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Central Asia Report: October 25, 2001

25 October 2001, Volume 1, Number 14

RUSSIAN, AFGHAN DEFENSE OFFICIALS IN DUSHANBE... Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe buzzed with diplomatic activity during the past week as Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and his ministers hosted a back-to-back series of high-level delegations from other Central Asian states, Russia, Germany, Iran, and Afghanistan.

On 18 October, Rakhmonov and his minister of defense, Colonel General Sherali Khairulloev, met with Russian army Chief of General Staff General Anatolii Kvashnin to discuss military and political developments in Afghanistan and ways to strengthen Tajikistan's border security, RIA-Novosti and Reuters reported. The recently appointed commander of the 201st Russian Motor-Rifle Division stationed in Tajikistan, Colonel Yurii Perminov, was also present at the talks, which were conducted behind closed doors. Upon his arrival in Dushanbe the previous day, Kvashnin had conferred with the military commander of the Afghan Northern Alliance, General Mohammad Fahimkhan, and with its foreign minister, Dr. Abdullah (one name), about Russia's ongoing operation to provide weapons and other military assistance to the anti-Taliban opposition.

...FOLLOWED BY REGIONAL EMERGENCIES MINISTERS. On 19 October in Dushanbe, Russian Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu met with his counterparts from the five Central Asian nations (although reports differed about whether the Turkmen delegation actually showed up) to streamline long-term strategies for delivering humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. On the eve of the meeting, Shoigu's deputy, Yurii Brazhnikov, told RIA-Novosti that its goal was to establish "a regional humanitarian coalition to enable the countries in questions to administer bilateral and multilateral humanitarian programs." Delegates discussed how to coordinate a variety of cargo-delivery options involving the use of airfields and national airspace, railways, and motor transport, and how to cooperate more closely with the UN and non-governmental organizations, the news agency said. Shoigu told journalists that Russia had already delivered about $4 million worth of food, winter clothes, and tents to northern Afghanistan, where an estimated 250,000 refugees have massed. But he warned that more aid was needed quickly to stem a stampede for the borders, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. Shoigu said three main aid corridors through Central Asia had been identified and would remain open as long as weather permitted: one route from the southern Kyrgyz town of Osh via Tajikistan to Faizabad and Ishkashim, a second from the town of Kulyab in southern Tajikistan to the Panjsher valley, and a third from Uzbekistan that had not yet been finalized (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 October 2001).

IRAN PUSHES FOR A CEASE-FIRE AND COALITION GOVERNMENT IN AFGHANISTAN... Also on 19 October, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi arrived in Dushanbe for brief consultations on the Afghan situation with his Tajik counterpart, Talbak Nazarov, and with President Rakhmonov. Kharrazi continued on to the Turkmen capital Ashgabat and returned home on 20 October, the Iranian news agency IRNA reported. Kharrazi said that he had been specially instructed by the Iranian president to make his lightning trip to Central Asia and to raise the possibility of brokering a rapid cease-fire in Afghanistan, Asia-Plus news agency reported on 19 October. "Iran, like other countries, can play a role in the settlement process," Kharrazi stressed to journalists in Dushanbe. His message to Central Asian officials was that the Afghan people had the right to determine their own fate, war was not an appropriate way to resolve the present crisis, and other means should be explored, IRNA reported after his return to Tehran. As for the type of settlement Kharrazi had in mind, initially he spoke in Dushanbe of "the creation of a coalition government in Afghanistan," "a broad-based government that would include all ethnic groups, without any external influence," Reuters and AFP reported. Such language seemed to indicate common ground with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had suggested earlier that week during a visit to Pakistan that "moderate" elements of the Taliban, but not its leaders, could be part of a new coalition government if they accepted the rights of others and promised to cooperate. But Kharrazi explicitly rejected that scenario after meeting Rakhmonov and Nazarov, saying that the Taliban have "a dark past and have no place in the future government of Afghanistan," reported "The Washington Post" on 20 October. Rakhmonov also said he opposed any role for moderate Taliban. Nazarov had already come out with a condemnation of Powell's remarks on 18 October during a visit to Austria, dpa news agency reported, when he told Austrian press that, "There aren't good and bad Taliban. The ideology is the same," and thus mocked Powell's belief that some of them were moderate. Nazarov said that the Loya Jirga, or Great Council of all Afghan peoples, should be called together to choose a post-Taliban coalition government. That option is being considered at the moment by the deposed king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who is living in Rome, UPI said on 21 October. However the agency noted that some observers are skeptical about the Loya Jirga's convening before the Taliban are conquered, quoting one U.S. diplomat who said that, "Getting Afghanis to agree is like herding cats."

