Accessibility links

Breaking News

Central Asia Report: January 17, 2002

17 January 2002, Volume 2, Number 3

FOCUS OF U.S. ASSISTANCE TO UZBEKISTAN TO SHIFT FROM SECURITY TO ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT. Less than a week after nine of their Senate colleagues had toured the region, a delegation of five U.S. House representatives led by Jim Kolbe (R-Arizona) spent 12-13 January in Uzbekistan, AFP and Uzbek news sources reported. Whereas the group of senators seemed more focused on Central Asian security, the main theme of the representatives' visit was economic assistance and humanitarian aid. (Appropriately, Kolbe chairs the House Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs.) Talks with Uzbek President Islam Karimov on 12 January were about broadening economic cooperation, AFP said.

Without speaking directly about a quid pro quo, Kolbe, in remarks to journalists in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, nevertheless coupled thanks and praise for Uzbekistan's support of the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban with an announcement that Washington had awarded Uzbekistan $100 million in assistance, AFP reported. Presumably this was the $100 million in economic and humanitarian aid mentioned in a U.S.-Uzbek intergovernmental memorandum, signed in November, which had already been reported but initially lacked official confirmation in Washington or Tashkent (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 13 December 2001). But Kolbe further noted that the $100 million was part of the $4 billion earmarked by Congress for fighting terrorism, AP reported -- making it unclear whether the funds were more targeted at the Uzbek security/ military sphere, or primarily intended to boost market reforms in the country. In fact Kolbe implied the emphasis would change over time. While noting that American assistance to Uzbekistan thus far has gone towards security measures and military training, he said, "Once the military operation in Afghanistan is complete, I believe the pace of economic assistance in the region will depend in large measure on the pace of economic reforms," AP reported. Meanwhile Kazakh Khabar TV said on 12 January that the congressmen in their discussion with Karimov linked any future aid to progress in the human rights sphere in Uzbekistan.

On the subject of American military assistance to Uzbekistan, the January 2002 edition of "Armed Forces Journal International" offered a detailed account of how the Pentagon quietly started training programs throughout the region in early 1999. In all the Central Asian nations (except neutral Turkmenistan) U.S. Army Special Forces held as many as four one-month courses a year that "focused on patrolling, the use of various small arms and explosives, and other small-unit skills useful in combating insurgency forces," the journal said. On 12 January "The Atlanta Journal-Constitution" added to the picture of long-term, behind-the-scenes military network-building between the U.S. and Central Asia that only became public after 11 September. Since 1997 seminars and exercises at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, have included 290 mid-level military officers and politicians from Central Asia (out of 2,031 participants from dozens of countries since the initiative began in 1993). No less than the covert Green Beret training programs within Central Asia, the Marshall Center initiative laid the groundwork for regional military cooperation with the Pentagon after 11 September, "which appeared to have been gained virtually overnight, [but] was actually the result of years of work," the newspaper said.

Following a visit to Termez on the Uzbek-Afghan frontier to inspect the Friendship Bridge, which Karimov opened to humanitarian aid deliveries late last year, the congressional delegation arrived in the Tajik capital Dushanbe on 13 January for a meeting with President Imomali Rakhmonov. Again the theme was economic aid and development, with Rakhmonov stressing the importance of economic assistance to Afghanistan to underpin political stability. Meanwhile Kolbe informed journalists that Washington would probably not be expanding its military presence in Central Asia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2001).

Yet another U.S. Senate delegation was visiting the region this week, this time headed by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, which was due to finish its tour with a stop in Kyrgyzstan on 17 January, Reuters and CNN reported. According to on 14 January, in Uzbekistan the American group was scheduled not only to meet top officials in Tashkent but to visit Termez, enjoy the sights of ancient Bukhara, and fly over dried-up portions of the Aral Sea. The website commentary asked, rather sneeringly, "So, what is the aim of the visit?" and concluded that Washington was worried about losing the competition with Russia for influence in Central Asia and was seeking to shore up its position with liberal gifts of cash to the local governments. It dismissed the notion that Uzbekistan required any help in the military sphere and combating terrorism: "Karimov fully controls the situation in the country," it averred.

