan by Pakistani ruler General Pervez Musharraf indicates the Afghan militia may be gaining in regional support. Pakistan is one of only three countries that recognizes the Taliban government.

To coincide with Musharraf's visit, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev yesterday issued a statement saying his government is now ready to hold talks with representatives from all movements in Afghanistan, including the Taliban. Nazarbaev had previously been a critic of the Taliban.

Kazakh Prime Minister Kasymjomart Tokaev reinforced the statement today, saying it is important foreign governments do not interfere in Afghanistan's internal problems. Tokaev also said he met with Taliban officials in Pakistan last year:

"We consider that the Taliban movement, which is the dominating force in Afghanistan, should not be ostracized in any way. Last year in March, by order of the president, I was in Islamabad where I met with Taliban officials. I said then that we considered the Taliban movement as the dominate and a serious political force in Afghanistan, from both a political and military point of view."

Before arriving in Kazakhstan, Musharraf made an unscheduled stop in Turkmenistan, which has adopted a neutral policy toward the factions in Afghanistan. Musharraf met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, and the two underscored the possibilities of a Central Asian-Pakistani trade corridor via Afghanistan.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar took that a step further today in the Kazakh capital Astana by saying a Central Asian-Pakistani trade corridor via Afghanistan offers Kazakhstan an export route and customer for its energy and other exports:

"We would very much like to be part of transit arrangements and import arrangements for gas from Turkmenistan and eventually oil from Kazakhstan."

Kazakhstan's softened attitude toward the Taliban brings the country into line with the other Turkic-speaking Central Asian states.

Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan had also been among the leading critics of the Taliban, especially after Islamic militants made incursions into both countries in 1999 and again this year.

But a month ago, Uzbek President Islam Karimov made an about-face and said he does not think the Taliban poses a danger to the Central Asian republics. Days later, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov said Uzbekistan's ambassador in Islamabad held meetings with Taliban representatives in Pakistan.

Kyrgyzstan followed soon after, saying it would recognize any Afghan government that had the support of the majority of Afghanistan's people. This is a far cry from the support the Kyrgyz government gave to a Russian idea this year of preventive strikes against terrorist bases located on Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan.

How an improvement in relations with the Taliban can help the Central Asian states remains to be seen. It could strain relations with Russia, which has accused the Taliban of harboring and helping terrorists, notably what Moscow calls Chechen terrorists.

More immediately, improved relations with the Taliban could damage existing ties to the other Central Asian neighbor, Tajikistan.

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov is in Tehran today to meet with government officials there. Afghanistan is already announced as a main topic of the talks. But in Tajikistan's case it could be difficult to court better relations with the Taliban. The Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban is led by ousted Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his defense minister, Ahmad Shah Masoud, both of whom are ethnic Tajiks.

(Merhat Sharipzhan and Edige Magauin of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report)