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Central Asia Report: September 28, 2001

28 September 2001, Volume 1, Number 10

U.S. MEN AND MATERIEL REPORTEDLY LAND IN UZBEKISTAN. Confusion swirled over media reports this week that the United States had begun assembling troops and military hardware on the territory of Uzbekistan. While low-profile Uzbek denials convinced some observers that the news was premature, American refusal to confirm or deny it suggested to others that the participating governments preferred to keep some details of the build-up secret for now.

Anonymous Uzbek sources told Interfax on 22 September that two U.S. C-130 Hercules aircraft had landed at an airbase outside the Uzbek capital Tashkent and unloaded military-technical equipment including reconnaissance devices. Hercules are 30-meter-long transport planes designed for oversized cargo like helicopters and armored vehicles. Approximately 200 American servicemen were also said to be at the airbase. Meanwhile Reuters said that the two Hercules had touched down at Tashkent's civilian airport on 21 September. The airport has been cordoned off to everyone except ticketed passengers. According to AFP, the two planes were one Hercules and one C-141 Starlifter. The Starlifter is a jet designed for cargo or personnel transport and can take up to 208 ground troops. The agency added that there were U.S. attack helicopters parked at an airfield east of Tashkent (presumably the Chirchik military base). They had been deployed in joint U.S.-Uzbek military exercises held earlier this month under NATO's Partnership for Peace program. The website further stated on 23 September that B-52 and B-1 bombers were headed for the Central Asian region.

However, RIA Novosti reported on 24 September that unidentified Uzbek officials said the news about American airplanes arriving was "misinformation." Defense Ministry spokesman Bahtiar Shakirov told ITAR-TASS on the same day that the reports were untrue. Moreover the Russian Air Force, which monitors Central Asian airspace continuously, said it had no information about U.S. aircraft landing in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, ITAR-TASS reported on 24 September. But no high-ranking official of President Islam Karimov's administration has come out yet with a categorical denial.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, asked on ABC television on 24 September whether news of the deployment was true, responded "not to my knowledge," but added that "of course, we do have repositioning of forces taking place." But the Bush administration is reserving the right not to fully disclose its plans, or what assistance other states are offering toward anti-terrorist operations, as U.S. officials including Powell himself have made clear. The Pentagon has refused to comment. Nevertheless, on 23 September "The Washington Post," citing anonymous U.S. Defense Department officials, reported that the American deployment in Uzbekistan would be publicly acknowledged.

On 24 September U.S. military advance parties arrived in Uzbekistan to inspect two airbases near the southern Uzbek city of Termez, on the Afghan border, and a third base near Qarshi (presumably Hanabad) in preparation for anticipated attacks against Afghanistan, Russian news agencies reported. Yet the U.S. embassy press-attache in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, quoted by ITAR-TASS, denied knowledge of any plans to station aircraft in the country, saying that "If this were the case, Washington would certainly have informed the embassy."

With its extensive military infrastructure, Uzbekistan, which served as the main launching pad for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, is the Central Asian country best suited to serve as an American forward staging area for reprisals against the Taliban. In addition to the bases the American specialists are reportedly inspecting, Uzbekistan maintains major military airfields at Ferghana, where most of the Uzbek airforce is stationed, and Sarisyo. A strike against Islamist militants in Afghanistan would also serve Karimov's own political agenda which calls for ruthless suppression of Islamists hostile to his iron-fisted, secular regime. In 1999 Tashkent was rocked by a series of bombs that nearly killed the president and were blamed on Islamist terrorists.

Some sources have suggested that Karimov is urging Washington not only to strike at Osama bin Laden but simultaneously to destroy the rebel Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has staged incursions into Uzbek and Kyrgyz territory for the last three years and is believed to be operating under bin Laden's aegis. Addressing the Congress on 20 September, President Bush said that "the evidence we have gathered all points to a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as Al-Qaeda. [This] group and its leader, a person named Osama bin Laden, are linked to many other organizations in different countries -- including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan." Bush's deliberate reference to the IMU, an obscure group by global standards, was widely understood as a pitch for Tashkent's support and a gift to Karimov's authoritarian regime, whose brutal campaign against its Islamist opposition has now been partially legitimized by Bush.

On 24 September, in an interview on Iranian radio, the leader of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan Tolib Yaqubov called on the Uzbek government not to allow American forces to strike Afghanistan from Uzbekistan, reminding listeners that the Taliban had threatened that "they would declare war against those neighboring states which allow the USA to use their airspace and air bases." As part of the same broadcast Abdurahim Polatov, chairman of the banned opposition Birlik (Unity) Party, worried that American retaliation might ignite a widespread war across the Central Asian region.

