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Central Asia: France Steps Up Regional Military Presence

Nearly 200 French air force servicemen arrived in Bishkek on 2 February to help prepare for the arrival of military aircraft for use in the antiterrorist campaign. In neighboring Tajikistan, the French army is using Dushanbe's airport to provide logistics support to French peacekeepers in Afghanistan. RFE/RL correspondent Antoine Blua looks at the new French military presence in the two Central Asian countries and what it may -- or may not -- say about Paris's commercial interest in the region.

Prague, 8 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A group of 190 French military personnel arrived in Kyrgyzstan to help prepare Bishkek's Manas international airport for support missions for French troops stationed in Afghanistan. The group -- comprising construction workers and support personnel -- are joining 16 French servicemen already in the country. Additional French troops are due to arrive soon.

Lieutenant Colonel Bertrand Bon is the spokesman for the French detachment in Kyrgyzstan. "France's engagement comes as part of the international operations to fight terrorism," he told RFE/RL. "France expressed its willingness to participate in the international operations very early and France also very early proposed to put at the disposal of the U.S. and the international coalition the means in accordance with the needs."

Bon said that between 400 and 500 French troops will ultimately be stationed at the Manas airport, the only Kyrgyz airfield suitable for the coalition's military aircraft. Manas will serve as a base for six Mirage-2000 fighters and two support planes, which Bon said are expected to arrive in the coming weeks. The spokesman said the planes will be used to provide air support to ongoing security operations in Afghanistan.

"We have ground troops that are presently deployed in Kabul in accordance with the international security force deployed on the Afghan territory," Bon said. "They are helping ensure security in Kabul for the interim government established at the end of the year 2001."

Bon said France has also deployed troops in neighboring Tajikistan, sending a logistical unit to Dushanbe airport to provide a "point of support" for troops active in the region. Bon noted that France in December deployed air and sea forces in the Arabian Sea to work in coordination with the "Charles de Gaulle" aircraft carrier.

International troops, including about 200 American servicepeople, are already based in Kyrgyzstan at Manas, which is expected to eventually be the base for some 40 military planes. Australia, Canada, Italy, and South Korea have all asked permission to have military aircraft based there.

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev in January offered Manas air base to the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition, saying the deal will give his country an opportunity to upgrade its airport facilities and boost security. The bilateral Kyrgyz-French agreement, which has not yet been ratified by the Kyrgyz parliament yet, is expected to last a year.

The antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan has seen the West paying greater attention to the Central Asian nations, with the U.S., Britain, and France all establishing bases of operations for their troops. The stepped-up activity pressed Paris -- which already had embassies in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- to open a diplomatic mission in Dushanbe in November. The French Foreign Ministry cited the need to keep up regular contacts with the Tajik authorities in order to "strengthen coordination of the international community's efforts to manage the Afghan crisis."

Christopher Langton is an analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. He told RFE/RL that relations between France and the Central Asian countries have "accelerated" since the beginning of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, but are not something new. He said the French military presence in Central Asia also reflects France's economic interests in the region.

"France has always had a latent interest, a commercial interest, in Central Asia -- not just in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, but also particularly in Turkmenistan. There are French commercial interests there, including oil and gas, [just as there are] with many other Western European nations, Russia, and the U.S.," Langton said. "In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, France of course has played a key role in the military operations which are being mounted from those countries into Afghanistan."

He continued: "[France] is trying to develop its relationship with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan for commercial reasons. I am not aware of particular reasons, but my work in the area of oil and gas suggests that French oil and gas companies do have interests in pipelines which may be constructed from the gas and oil fields of those countries in directions which have not been explored before, such as the east towards China and possibly towards the Indian Ocean, even possibly through Afghanistan."

Langton added that the military presence in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan helps give those countries an opportunity to develop commercial contacts and enterprises as well.

"From the Kyrgyz side, they are very keen on Western military presence in their country for stabilization reasons, because they have traditional low-level disputes with Uzbekistan over their border," Langton said. "Therefore, it gives them a feeling of security to have foreign military forces in their country. The same could be said -- but in a different sense -- for Tajikistan, which has its own security problems."

Not everyone agrees the French military presence in Central Asia reflects long-term economic or political interests. Olivier Roy is a Paris-based author and a noted expert on Afghanistan and Islamic affairs. He told RFE/RL that France has not had any "important political commitment" in Central Asia over the past decade, and that there is no French commercial interest in either Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan. Roy said the French military presence in both countries is a direct consequence of the campaign in Afghanistan.

"The French commercial interests are in the Caspian, in Kazakhstan, and to a lesser degree in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan," Roy said. "So we see that there is a complete distinction between France's military zones of presence and the French economic zones of interest."

Roy believes that France has no "great ambition" in Central Asia, given Paris' relatively weak diplomatic presence in the area as well as the competition from powerful nations. He said, "The Russians are very present in the region. The Americans are very present as of recently. The Chinese will [also be present] in the coming years." By that standard, he said, French ambitions in the region are relatively modest.