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Uzbekistan: Cooperation Against Terrorism Comes At What Price?

By Zamira Echanova

The Central Asian country of Uzbekistan finds itself caught in the middle in the U.S.'s emerging coalition against terrorism. Washington is putting pressure on both Uzbekistan and neighboring Tajikistan to cooperate in any military assault on Afghanistan. Tashkent -- facing its own domestic Islamic insurgency -- would stand to gain from any action that reduces terror activity originating in Afghanistan. But as an Afghan border state, the country risks reprisals from the ruling Taliban for its cooperation.

Tashkent, 28 September 2001 (RFERL) -- Uzbek President Islam Karimov says his country is ready to offer its airspace to U.S. military planes for possible humanitarian or security operations in Afghanistan. But he says this offer is only on the table as long as Uzbekistan's security is guaranteed.

The statement is revealing, and shows the dangers that Tashkent perceives behind any military action against Afghanistan.

The leader of the ruling Afghan Taliban militia, Mullah Mohammad Omar, wasted no time in warning that military cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition in any form will be viewed as an act of war against Afghanistan.

The U.S. is interested in using Uzbek air facilities to stage possible raids on Afghanistan, where the Taliban is said to be harboring Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden is the main suspect in the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York earlier that killed around upwards of 5,000 people on 11 September.

Karimov's statement has sparked an intense debate on the nature of Tashkent's cooperation and what the costs might be. How would a possible alliance with the U.S. affect Uzbekistan's political interests in the Islamic world?

Presidential press secretary Rustam Djumaev says Uzbekistan's main concern is to secure its own borders and sovereignty:

"The most important thing is the security of our country and of our borders. When we ask for guarantees to secure them, we rely on the basic principles of international relations and international laws. These are the respect and acknowledgement of the independence and sovereignty of states, the sanctity of borders, non-interference in the domestic affairs of the states, et cetera."

Djumaev says he doesn't fear a direct military attack from the Taliban but says instead that the danger lies in increased terrorist activity.

"I'm far from the idea that Taliban has such a power to attack another country. But at the same time, I don't want to deny that they have a possibility to organize terrorist attacks or incursions against neighbors."

Uzbek officials are reluctant to specify what guarantees they would ask of the U.S. for increased cooperation. Analysts and observers, however, are openly discussing the issue.

They say the main negative consequence from an alliance with the U.S. would be a possible deterioration in Uzbekistan's relations with the Islamic world. They say, therefore, that one guarantee might be the elimination of the Taliban's hold on Afghanistan. The opinion of Afghan war veteran Israil Khudoykulov is typical:

"The main guarantee from the U.S. should be to bring to a logical end its possible war in Afghanistan. In that case, those countries which were against it cannot conduct any other activity against us."

Other experts say the U.S. administration should take full responsibility for a possible new wave of Afghan refugees that any sustained military attack would provoke. Security expert Faysullo Iskhakov spoke with RFE/RL about the potential refugee situation:

"In the case the U.S. begins military action, refugees flee not only to Iran and Pakistan, they flee to Tajikistan and through Tajikistan to Uzbekistan. Or refugees may try directly through the Amudarya River to cross to Uzbekistan."

Unconfirmed reports say Washington and Tashkent are already discussing the possible deployment of American ground troops in Uzbekistan. In this case, experts say Uzbekistan and the U.S. would have to sign a special agreement in which Washington would give full guarantees to deal with the consequences of this cooperation.