The Taliban implicitly recalled its threat to retaliate against American allies in a letter to Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov from his Taliban counterpart Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, the Afghan Islamic Press agency reported on 24 September. Referring to Uzbekistan's complicity in the USSR's ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan, "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan warns Uzbekistan not to involve itself in trouble again and act wisely. Uzbek Muslims should impress upon their government not to involve itself in a war from which it would find difficult to pull out," Mutawakil wrote. The Taliban claim that the unmanned American spy plane that it shot down last week took off from Uzbekistan, the news agency reported.

TAJIKISTAN WILL COOPERATE WITH MILITARY STRIKES, BUT FEARFUL OF THE CONSEQUENCES. The Tajik government continued to vacillate during the last week over whether Tajikistan would be at the disposal of the U.S. military. Having indicated in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September terror bombings that it would, the administration rapidly backpedaled under Russian pressure, until Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov himself did a volte-face on 25 September and said that the airport in the Tajik capital Dushanbe would be made available to the Pentagon "if such a necessity arises," although he added that "so far no one is flying anywhere," Interfax reported. Ivanov's announcement came after a blitz of telephone calls from Russian President Vladimir Putin to his five Central Asian counterparts on 23 September in order to discuss coordinating their positions on a punitive operation against the Taliban, AFP reported. In a call to President Bush the previous evening, Putin agreed to support U.S. retaliatory strikes on condition that the UN Security Council approves American plans, Reuters said.

Hitherto Tajik officials had strenuously denied giving permission to the Pentagon to utilize Tajik territory. A front-page article in "The Washington Post" on 20 September, reporting that American F-15 fighter bombers had been dispatched to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, was immediately repudiated in both countries. A Tajik Foreign Ministry spokesman said that "offering Tajik territory for possible U.S. strikes" had never been an option and noted that the country's military doctrine was "defensive in nature," AFP reported. The airport in Dushanbe is the only one is the country big enough to handle F-15 warplanes. There are other Tajik bases in Kulob and Kurgan-Tyube. The Dushanbe airport is presently occupied by a squadron of Russian jets, Interfax reported on 20 September.

Yet Iranian and Russian sources persistently continued to report on 23 and 24 September that U.S. aircraft had landed in Tajikistan. A Tajik Foreign Ministry official told Interfax-Military news agency on 25 September that the rumors were groundless and said that "someone is hurrying, outpacing events." After Moscow TV6 said on 24 September that U.S. paratroopers had been stationed in the town of Kulob in southern Tajikistan as part of an antiterrorist operation, a member of the Tajik parliament's Defense Committee, Abdullo Habibov, went out of his way to refute the report. Such claims were "a new provocation aimed at aggravating the situation in the southern part of Tajikistan," Habibov said on 24 September, RIA Novosti reported. Tajik Air Force Commander Colonel Akbar Qayumov, in an interview with Asia Plus-Blitz on the same day, also denied the presence of American troops in Kulob and reiterated that Dushanbe had made no military commitments to Washington.

However, as "The Washington Post" reported on 23 September, the U.S. Defense Department does not plan to publicly acknowledge a military deployment in Tajikistan. There are a number of reasons why Dushanbe has been sensitive about overt collaboration with America, not least Moscow's vociferous opposition until this week. The threat of Taliban reprisals across Tajikistan's 1,206-kilometer frontier with Afghanistan is a source of anxiety. On September 20, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmanov joined Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo on an inspection tour of the border, visiting the area near the village of Nizhnii Pyanzh, which is situated less than two kilometers from Taliban positions and would be the most likely spot for a Taliban invasion, according to Russian NTV International television reported by the BBC Monitoring Service. The border is guarded by some 20,000 Russian troops, including the 201st Motor Rifle Division. About 7,000 of its servicemen had been put on red alert, ITAR-TASS reported on 16 September. On 24 September, Russia TV further reported that Russian army and anti-aircraft forces in Tajikistan were on high alert and that guards along all the republic's frontiers were being reinforced.

At a congress in Dushanbe of the governing People's Democratic Party on 22 September, Rakhmonov affirmed Tajikistan's willingness "to cooperate with the international community, including the U.S. government, in the fight against international terrorism and extremism," Interfax reported. But the president was studiously vague about what such assistance might comprise. Rakhmonov must contend with pro-Taliban feelings within his own country and among his government's Islamist coalition partners. According to a Kazakh Commercial TV report carried last week by the BBC Monitoring Service, Tajik opposition leaders threatened to abrogate the terms of the June 1997 peace agreement, which concluded the five-year civil war and brought the Islamist opposition into a coalition with Rakhmonov's secular government, if he promised to afford Washington military support against the Taliban.

