A high-level European Union delegation, headed by Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, is on a swing through Central Asia and today held talks about the military and humanitarian situations in Afghanistan with Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov and leading government ministers. RFE/RL's Ahto Lobjakas is on the road with Michel and filed this report from Ashgabat.
Ashgabat, 1 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel -- touring Central Asia on behalf of the EU's current presidency -- emerged from today's unexpectedly long, two-hour meeting with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and declared that the views of the European Union and Turkmenistan on the future of Afghanistan are what he called "convergent."
This, he explained, means that both sides want the United Nations to take the initiative in setting set up a broad-based, ethnically representative government in the country after the ongoing U.S.-led military operation against the ruling Taliban ends.
On the issue of support to continuing American air strikes, however, attitudes were less clear, especially if such strikes continue throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in about two weeks.
Michel appeared this morning to backtrack on the position he assumed yesterday in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, when he said the strikes should end only after they have achieved their objective. EU leaders -- meeting in Ghent, Belgium three weeks ago -- defined this objective as the total destruction of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, headed by chief terror suspect Osama bin Laden.
Today, Michel told journalists after meeting with Niyazov that "any act that can irritate the Muslim world outside Afghanistan has to be excluded, in my view, and it would be positive if no action should be taken during that period [Ramadan]."
This sits uneasily with views expressed by Niyazov and relayed by a Belgian diplomatic source who asked not to be named. According to the Belgian diplomat, Niyazov made it clear he supports the continuation of precisely targeted strikes during Ramadan. Niyazov indicated that he is not overly concerned about a possible public backlash in Turkmen public opinion, saying the situation in Central Asia is not comparable to that in Pakistan, for example.
Yesterday, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov -- who faces tough fundamentalist Muslim opposition -- told the EU delegation that continuing air strikes beyond the start of Ramadan could seriously destabilize the situation in the region.
Trying to clarify the statement made by Michel, Belgian diplomats said the country remains committed to the common EU position, according to which targeted air strikes can continue throughout Ramadan.
Michel said today he also raised the issue of human rights in Turkmenistan, but admitted that what he called "difference of meaning" between the two sides remains vast. In Michel's words, Niyazov told him that "the people [in Turkmenistan] are quiet and peaceful, live in a very quiet way, and that security is assured without any difficulty, and there is no need to change the system now."
As regards the access of humanitarian aid via Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, the EU delegation appears to have experienced no serious setbacks. That compares with the flat refusal of Uzbekistan's government yesterday to open river routes to northern Afghanistan.
According to the unnamed Belgian official, Turkmenistan operates railway routes crossing the border with Afghanistan in two places, and both are fully operational. However, Niyazov said he believes the overall provision of humanitarian aid is ill-coordinated. He told the EU delegation that a new international body should be set up to coordinate aid. Michel says this idea merits consideration. Niyazov also spoke of his wider concern for the Turkmen population in northern Afghanistan, which in his words has historically made up most of the population in that region.
According to the anonymous Belgian diplomat, Niyazov also sharply criticized what he called the West's "simplistic understanding" of the roots of the Afghan conflict. Niyazov said the conflict is not simply a war between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, but between the Pashtun tribe -- which makes up two-thirds of the population of Afghanistan -- and other ethnic groups.
Among the Pashtuns, Niyazov stressed, the Taliban enjoys only minority support. He called the conflation of the Pashtuns with the Taliban "frustrating," citing U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as a leading example of this approach.
According to Niyazov's analysis, the situation is further complicated by the presence of outside forces -- among other countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan -- who try to promote their own agendas via ethnic kinsmen in the country.
Because of the complexity of the political situation in Afghanistan, Niyazov said the task of forming a new government in Afghanistan should be given to the United Nations. He said the new government should be broad-based and ethnically representative but should contain no Taliban members.
Michel said after today's meeting that the Turkmen position coincides with the EU's views on this matter.
However, Niyazov also indicated that Turkmenistan regards the work done so far by the United Nation's special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, as insufficient and spoke of the need to "reinforce" Brahimi's team.
Niyazov also said the Uzbek- and Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance will need new leaders before it can join any future government in Afghanistan.
Later this afternoon, the EU delegation traveled to Tajikistan, where it held meetings with President Imomali Rakhmonov and leading government ministers.