Meanwhile on 20 October the embassy of the officially recognized (non-Taliban) Islamic State of Afghanistan in Dushanbe noted that the Northern Alliance had often proposed a coalition government with the Taliban in the past, but Kabul had always spurned the idea of negotiations and preferred force. The embassy said that now, "The time for negotiations with the Taliban is over," RIA-Novosti reported.

...AND FISCHER ASKS 'WHAT IS A MODERATE TALIBAN?' Next after Kharrazi came German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who arrived in Dushanbe on 20 October fresh from talks in Islamabad with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Fischer's meeting with President Rakhmonov mainly addressed logistical problems in delivering humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, with the German side offering financial and technical help to repair a bridge over the Pyanj River on the Tajik-Afghan frontier, Reuters reported. There is only a single ferry currently operating between Tajikistan and territory under the control of the Northern Alliance (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 October 2001). The German Red Cross announced on 23 October that it was sending 9,500 metric tons of food to Afghanistan, which would be transported via various supply routes, including through Tajikistan, the German news agency ddp reported. Meanwhile Tajikistan itself has been declared in danger of starvation this winter, with the World Food Program (WFP) launching an urgent appeal last week for 67,000 metric tons ($36 million worth) of food to feed 1 million Tajiks, in addition to food and clothing for the 7.5 million Afghans that the WFP said were at risk of "humanitarian disaster," dpa and Kabar reported on 17 October. The first batch of emergency aid pledged by Japan to help Tajikistan cope with approximately 15,000 Afghan refugees on its borders arrived in Dushanbe on 20 October, Kyodo news agency reported. It consisted of 69 million yen-worth of tents, blankets, and sleeping bags; Tokyo has promised 240 million yen in aid altogether. UN agencies have predicted that up to 50,000 displaced persons may flock to the Tajik border this winter. But while American planes drop food packages for Afghans, humanitarian donations for Tajiks, who are hardly better off, fall far short of what will be required in the upcoming months, AP reported on 22 October.

On the evening of 20 October, after his talks with Rakhmonov, Fischer met with his counterpart from the recognized government of Afghanistan, Dr. Abdullah, after which both made statements throwing cold water on Powell's suggestion that moderate Taliban be incorporated into a future Afghan government. Fischer's position in particular represented a setback for his previous day's host, President Musharraf, who has been lobbying hard for some Taliban representation in a coalition government. Pakistan was instrumental in creating the Taliban, supported it until the 11 September attacks, and considers it more friendly to Islamabad than the Northern Alliance, which in recent years has been allied with Pakistan's rival, India. "Extremism is not in every Taliban," Musharraf was quoted as saying in the 21 October edition of "The Washington Post." "One knows for sure there are many moderate elements within the Taliban communities."

However, Fischer seemed to dispute this view in Dushanbe. "What is a moderate Taliban? This question has not been answered on my journey," he said on 20 October, Reuters reported. Abdullah was more definite, stating that "the term 'moderate' does not apply to the Taliban," AFP said. Fischer alluded to a growing consensus both in and outside of Afghanistan about what form a new government should take, but did not elaborate, according to Reuters. Fischer did say that "the balance between different ethnic groups should be respected" and was clear that there should be representation for Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, even though they are also the Taliban's power base.

The German Foreign Minister also met the leader of the Tajik opposition Islamic Rebirth Party, Said Abdullo Nuri, who said an Afghan coalition government should be formed around Burhanuddin Rabbani, president of the officially recognized Islamic State of Afghanistan, AFP reported on 20 October. Rabbani was ousted by the Taliban in 1996 but is regarded as Afghanistan's legitimate president by the United Nations and most states. But the Northern Alliance's ability to govern is open to serious doubt, given that it is mainly comprised of minority ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, who fought continually among themselves during their four years in power in the 1990s. And it alienated many Pashtuns when it captured Kabul, ransacked the city, and caused the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians living there. Meanwhile Nuri told Fischer that Muslims in Tajikistan did not oppose the return of ex-King Zahir Shah per se, as long as his role in a future government was merely advisory and ceremonial, AFP said.