Fearful of being swamped by refugees fleeing American bombings, Rakhmonov stated explicitly on 20 September that Tajikistan's border was sealed and it would accept no refugees from Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 September 2001). Alarmist estimates of the number of people massing on the Tajik-Afghan border have ranged as high as 100,000, which was the number given by the Kyrgyz National Security Council monitoring the situation, the Kyrgyz Kabar news agency reported on 20 September. However, a correspondent for Russian TV6 visited the area on 24 September and said that the largest concentration of refugees was at Border Post 9 on the Pyanj River, where there were 9,000 Afghans. "Their number was expected to sharply increase by now with a mass influx of refugees into Tajikistan, but that hasn't happened yet," the correspondent said. According to information from the International Red Cross, the majority of Afghan refugees are fleeing towards Pakistan which took in about 15,000 last week.

Nevertheless, Dushanbe's decision not to admit displaced persons is likely to be controversial since many Afghans, especially in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, are ethnic Tajiks. Meanwhile, other Central Asian countries have been preparing for refugees. The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry announced as early as 18 September that camps were being readied. Kazakhstan's government, while trying to limit the number of people entering from Tajikistan, does not intend to introduce a special visa regime towards its Central Asian neighbors, Kazakh Khabar TV said on 24 September. Kazakh Commercial TV said on 19 September that the government had earmarked 4.4 billion tenge (about $27 million) to receive ethnic Kazakhs fleeing from Afghanistan. About 200,000 ethnic Kazakhs are citizens of Afghanistan, thousands of whom are already reported to be in Pakistani refugee camps.

TURKMENISTAN 'NEUTRAL,' ONLY AVAILABLE FOR HUMANITARIAN AID FLIGHTS. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov announced on 24 September that he would make Turkmen territory and airspace available "to deliver humanitarian freight in the course of the antiterrorist operation in the region," but not for military purposes, the Turkmenistan.Ru Internet newspaper reported. The Foreign Ministry had already denied on 19 September that its facilities were available for use by foreign states, saying that "reports and comments about various kinds of Turkmen military involvement are idle fantasies," RIA Novosti said. Niyazov had apparently given a different impression in talks with U.S. embassy Charge d'Affaires Eric Schultz on 14 September in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, when he promised that his country would support international countermeasures against terrorism, ITAR-TASS reported. However, on 24 September Niyazov underscored Turkmenistan's foreign policy stance of "neutrality and nonintervention into the affairs of other nations," although he rather inconsistently affirmed that "in this situation Turkmenistan considers that the evil must be punished," according to the Internet newspaper's report.

While officially Ashgabat expresses no preference for the Taliban over the opposition Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, it has supplied the Taliban with gas and electricity and has always stopped short of condemning them, mindful of long-term hopes that Turkmen hydrocarbons could be exported southward via friendly Taliban-controlled territory.

In line with Turkmenistan's official neutrality, Niyazov suggested on 24 September that peaceful negotiations under UN auspices should be initiated to find a "mutually-acceptable solution" to the international crisis, and proposed Turkmenistan as "the center for these negotiations," Turkmen Television said, reported by the BBC Monitoring Service. "Preference must be given to neutrality in complicated political situations," the TV news report stated. It did not specify who might sit at the negotiating table or what they should be discussing.

Also on 24 September, Niyazov lashed out on television against those conscripted for military service who paid bribes to be transferred from the Mary region, which abuts the Turkmen-Afghan border, to regions elsewhere in the country assumed to be safer. "These are the deeds of cowardly Turkmen," Niyazov said. Although Turkmenistan is not directly threatened by the Taliban, its long border with Afghanistan is ill-guarded and easy to cross, and would be a favored destination for refugees. There are over a million ethnic Turkmen living in Afghanistan.

The offer of Turkmenistan's airspace for humanitarian aid flights could be important in case of a massive influx of displaced persons across the Afghan border. Turkmenistan possesses the largest airfield in Central Asia, in the central Mary region. It is also conceivable, although unlikely, that the country could play a role in humanitarian efforts within Afghanistan, where World Food Program (WFP) workers estimate that at least a million people could face starvation as a result of this year's severe drought and whatever chaos an American campaign of retribution might cause, Reuters reported on 20 September. The WFP has enough food stocks in Pakistan to feed 5.5 million people, or one-quarter of Afghanistan's population, but has been unable to distribute it after aid workers since pulled out of the country last week, Reuters said.

AND THEN THERE WERE FIVE. The presidents of both Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan pledged their full cooperation towards an antiterrorist operation against the Taliban this week, meaning that Washington can now count on support, albeit to different degrees, from all five Central Asian states.

At a press conference on 24 September in the Kazakh capital Astana, President Nursultan Nazarbaev promised cooperation with the U.S. military "by all the means available to Kazakhstan," RIA Novosti reported. Asked to elaborate, he indicated that his statement included use of Kazakh military facilities, airbases, and airspace. However Nazarbaev said that "there has been no concrete request yet" from Washington concerning his offer, AFP reported.

