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Central Asia Report: October 4, 2001

4 October 2001, Volume 1, Number 11

OFFICIALS TIGHT-LIPPED ABOUT DIPLOMATIC TRAFFIC BETWEEN U.S. AND CENTRAL ASIA... The tempo of diplomatic activity between the United States and Central Asian nations intensified this week in anticipation of U.S.-led military strikes against Afghanistan, but officials on all sides were reluctant to reveal any details of meetings or even that they were occurring.

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton was in the Uzbek capital Tashkent on 28 September for talks on terrorism, Agence France Presse and Reuters reported. The U.S. Embassy in Tashkent initially denied, then admitted, that an American delegation was in town, while Uzbek officials had no comment. It is probable that Bolton actually arrived on 26 September and that his presence in Uzbekistan was kept secret as long as possible on Tashkent's request. A U.S. transport plane crossed Kazakhstan and entered Uzbek airspace on 26 September, Interfax and Kazakh Commercial Television said, although their reports differed over whether the plane was a C-130 Hercules or a C-141 Starlifter. Either plane can be used for personnel or cargo transport. The flight over Kazakhstan, which was observed two days after its government opened its skies to the U.S. Air Force, is thought to have carried Bolton's delegation.

In Washington on 28 September, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher belatedly acknowledged Bolton's presence in Tashkent but refused to offer details of the diplomat's itinerary, save that he was "traveling in the region, including Uzbekistan," Reuters reported. "The mission is to coordinate with governments of Central Asia on the fight against terrorism," Boucher said, while stressing that "the details of the who, what, when, where, and how and what he's doing are just not going to be made available." To this list may be added how many people made up Bolton's delegation. A C-141 Starlifter can transport over 200 men.

Reuters and "The New York Times" reported on 3 October that U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is expected in Uzbekistan sometime this week but no precise information has been offered about his schedule or agenda. His trip also includes stops in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Oman.

In the Tajik capital Dushanbe, U.S. embassy charge d'affaires James Bauner conferred with President Imomali Rakhmonov on 28 September, and on the following day with Defense Minister Sherali Khairullaev, AFP reported. The meeting with Khairullaev focused on exchanges of military intelligence "and the current situation in Afghanistan," the news agency said, citing Tajik military sources.

Meanwhile U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met his Kazakh counterpart Yerlan Idrisov on 28 September in Washington, where the dominant theme was the need to be cautious and cool-headed rather than striking precipitously against Afghanistan. "We are very happy to hear there is no blood lust anymore" in America, Idrisov told Reuters, while recognizing the horror of the 11 September attacks. "The actions should be well-balanced, careful, and well-targeted, and the target is terrorism," Idrisov said. The Kazakh foreign minister arrived in Washington via New York where, in a meeting with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on 27 September, he urged a comprehensive review of the Afghan question under UN Security Council auspices and invited Annan to the Kazakh ex-capital Almaty in November to attend the Conference on Cooperation and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported.

...AND EVEN TIGHTER-LIPPED ABOUT MILITARY PREPARATIONS. Facts about the scope, location, and even existence of the U.S. military build-up on Central Asian soil proceeding in tandem with diplomatic demarches were also murky, as government officials stonewalled about media reports that American troops and equipment were landing in the region.

The Uzbek Ministry of Defense had no information about the arrival of transport planes, a spokesman said on 1 October, after Russian news agencies reported that a U.S. C-130 Hercules touched down at Hanabad military airbase the previous day, AFP said. Hanabad is located near the southern Uzbek city of Qarshi, about 200 kilometers from the Afghan border, and was reportedly being inspected last week by a U.S. military advance party as a springboard for strikes against Afghanistan. Previous reports, also lacking official confirmation, have indicated that two further American aircraft carrying reconnaissance equipment and other materiel landed in Uzbekistan on 22 September. Uzbekistan was the main bridgehead for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and is widely expected to play a comparable role in a punitive campaign against the Taliban. However, in the Russian newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 26 September, military analyst Mikhail Khodaryonok described Uzbekistan's airbases as poorly equipped and fallen into total disrepair since the collapse of the USSR. Khodaryonok warned that the runways lacked beacons, airfields lacked radio equipment, which had broken or been stolen, and concluded that it was "extremely improbable that the U.S. will want to deploy large air force units in Central Asia." Knight Ridder News Service reported on 3 October that U.S. teams scouting Hanabad had indeed found its airstrips and hangars run-down but acceptable for the Pentagon's purposes. Beyond Hanabad, the major Uzbek military airbases that U.S. specialists are thought to be interested in are at Kakaidi, about 40 kilometers from the Afghan border, and the Tuzel installation outside Tashkent.

