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U.S.: Diplomat Sees Growing Terrorism Challenge In Central Asia

The U.S. diplomat in charge of relations with Central Asia says terrorism and religious extremism are growing challenges in the region, along with democratization and economic liberalization.

Washington, 30 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Elizabeth Jones, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, says Washington has three key interests in Central Asia: security, energy, and political and economic reform.

But Jones said yesterday that while progress is being made on these issues, much work remains to be done in a region where "silencing of critics by all the governments continues in varying degrees."

Addressing the U.S. House of Representative's subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, Jones said terrorism and religious extremism are growing challenges for Washington in Central Asia.

She said the main challenges come from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which favors terrorist tactics to achieve its aim of overthrowing the region's regimes in favor of Islamic rule, and Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group she called "stridently anti-Western" that has praised attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. "Terrorism is a very serious issue for this region particularly because of Afghanistan and because of its proximity to Afghanistan," Jones said. "The IMU was the region for quite some time." She noted that although IMU leader Djuma Namangani was killed in Afghanistan at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, "the IMU is still active in the region -- particularly in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan -- and it represents a serious threat to the region and therefore to our interests."

She said Washington is providing training and equipment to Central Asian governments to combat terrorism. But she added that the United States is also working "to create the social conditions necessary to erode" IMU support.

To that end, Jones said Washington is working to help create jobs, improve health care, and promote more democratic government policies that do not radicalize the population. "In Uzbekistan, we are particularly working on water-resource management, development of Water Users Associations, water-saving demonstration models for farmers to show how to use more effectively and with greater efficiency the water that comes from Kyrgyzstan," Jones said. "We're working with them on canal-cleaning equipment and potable water in Karakalpakstan near the Aral Sea, because that's one of the most serious problems for the people living around the Aral Sea."

After the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, Washington forged stronger ties with several Central Asian countries, setting up military bases there and arranging overflight rights to support operations in neighboring Afghanistan.

This policy has been criticized by some human rights groups, who say that Washington has rewarded Central Asia's authoritarian regimes for their help in the war with increased financial assistance and by turning a blind eye to their repressive domestic politics.

Jones had critical words for all five Central Asian governments.

She singled out Turkmenistan as the worst case, saying Washington is "deeply concerned" about the deterioration of human rights there since the alleged attempt on President Saparmurat Niyazov's life in November 2002.

Meanwhile, she said Kazakhstan has backtracked on human rights in recent months and Uzbekistan has regressed "with the widespread arrest, torture, and imprisonment of political opponents."

Yet Jones also contended that Washington's "policy of engagement on all fronts is helping to tie the countries of Central Asia into the world economy and community." Still, she added that much remains to be done. "We are still facing a lack of cooperation in economic reform and integration that hampers economic growth," Jones said. "Uzbekistan has closed its borders to its neighbors. It has imposed high tariffs on trade. This is a severe problem, not only in terms of prosperity, but I believe lack of prosperity -- poverty, [which] also generates recruits for terrorist organizations," she added. "It's an issue that we discuss in detail and with great intensity with the government of Uzbekistan."

Jones said the United States spent $286 million last year on programs to build civil society, promote political and economic change, and combat criminal activities and terrorism in Central Asia.

She said there were many small U.S. success stories that were going unnoticed in the region, such as micro-lending programs to some 170,000 Kyrgyz clients to finance their small businesses.

Washington is also helping Kazakhstan, she said, develop the legal framework to provide access for Kazakh oil producers to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. She said this would give Central Asian states a reliable transport alternative for their oil, help make them more independent, and enhance global energy security.

(RFE/RL's Washington intern Diane Kim contributed to this story.)