Nazarbaev's decision is unlikely to enjoy unequivocal support from his people. Political activists from a broad spectrum of parties staged a mass antiwar gathering in the ex-capital Almaty on 21 September to protest against an indiscriminate attack on Afghanistan, RFE/RL's "Kazakh News" reported. A leader of the Azat Movement Hasen Qozhakhmet said he opposed the idea that the Afghan people en masse were guilty by association because the Taliban harbored bin Laden, and that the individuals responsible for the terror attacks against America were the ones who should be located and brought to justice. Furthermore, the influential newspaper "Novoye pokoleniye" (New Generation) ran an editorial last week entitled "This is Not Our War," and worried that U.S. operations could destabilize the region.

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev brought up the rear on 25 September as the last of the Cental Asian leaders to clarify his nation's position when he offered Kyrgyz airspace for U.S. aviation, ITAR-TASS reported. "We solidly support the United States and the entire world community in the eradication of bases of international terrorism and the powers that back them," Akaev said in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. He noted that he made his decision after conferring with the leaders of the other nations belonging to the CIS Collective Security Treaty.

Perhaps significantly, Akaev failed to specify whether Kyrgyz airspace was open to military planes or only humanitarian aid flights (see "RFE/RL Weekday Magazine," 25 September 2001). Both Russia and Turkmenistan have said that their airspace was only available for transporting "humanitarian cargo" to Afghanistan, although Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a special promise to provide assistance to Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, presumably of a military nature. On 22 September, the chief of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, Anatolii Kvashnin, held talks in Tajikistan with the new Northern Alliance leader, General Mohammed Fahim Khan.

Akaev was at pains to stress that punishing Islamist terrorists did not amount to an attack on the sacred religion of Islam with which "the actions of terrorists have nothing in common," in remarks reported by Kabar news agency on 25 September. Akaev was meeting with Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, Imam of the Ismailis, who was in the country to sign cooperation and development agreements between the Kyrgyz government and the Aga Khan Fund.

Although gratifying to Washington, the expressions of support from both Nazarbaev and Akaev are likely to have more political than practical import. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are relatively distant from Afghanistan, and any missions launched from either country would have to traverse Uzbek or Tajik airspace. Nazarbaev said at the press conference on 24 September that he doubted whether Kazakhstan would be called upon to provide active military support. "Nobody is requesting our military involvement yet. I don't think that things will go that far," the president said.

JOHN PAUL II IN ASTANA. On 25 September, ailing 81-year-old Pope John Paul II ended a four-day trip to Kazakhstan, where his pleas for religious harmony took on special resonance as war clouds gathered over nearby Afghanistan.

Kazakhstan is the 23rd Muslim nation the pope has visited, the sixth ex-Soviet state, and the 127th state he has visited overall in the course of his pontificate.

John Paul II was met at the airport in the Kazakh capital Astana on 22 September by President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who emphasized in his welcoming address that Kazakhstan was a multiethnic state and that the world must not succumb to "Islamophobia." "The tragedy that happened in the USA carries the threat of split and confrontation between civilizations and religions," Nazarbaev said in remarks carried by Kazakh Khabar TV reported by BBC Monitoring Service.

The pope, speaking in Russian, responded that "since time immemorial Kazakhstan has been the meeting point of various traditions and cultures," and noted that over 100 nationalities and ethnic groups live in the country. The pope then laid a wreath at a monument to victims of Soviet repression. Many of the estimated 350,000 Roman Catholics in Kazakhstan, a predominantly Muslim country of 15 million, descend from about 800,000 Volga Germans and 100,000 Poles deported by Stalin to the steppes where their slave labor helped build some of Kazakhstan's major industrial cities. At least 700,000 ethnic Germans have emigrated to Germany since Kazakhstan's independence in 1991. About 50,000 Catholics in Kazakhstan are said to be active churchgoers.

On 23 September, some 50,000 pilgrims attended a mass held in Astana's central Motherland Square. Very tight security was provided by 2,400 police officers and no motor vehicles were allowed to enter the city, local sources said. The pontiff warned, "We must not let what has happened lead to a deepening of divisions. Religion must never be used as a reason for conflict," AFP reported on 23 September. On the same day, Nazarbaev expressed his support for a coalition against terrorism but warned against "a witch hunt against Muslims."

At a mass reserved for clergymen on 24 September, the pope spoke against the erosion of humanistic values brought about by excessive materialism. He said that "consumerist hedonism" in the ex-Soviet region was replacing the militant atheism of the USSR, AFP reported. Blind acceptance of capitalist consumerism could sap the spirit of human dignity and the striving for freedom that undermined communism in the first place, the pope said.

In his farewell speech on 25 September, carried by Khabar TV, John Paul expressed confidence "that the people of Kazakhstan will not fail to carry out their mission of solidarity and peace." The pope left for a two-day visit to Armenia.