Meanwhile in Tajikistan, the Foreign Ministry on 29 September denied news that a Hercules plane would be arriving in the country from Delhi, adding in a press release that "no American military aircraft has ever landed in any of the airports in Tajikistan," Interfax said. Dushanbe similarly denied reports last week that U.S. planes and paratroops had arrived in the south of the country. The Pentagon has said, however, that it wants to base jets, AC-130 planes, and special forces in Uzbekistan, supported by medical and search-and-rescue teams to be stationed in neighboring Tajikistan. AC-130s are heavily-armed gunships designed for air support, air interdiction, and dropping and extracting troops. Moreover, as AFP noted on 28 September, there have been reports that U.S. commandos supported by Blackhawk helicopters have been on the ground within Afghanistan for the last two weeks searching for Osama bin Laden. Whether they were inserted into Afghanistan from Central Asia or elsewhere has not been clarified. CNN added on 28 September, sourcing an anonymous high-ranking U.S. official that both British special operations forces as well as American ones, which could include Green Berets and Army Rangers, have been conducting operations in Afghanistan and the Central Asian region.

But Uzbek presidential press secretary Rustam Jumaev denied rumors that U.S. special forces had landed in Uzbekistan, Russian Public TV said on 2 October. Allegedly the men mistaken for special forces were, in fact, U.S. customs officers who were training Uzbek border troops in ways to prevent the smuggling of nuclear weapons and radioactive material. There has been no official clarification as to the what, when, how, or where U.S. customs officers entered Uzbekistan.

Reports that Russian special forces had been inserted into Afghanistan from Tajikistan were denied by the Defense Ministry in Moscow, Interfax reported on 3 October.

A report by "The Washington Post" that over 1,000 American light infantry troops had arrived in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on 2 October were either denied or elicited no comment from local officials, Reuters said the following day.

RUSSIA, REGAINING INFLUENCE OVER REGIONAL SECURITY, SAYS 'NYET' TO CIS MILITARY ROLE IN AFGHANISTAN. The Council of the Heads of Security Bodies and Special Services of the CIS states held its eleventh annual conference in Dushanbe on 1-2 October, adopting a joint declaration calling for long-term, coordinated global measures against terrorism undertaken with approval of the UN Security Council, RIA-Novosti and Western news agencies reported. In addition to combating terrorism and extremism, participants discussed joint CIS measures against international crime and drug smuggling.

The joint declaration's reference to the UN Security Council implicitly reflected Russia's position, expressed by President Vladimir Putin to U.S. President George W. Bush over the telephone on 22 September, that Moscow would support American retaliatory attacks on the Taliban on condition that the UN Security Council approved Washington's plans. Moscow's stamp was also discernible in the document's criticism of "the double standards applied by certain states" to the issue of fighting terrorism. Analysts have noted that the U.S.'s intention to strike back hard at Afghanistan for harboring bin Laden undermines its and other nations' ability to condemn Russia for its brutal campaign against the Chechens, whom bin Laden and the Taliban are believed to support, without being accused of applying double standards. The same goes for criticizing Uzbek President Islam Karimov's repressive regime as it battles the Afghan-based terrorist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, whose fighters have reinforced Taliban troops at Takhor in northern Afghanistan, RIA-Novosti reported on 1 October.

But Russia's domination over the meeting in Dushanbe was most apparent from remarks by the head of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), Nikolai Patrushev, reported on 2 October by Reuters. Emerging from a meeting with Tajik President Rakhmonov, Patrushev said that "there will be no participation of regular armies or other force units" of the 12 CIS member states in a U.S.-led operation against Afghanistan, although he added that they could join the fight against terrorism in other ways. Patrushev's assertiveness in speaking for the other CIS states suggested that Moscow, despite removing its objections to American use of ex-Soviet bases in Central Asia last week, was still applying pressure on countries it considers within its sphere of influence to circumscribe their freedom of action in cooperating with Washington.

President Karimov lashed out against Moscow at a public meeting in Tashkent on 26 September, broadcast on Uzbek radio, saying that Russians "do not like the fact that Uzbekistan is carrying out its own independent policy and striving to tackle its security issues on its own." Uzbekistan opted out of the CIS Collective Security Treaty in 1999 and has the strongest army in Central Asia, with about 80,000 active troops. Yet Karimov undercut his own bravado by also telling the meeting in Tashkent, and presumably any listeners in Kabul, "You know that I am absolutely against waging a war or conflict with the Taliban." The Taliban have repeatedly threatened to retaliate against Uzbekistan if it assists Washington militarily. While Karimov stated on 26 September that Uzbek airspace would be open to the U.S. for "humanitarian or security purposes," and repeated it on 1 October at a meeting of the Uzbek National Security Council, he also said he wanted "a guarantee of our security and borders" from "the United Nations and Security Council members" in return. A forthright pledge from Karimov to make airbases available and to accommodate U.S. troops, such as Kazakhstan has promised, was conspicuous by its absence, suggesting that Karimov has decided on a more cautious, low-profile approach toward cooperating with the Pentagon.