RUSSIAN TROOPS WON'T FIGHT IN AFGHANISTAN, GENERAL SAYS... While Fischer was meeting Tajik officials, the chief of the Russian Defense Ministry's Operational Group in Tajikistan, Lieutenant General Vladimir Popov, assured a press conference in Dushanbe that Russian forces would not get involved in any ground operations or combat missions in Afghanistan, Russian news agencies reported on 20 October. That said, Popov admitted that Russia, like "every party concerned, has its own channels of communication on Afghan territory, including with the Northern Alliance," ITAR-TASS reported. That was presumably a reference to the corridors through which Moscow is funneling military aid to the anti-Taliban opposition. However Popov said ingenuously that, although Russia is ready to provide military-technical assistance to Afghanistan, "There is no need to do it right now," since the Northern Alliance is strong enough to defeat the Taliban and restore President Rabbani's government on its own, RIA-Novosti reported. But Moscow is already known to be supplying Northern Alliance fighters with military hardware, ironically including many of the weapons with which Russian troops failed to defeat those same fighters during the 1980s, such as AK-47 Kalashnikovs, T-55 tanks, Soviet-era artillery systems, and BMP-1, BMP-2 Infantry Fighting Vehicles, AVN Military News Agency website noted on 23 October.

Popov expressed full confidence on 20 October that the Tajik Armed Forces could repulse any Taliban ground assault against Tajikistan and shoot down any Taliban planes. In the same vein, he denied reports a few days later that the Russian 201st Division had been put on high alert, indicating there was no reason why Tajikistan should be alarmed or fearful about the fighting in Afghanistan, AVN Military News Agency said on 23 October. Popov's optimism about the Tajik Armed Forces' full combat readiness echoed similar assertions made by Tajik Defense Minister Colonel General Sherali Khairulloev on 9 October. But talking heads and military commentators on Russian TV in recent weeks have been more dubious, worrying that defense forces in Tajikistan could crumble before a Taliban onslaught and that the Taliban have numerous domestic supporters within both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan who could act as a Fifth Column in case of a Taliban attack. About 11,000 Russian border guards patrol the 1,200-kilometer Tajik-Afghan frontier in accordance with a 1992 agreement between Moscow and Dushanbe.

Popov also confirmed that there were Pentagon officials in the Tajik capital with whom he said he was working to coordinate search-and-rescue missions on Tajik or Afghan territory, Interfax said on 20 October. The previous week, Kyrgyz news agency Kabar reported that five or six American military experts from the Air Rescue Service arrived in Dushanbe on 12 October.

...BUT WILL A MOSCOW-TEHRAN-DUSHANBE AXIS ARISE TO BACK THE NORTHERN ALLIANCE? Hot on the heels of the German foreign minister, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Russian Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev flew to Dushanbe on 21 October. They arrived from Shanghai, where they had attended the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Their talks with President Rakhmonov, Tajik security and defense officials, and representatives of the Afghan government-in-exile were held on the direct orders of the Russian president, Ivanov said, and were aimed at intensifying joint efforts "to fight against the pure evil which is terrorism" as well as "other threats represented by the Taliban" such as genocide against the Afghan people, the destruction of cultural monuments, and drug-trafficking, AFP reported. Ivanov added that training camps for Chechen rebels were situated in Taliban-controlled territory, ITAR-TASS reported. Perhaps most significantly, the Russian defense minister said that Moscow aimed to coordinate more closely with Tajikistan and Iran to forge a common front of countries that "have helped and are actively continuing to help the Northern Alliance," according to AFP. Russia, like Iran, has called for the U.S.-led military campaign to give way soon to a politically brokered solution to Afghanistan's future. To the question of whether the political stances of Russia, Tajikistan, and Iran toward Afghanistan were being harmonized with those of the U.S. and other states in the anti-Taliban coalition, Ivanov answered cryptically, "To the extent that our partners want them to be," AP reported on 21 October.

PRE-DAWN, TRIPARTITE SUMMIT IN DUSHANBE. Apparently, Ivanov and Patrushev were acting as a kind of advance team for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who flew into Dushanbe the following day from Shanghai for a previously unannounced, hastily arranged summit meeting between himself, Rakhmonov, and President of the Islamic State of Afghanistan Burhanuddin Rabbani. Putin arrived in Tajikistan at 3 a.m. on 22 October, accompanied by his minister of foreign affairs, Igor Ivanov, and stayed in the country for three hours, Tajik radio reported. Rakhmonov told reporters that the meeting had been arranged at Putin's instigation before he went to Shanghai, RIA-Novosti said.

The upshot of the trilateral summit was a strong public pledge of support from Moscow to Rabbani's "internationally recognized government [which has] long been fighting to free its people," in Putin's words, quoted by AP on 22 October. Rabbani picked up on the theme, saying his supporters were engaged in "the just liberation struggle of the Afghan people," RIA-Novosti reported. Slightly less credibly, Rabbani said on Tajik radio that his government had been "waging war in Afghanistan for the sake of peace" and had been struggling against terrorism not merely since 11 September, when the international fight against terrorism began, but for seven years.

