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Central Asia: CIS Conducts Massive Military Exercises

A major military exercise is being conducted in Central Asia this week -- called South Antiterror 2002 -- involving troops from eight CIS countries. It is the biggest military exercise to be held in the region in modern times. It seems a strange time to hold the exercise, given that the region is probably safer than it has been in years, due to the U.S.-led campaign in neighboring Afghanistan. But, the man overseeing the exercises is also using the occasion to question the length of time the U.S. military plans to be in the region and its motives for staying.

Prague, 18 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- There is a military exercise being held in Central Asia this week, stretching from Kazakhstan to Tajikistan. It involves mainly troops from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia, but there are also members of the armed forces and law-enforcement agencies from Armenia, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine.

It is a showcase event for the newly created CIS Antiterrorism Center, headquartered in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, and the rapid-reaction force under its command. It is the biggest military exercise held in Central Asia in the modern age and comes at a time when the region is, arguably, safer than it has been in years. It has also served as an opportunity for some to question the role of the region's newcomer, the United States military, and the length of time America plans to keep its troop presence there.

The last stage of the exercise will be held at the end of this week in Tajikistan. That country's deputy secretary of the Security Council, Nuralishoh Nazarov, described it as nothing out of the ordinary.

"It is a planned command exercise. It started in Kazakhstan and the second term will take place in Kyrgyzstan, the third term in Tajikistan. It's called an 'antiterror' exercise. [It's] nothing special," Nazarov said.

Military exercises in Central Asia are certainly not new. NATO has held exercises under its Partnership for Peace program in the region since 1997. The Centrazbat battalion, composed of soldiers from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, is a result of those exercises.

Following incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in late 1999 by an armed group of militants calling themselves the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, there have been so-called Southern Shield exercises held in Central Asia with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia participating. Those exercises were done on paper by tacticians, more of a chess game than physical maneuvers.

This week's exercises, dubbed South Antiterror 2002, are an extension of the Southern Shield maneuvers but involve the movement of thousands of personnel, as well as firing drills.

As the exercises were preparing to start, the head of the CIS Antiterror Center explained the need for South Antiterror 2002 to the press. Russian General Boris Mylnikov also had some comments about the U.S. military presence in the region. The U.S. has some 1,500 troops at Uzbekistan's Khanabad air base and more than 1,000 troops at Kyrgyzstan's Manas international airport, including soldiers from the U.S.'s coalition partners in the campaign against international terrorism.

Mylnikov said that while the U.S.-led campaign in neighboring Afghanistan may have calmed tensions in the region, it will not extinguish the problem altogether. Mylnikov said the current exercises are necessary in case militants or terrorists flee across the Afghan border into Central Asia.

He said, "We cannot overlook the expansion of the U.S. military influence," which could create social and political tensions in Central Asia. Mylnikov added the situation could become much worse if "radical terrorists and extremists pursuing anti-American aims may [try to] intensify their activities."

John Schoeberlein is the director of the Forum for Central Asian Studies at Harvard University. He said there are, indeed, security threats in the region and that in addition, Russia would like to see that there is cooperation among the Central Asian states as well as with Russia to combat these potential threats.

"Security concerns have not disappeared. Of course, another dimension of this [exercise] is to re-enforce the alliance among the CIS countries and to enhance their capacity to engage in military responses. There has been some doubt about this, even in spite of the fact that there have been exercises periodically. There's been doubt about how much commitment there is to security cooperation among these countries. And with the United States having a greater presence in the region, I'm sure that raises doubts in Russia about such countries as Kyrgyzstan -- where [the U.S.] set up new bases -- whether they're still committed to the alliance with Russia," Schoeberlein said.

Uzbekistan, which has not been a strong partner with Russia, and which has participated in both Southern Shield exercises, is not participating in this year's exercise.

Mylnikov also questioned just how long the U.S. military will stay in Central Asia and what other goals it might have. Mylnikov said the military airfield in Khanabad, Uzbekistan, and Bishkek's Manas airport could serve as a "bridgehead" for the U.S.'s long-term presence in Central Asia. That, Mylnikov said, would allow the U.S. to "exercise long-term control over the military-political processes in Central Asia and in adjacent states, such as Iran and Iraq."

Of course, Mylnikov added, there is always the possibility a long-term U.S. military presence could be a preventive measure against China, which he says soon stands to become the most powerful state on the Eurasian continent.

Russia emphasized its interest in this week's military exercises by sending Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev and Federal Border Guard commander Konstantin Totsky to observe the opening days of the exercise in Kyrgyzstan.

Schoeberlein said this is not surprising. "I think Russia is concerned about retaining that presence in the region. I think that they don't want to relinquish security control or influence to the United States wholly. And, in fact, there remain tensions between the United States and Russia over who should have the greater influence and what sort of presence they should have in the region."

The exercises began in Kyrgyzstan on 15 April and ended the next day, then moved to Kazakhstan on 17 April and today, and are due to conclude in Tajikistan on 19-20 April.

The part of the exercises held in Tajikistan will have SU-24 warplanes, helicopters, and artillery. The exercise, while conducted under the command of the CIS Antiterror Center, are also in part an exercise of the CIS Collective Security Treaty countries, which further explains the participation of Armenia and Belarus.

Kazakhstan also conducted a military exercise earlier this week called Shield of the Motherland that involved a reported 28,000 troops. The drills simulated hostage rescues, apprehending and securing their captors, and evacuation of wounded.

(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz and Tajik services contributed to this report.)