Tajikistan strongly denied reports last month that U.S. F-15 fighter bombers were stationed at Dushanbe airport, but in the process unwittingly highlighted questions whether the airport, the largest in the country and host to a squadron of Russian jets, was actually under Tajik control or joint Russian-Tajik jurisdiction, as some Russian sources had indicated. The confusion forced a statement from Tajik Security Council Secretary Amirqul Azimov on 26 September confirming that the Tajiks had full control of their own airport, Asia-Plus news agency reported. Yet only on 29 September was border control at Tajik airports, which hitherto has been mainly in the hands of Russian guards, handed over to Tajik guards, ITAR-TASS reported.

Last week Russian military officials in Tajikistan made no bones about the fact that they were firmly in control of the republic's security, with announcements that 1,500 Russian soldiers were being transferred from the Volga-Urals Military District to serve with the 201st Motor-Rifle Division based in Tajikistan, and that the Afghan-Tajik border was being reinforced, Russian news agencies reported. Moscow deploys about 11,000 border guards in Tajikistan and 7,000 servicemen of the 201st Division elsewhere in the country. Meanwhile the size of the Tajik armed forces, which are composed of 12,200 conscripts, will not be increased, Asia-Plus. said on 27 September.

Colonel Yurii Perminov was made the new commander of the 201st Division, having formerly served as its deputy head, Interfax reported on 2 October. Perminov replaced Major General Valentin Orlov who had commanded the division since August 1997.

Federal Border Service Colonel General Nikolai Reznichenko, responsible for border security in Tajikistan, had no doubt that Russian troops could repulse any assault by the Taliban, Interfax reported on 2 October. Lieutenant General Valerii Verchagin, deputy commander of the newly established CIS antiterrorism center and formerly deputy minister of national security in Kyrgyzstan, expressed equal confidence on 28 September that the Tajik-Afghan border was secure from attack. "I don't think that there will be any direct military incursion by the Taliban into our region," he said in an interview with the Kyrgyz newspaper "Vechernii Bishkek." Verchagin was visiting Bishkek to coordinate the work of Kyrgyz security ministries and the new CIS antiterrorist center that was the subject of a meeting on the same day in Moscow between the prime ministers of the CIS states, the newspaper "Slovo Kyrgyzstana" reported. It was decided in Moscow that Russia would bear half the costs of the center, which was established on the basis of the CIS Collective Security Treaty and as such represents another vehicle for expanding Russian influence over security issues in Central Asia where the center is expected to concentrate its work.

On 29 September Russian NTV said that the combat-engineer battalion of the 201st Division in Tajikistan had built pontoon bridges across the Pyanj River, which is the natural frontier with Afghanistan, to facilitate transportation of military supplies to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Last month President Vladimir Putin announced that Russian airspace could not be used for military measures against Afghanistan, but simultaneously made a promise to beef up military assistance to the Northern Alliance after the assassination of its leader Ahmad Shah Massoud last month. Russian SU-25 jets and Ilyushin-76 cargo planes have been flying in and out of Dushanbe all week, Reuters reported on 1 October. But at least some of those IL-76s are now carrying humanitarian cargoes of sugar, blankets, and tents from the Russian Emergencies Ministry for Afghanistan's northern provinces, Ekho Moskvy radio reported, saying that the first such cargo arrived in Dushanbe on 2 October.

CENTRAL ASIAN STATES CLOSE BORDERS TO AFGHAN REFUGEES WANTING IN, BUT LET HUMANITARIAN AID OUT. The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan worsened during the last week, with the UN estimating that almost two-thirds of Afghan urban dwellers have fled into the countryside for fear of a U.S. bombing campaign. UNHCR's worst-case scenarios forecast 1.5 million displaced persons in the country, of whom 1 million are expected to head towards Pakistan, 400,000 towards Iran, 50,000 towards Turkmenistan, and the same number towards Tajikistan. Over 7 million Afghans are said to be in danger of starving this winter. On 27 September UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed to donor countries for $584 million to avert catastrophe, AFP reported, while noting that the most dire predictions of refugee torrents have yet to be realized.