Putin unequivocally spoke out against any cooperation with the Taliban, moderate or otherwise, thus probably torpedoing any American or Pakistani plans to include them in a future power-sharing arrangement. He said the Taliban had unforgivably compromised themselves by sheltering terrorists but otherwise supported an ethnically inclusive coalition government "that would be friendly to its neighbors, including the Russian Federation," RIA-Novosti reported. Rabbani concurred, and clearly wanted to cast himself in the role of head of such a government as he specially thanked "the friendly countries of the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, [and] the Islamic Republic of Iran" for their support in a press conference after the summit. Meanwhile Putin, while pointing out that Russia had been backing the Northern Alliance for a long time, promised more arms, military equipment "to help fight terrorism," and humanitarian assistance, ITAR-TASS reported.

But in the opinion of Russian analysts quoted by AFP on 23 October, Putin's apparent slamming of Powell's idea was actually part of a subtle strategy planned jointly by Moscow and Washington. The apparent divergence in approaches was decided in advance and was designed to reassure various constituencies with differing agendas that they would not be left out in the cold, with Russia catering to the Northern Alliance and Tajikistan while the U.S. cultivated Pakistan, according to the news agency's informants. An analyst at the Carnegie Moscow center opined that the Russian president's trip to Dushanbe was planned in Shanghai by Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush. AFP offered no hard evidence to support these exciting speculations.

Concluding the tripartite summit in Dushanbe, a joint statement signed by the three presidents demanded "unconditional fulfillment of the terms of the antiterrorist coalition," including extradition of those responsible for the 11 September attacks, an end to Taliban rule, the disbanding and disarmament of its armed formations, and a political resolution of the Afghan civil war resulting in a new government "with the maximum representation of various sections of the population, including all nations and ethnic groups," RIA-Novosti and ITAR-TASS reported on 22 October. As far as extradition is concerned, Rakhmonov told journalists before the summit began that he knew Osama bin Laden was still in Afghanistan, RIA-Novosti reported. Furthermore, the declaration said that the political transition process in Afghanistan should involve the UN and all states willing to assist. Moreover, "permanent consultations" between Moscow, Dushanbe, and Rabbani's government would be established "at the highest level." All in all, the summit seemed designed to showcase Russia's influence in the region and to proclaim loudly its intention to be a major player in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

ANOTHER DEATH IN POLICE CUSTODY AS OSCE CHAIRMAN HEADS FOR TASHKENT. The chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, arrived in the Uzbek capital Tashkent on 21 October for two days of talks with senior government officials including President Islam Karimov. The visit was timely, Geoana told journalists on the eve of his trip, because Uzbekistan's role in the world "has spectacularly increased" following the terror attacks on New York and Washington, and thus it was important "to find a way, at the OSCE we could support this state in its fight against international terrorism," the Rompres news agency website reported on 22 October. Still more timely and relevant was Geoana's warning that he intended to remind Tashkent of its obligations to respect human rights and practice religious and ethnic tolerance, RIA-Novosti reported on 21 October. On the previous day, a press release from New York-based Human Rights Watch reported that 32-year-old Ravshan Haidov had died in an Uzbek prison after being tortured by police. Haidov and his younger brother had been arrested in Tashkent on 17 October on suspicion of belonging to the underground Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. Police claimed Haidov died of a heart attack, but family members said his body was bruised and his neck was broken (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 October 2001). Human Rights Watch and similar watchdog organizations have warned that hard-line regimes in Central Asia should not be allowed to make security concerns in the wake of the 11 September attacks an excuse for cracking down on political opponents or persecuting Muslims. Hizb-ut Tahrir, which advocates the removal of Karimov's regime and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate centered on the Ferghana Valley, has repeatedly said that it intends change only by non-violent means and has never been implicated in any terrorist acts in Central Asia. Nonetheless, Uzbek police continue to persecute suspected members, and the Kyrgyz National Security Service has decided it is linked to the Taliban, Kabar reported on 23 October. Allegedly the banned party has 3,500 members inside Kyrgyzstan, concentrated in the southern regions. Judging by the Kabar report, the most damning information the National Security Service has on Hizb-ut Tahrir to justify a crackdown is that party members were supposedly organizing mass protests against U.S.-led strikes on Afghanistan.

In Tashkent, Geoana warned Uzbekistan -- and Russia -- not use the campaign against terrorism as a pretext to "put pressure on those opposing the current regime." He asked Uzbekistan, "Why not free opposition members from prisons?" (See "RFE/RL Weekly Magazine," 23 October 2001.) It is estimated that there are some 7,000 people currently imprisoned in Uzbekistan for their true, or alleged, political or religious views. Geoana's remarks were not reported in Uzbekistan's state-controlled media.