RUSSIAN GRUMBLES ABOUT PENTAGON PRESENCE GROWING LOUDER. Representative Kolbe's reassurance that America was unlikely to expand its military presence in the region was directed almost certainly towards Moscow, which was showing signs last week of increasing nervousness about the scale and intentions of the Pentagon's deployment in Central Asia.

For instance, two days before the group of congressmen visited Dushanbe, head of the Russian State Duma (lower house of the Russian parliament) Gennadii Seleznev led a delegation of his own to Tajikistan, Russian and local news sources reported on 11 January. His talks with President Rakhmonov focused on economic cooperation issues, Tajik TV said. In large part Seleznev's mission concerned expanding trade and parliamentary contacts, as he met his Tajik counterpart Saydullo Hayrulloev to discuss Russian investment in the country's power engineering sector and the work of an intergovernmental commission on exploiting Tajik natural resources, local radio reported. Yet Seleznev also said Tajikistan "should be one of Russia's closest allies in all fields," calling it "our direct strategic partner" and underlining the importance of the Russian presence in Tajikistan "in the military sphere," the radio reported. Moscow maintains about 20,000 troops in the country for the purposes of ensuring border security. Meanwhile U.S. and French forces are operating out of Dushanbe airport, Kazakh Commercial TV said on 11 January, while ITAR-TASS reported that at least 300 French marines and commandos have been airlifted to Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul via Dushanbe since late December.

According to RFE/RL, Tajikistan, although it has offered its bases in connection with operations in Afghanistan, now has no Western troops actually stationed on its territory, and allied military experts are inspecting Tajik bases for future use (see "U.S. Military Buildup Shifts Spheres of Influence,", 11 January 2002). Kazakh TV further reported, however, that the Tajik aerodrome at Kulob in the south of the country, which Pentagon inspectors were focusing on, had been judged too dilapidated to use, and that consequently Washington would presently be making an official request to Kazakhstan to make an aerodrome available for NATO member states. ITAR-TASS said on 8 January that Paris was hoping to take over an airfield at the village of Ayni near Dushanbe, but agreed it would need a lot of repair and modernization to be useable.

Seleznev made a point of visiting the headquarters of the Russian Federal Border Guard Service in Tajikistan, and then inspecting a border guard training center outside Dushanbe, ITAR-TASS reported on 12 January. At the training center, he said he wanted the Russian presence in Central Asia to be stronger, and stated outright, "The long-term military presence of the United States in the region is not in Russia's interests," reported. Furthermore, he emphasized that deployments of French and (possibly) Italian troops in the region would be merely temporary, Interfax reported on 12 January; by implication, the deployment of Russian forces was permanent, or at any rate less temporary than that of the Western newcomers. Meanwhile ITAR-TASS reported that Seleznev told journalists on 11 January that the formal establishment of a Russian base in Tajikistan was smoothly going ahead; its status had been ratified by the parliaments in both Moscow and Dushanbe, and supplementary agreements were being worked out amicably. Tajik Deputy Foreign Minister Salohiddin Nasriddinov struck the same note when he reminded Iranian radio on 11 January that contingents of foreign soldiers in Tajikistan were temporary, while Russia was, is, and always would be his nation's strategic ally.

Yet clearly Tajikistan wants its cake and to eat it too, staying close to Russia while strengthening cooperation with the United States. The news last week that Washington had lifted an arms embargo imposed on Tajikistan in 1993, when civil war was raging, was welcomed by Tajik Defense Ministry Spokesman Zarobiddin Sirozhev as an important step in encouraging military collaboration between the two countries, Asia-Plus reported on 11 January. Conceivably, it could help pave the way to closer Tajik-NATO collaboration as well; most Soviet-era weaponry, which the Tajik armed forces are generally using, is not compatible with Western-produced weaponry.