Nonetheless over 17,000 refugees have massed along Tajikistan's border, while Tajik migration services predict their number could soon grow to 50,000, Interfax reported on 28 September. Some 7,000 Afghans have been encamped on islands in the Pyanj River between Tajikistan and Afghanistan already for a year, after fleeing an offensive northwards by the Taliban. On 20 September, President Imomali Rakhmonov said that "Tajikistan will not admit a single Afghan refugee into the country," both for fear of opening the border to terrorists, arms, and drugs, and because Tajikistan itself is facing a crisis with hundreds of thousands of its 6.4 million citizens threatened by starvation after a disastrous harvest caused by drought. Uzbekistan is equally unwilling to accept any refugees, being particularly afraid of admitting Taliban-trained militants onto its soil. Annan demanded on 26 September that both nations, as well as Turkmenistan, Pakistan, China, and Iran, open their borders to civilians in need in accordance with international law, Reuters reported. According to observers Uzbekistan is unlikely to comply, and Tajikistan will probably compromise by setting up large camps on the Afghan side of the border.

Turkmenistan, which announced on 24 September that in conformity with its neutral status would permit its territory and airspace to be used only for humanitarian missions to Afghanistan, received the first plane-load of cargo from the UN World Food Program on 28 September, Turkmen Press news agency reported. The 40-ton consignment consisted of clothes and high-protein biscuits, Turkmen sources said. Further reports by Russian news agencies last week said that supplies of medicine, food, and water-purification equipment destined for Afghanistan were arriving in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, some of them coming not by air but by ground transportation from unspecified locations. All in all, convoys totaling 400 tons of aid rolled into northwestern Afghanistan from Turkmenistan on 2-3 October, AFP reported. The agency also said that 200 tons of wheat loaded in 18 trucks set out from Tajikistan on 2 October for the Afghan city of Faizabad.

NAZARBAEV RECEIVES KUCHMA IN ASTANA... Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma left the Kazakh capital Astana on 28 September, concluding a three-day visit that was notable for the attention paid by both Kuchma and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to trilateral cooperation with Russia, and for the leaders' interest in breathing new life into the CIS. In a joint communique signed on 26 September, they declared themselves for a full-scale free-trade zone within the CIS and mandated the step-by-step removal of obstacles to a free-trade regime between their two countries, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Kuchma said that he saw a great economic and political future for the CIS, Interfax-Ukraine reported. By way of expanding economic cooperation and trade, Kazakhstan will buy Ukrainian aircraft and technical services to modernize its air fleet, the UNIAN news agency said on 27 September. But more politically significant were the two sides' willingness to implement the Dnepr space program in conjunction with Russia, and to create a joint venture with Russia to extract and process uranium for nuclear fuel (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 October 2001). Nazarbaev and Kuchma also considered refining more Kazakh oil in Ukraine, and the possibility of exporting it through Ukraine to the Baltic Sea via the Odessa-Brody-Gdansk pipeline, UNIAN reported on 26 September.

...AND TRAVELS TO GERMANY. On 1 October President Nazarbaev commenced a three-day visit of his own to Berlin, where cooperation against drug smuggling, terrorism, and participation by German businesses in infrastructure projects around the Caspian basin were on the agenda. It emerged from discussions between the Kazakh president and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on 2 October that both sides were dubious about the efficacy of revenge bombings against Afghanistan as a response to the 11 September terror attacks in New York and Washington, Kazakh and German news reports indicated. To address the flow of narcotics reaching Europe via Central Asia, Berlin pledged assistance to Kazakh customs and border services, Kazakh Khabar TV said on 2 October. Support was also promised by Schroeder to help ethnic Germans maintain their traditions and culture in Kazakhstan, where some 800,000 Volga Germans were deported by Stalin. At least 700,000 of them and their descendents have emigrated to Germany since Kazakhstan's independence in 1991.

While in Berlin, Nazarbaev met Prince Karim Aga Khan IV to discuss plans for the international Central Asian University (UCA), Khabar Television reported on 2 October. The Aga Khan Foundation has apportioned $5 million to establish the UCA with campuses in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The international treaty to set up the UCA in Kazakhstan was signed by Nazarbaev and the Aga Khan in August 2000. Later on 2 October, significantly on the eve of German Unification Day, Nazarbaev addressed the Bundestag with a speech describing his independent republic's achievements and prospects, Kazakh TV reported.

Nazarbaev was scheduled to leave Berlin on 3 October to visit the headquarters of Siemens in Munich, meet Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber, and enjoy Munich's Oktoberfest, but scrapped his plans after German public watchdog and human rights groups persuaded Stoiber to cancel the meeting, according to Kazakhstan 21st Century Foundation's "Voice of Democracy" report on 2 October. Nazarbaev has been implicated in corruption scandals connected with bribes allegedly paid by Western oil companies working in Kazakhstan.