Despite Seleznev's insistence that Central Asia falls under Russia's long-term sphere of influence, Russian First Deputy Chief of Staff Colonel General Yurii Baluevskii told Interfax on 14 January that he believed American soldiers would not be pulling out of Central Asia for a long time to come: "It will definitely not be a month, I would say probably not even a year," he said. Seleznev himself said on 9 January, while visiting the Kazakh capital Astana, "Yesterday I heard a top U.S. official say that America will not repeat the Soviet Union's mistake and will not leave Afghanistan," according to commented on 11 January that "Russian experts assume" Washington will justify an extended military presence in the region by reviving "a long-forgotten plan to build a gas pipeline across Afghanistan." Rather surprisingly, Kazakh Commercial TV expressed a similar opinion on 11 January. Announcing a "political sensation," it reported that Washington had officially confirmed that the campaign against the Taliban was largely motivated by an intention to lay oil pipelines to carry Kazakh crude southwards via Afghanistan. In evidence the TV cited U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, alleged to have said that his goal was to make the pipelines project a reality. The TV further claimed that Kazakh servicemen had received special training in laying and guarding pipelines in war zones at an antiterrorist center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The possibility of opening trade and export routes southward from landlocked Central Asia via a stable Afghanistan has undoubtedly increased after the defeat of the Taliban, although it may be doubted whether that was a primary motivation behind the U.S.-led operations. Meanwhile on 12 January Pakistan's Petroleum Minister Usman Aminuddin said a $2 billion project to pipe about 20 million cubic meters of Turkmen natural gas per year to Pakistan -- first mooted and later abandoned in 1998 by the hydrocarbon major Unocal -- could be revived when peace returned to Afghanistan, AFP reported. Plans call for 743 kilometers of the 1,271-kilometer pipeline to traverse Afghan territory.

AKAEV'S BALANCING ACT AS U.S. SETTLES INTO BISHKEK BASE. Russian apprehension about the Pentagon's strategic plans in Central Asia grew last week in tandem with rapid expansion of the American arsenal, barracks, warehouses to store humanitarian aid, administrative headquarters, and military contingent at the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek's Manas airport, which looks set to become a key hub for operations in Afghanistan. Galaxy transport aircraft, C-130 and AN-225 "Mria" cargo planes, fighter jets, and Boeing KC-135 refueling planes have either been reported as landing or anticipated soon by Western and local news sources. Some 250 U.S. military-technical personnel are in Bishkek already, and 3,000 U.S. servicemen are expected to be based there in toto.

The American deployment in Kyrgyzstan has not been welcomed unanimously by its citizens, especially those of Russian ethnicity, according to an IWPR report of 11 January. The Russian community in the country, numbering over a quarter of a million, is a vocal minority who continue to look to Moscow for support, and are unhappy by what they perceive to be a diminishment of Russian influence in the area. "According to Russian Emigration Service staff members in Kyrgyzstan, the forms for citizens wishing to permanently move from the republic to Russia increasingly cite the presence of the American military as the reason for them wanting to leave," the IWPR report said.

On the same day, Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev fielded screened questions from citizens during a 2 1/2-hour live phone-in on Kyrgyz TV and radio. (He only answered a fraction of the 3,500 questions sent in but plans to hold another such session next month, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported on 12 January.) At one point Akaev was asked how long the American military deployment in the country would last, and whether it would harm Kyrgyzstan's national interests. He answered by making a distinction between "tactical issues" and "strategic direction." While saying that "making Manas airport available to the antiterrorist coalition was, in my opinion, a very correct decision" which would in no way damage the country's national interests, he stressed that the base was only leased for one year, and referred to the accord as "this tactical agreement," Kyrgyz TV reported. Akaev added that the agreement could be prolonged, subject to review in autumn 2002. On the other hand, the Kyrgyz president said that establishing closer relations with the regional great powers Russia and China, as well as with its Central Asian neighbors, was "our strategic task," and to this end touted his nation's participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the CIS Collective Security Treaty, and the antiterrorist CIS Collective Rapid Reaction Forces. His answers showed Kyrgyzstan -- no less than Tajikistan -- trying to have its cake and to eat it too: to develop its new-found friendship with the United States without alienating either the Bear or the Dragon, despite growing worries in Moscow and Beijing that their jostling for influence in Central Asia with Washington is a zero-sum game.