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Central Asia Report: November 1, 2001

1 November 2001, Volume 1, Number 15

TOP U.S. GENERAL CONFERS WITH KARIMOV, DEFENDS BOMBING CAMPAIGN. Uzbek President Islam Karimov received U.S. General Tommy Franks in the Uzbek capital Tashkent on 30 October for talks on the course of the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan. As commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command, which encompasses American forces in the Gulf and the Middle East, Franks is directing the campaign against the Taliban.

Precisely what Franks had come to talk about was largely left to speculation, especially since he asserted that American military deployments in the country were not a topic of his discussions, according to ITAR-TASS on 30 October. According to the terse report by government-controlled Uzbek radio on the same day, participants -- including Uzbek Defense Minister Kodir Gulomov and Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov -- "exchanged views on the development of military and technical cooperation." Franks said the talks were "very productive, frank, and open," and that Washington was "completely satisfied with the Uzbek contribution" to Operation Enduring Freedom, RIA-Novosti reported. That contribution consists primarily of permission to use the Hanabad air base near the southern Uzbek city of Qarshi, where some 1,000 troops from the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division are stationed and another 1,000 soldiers are expected in the near future. Publicly, the Uzbek government adamantly maintains that the troops are there only to participate in search-and-rescue and humanitarian missions. Franks, while not denying this, nevertheless hinted that the mission of American troops in Uzbekistan could "change from day to day and week to week," AP reported on 30 October.

Meanwhile various military commentators raised the possibility last week that the Pentagon might soon establish a military base within Afghanistan, in Northern Alliance-held territory near the Uzbek border. "The New York Times" revealed on 25 October that U.S. Special Forces such as the Green Berets and Navy SEALs have been covertly training in Uzbekistan and building a relationship with its army since 1999. It was apparently in that connection that Franks made his only previous visit to Uzbekistan on 18-20 May.

Perhaps more notable than the talks themselves was the press conference afterwards, at which Franks had to fend off challenges that the anti-Taliban operation was foundering, failing, stalled, or at a stalemate. "My boss, the secretary of defense, and the president have not indicated to me any frustration about the pace of this activity," he said, adding, "We will undertake our actions on a timeline that is satisfying to us," AP reported on 30 October. As proof that America was master of the skies over Afghanistan, he pointed out that he had flown safely to Tashkent through Afghan airspace from Pakistan. The general defined the goal of the mission in Afghanistan as "the destruction of the Taliban leadership" but indicated it was only one theater in an "overall mission around the globe" that he said was "to disconnect, destroy terrorist networks with global reach," AP reported. Washington was "satisfied with Russia's involvement in the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan," Franks told ITAR-TASS on 30 October.

Two days earlier, the fourth week of U.S. attacks opened with sorties against the town of Kandahar, the Afghan capital Kabul, and the Taliban frontline near the major northern town of Mazar-e Sharif, AFP reported. The bombings were all strategically targeted, according to analysts, to help the Northern Alliance, whose fighters have failed to make any significant advances against the Taliban since the bombings started. But in Tashkent, Franks refused to confirm that the Pentagon was choosing targets with a view to facilitating the capture of important towns by the Northern Alliance, or even that Washington's interest in the anti-Taliban opposition groups was primarily military. "Our purpose is to satisfy ourselves that each of the groups we cooperate with has mutual and shared interest with us," he said, adding that Washington would support different groups in different ways, that some might "contribute directly to our core objective," and that others might support humanitarian aid efforts, AP reported. Such reluctance on Franks' part to endorse the Northern Alliance as military partners may have been in deference to his hosts, as Tashkent is anxious not to be seen to be cooperating too closely on the military side of the campaign.

Alternatively, some observers have suggested, it may reflect deep American disappointment in the military capabilities and competence of the Northern Alliance. The general declined to say whether bombings will be halted out of respect for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, which begins this year in mid-November.

CENTRAL ASIAN POPULAR SUPPORT FOR AMERICA MAY BE SHAKY. General Franks' defensiveness in Tashkent about the Pentagon's campaign against the Taliban reflects growing dissatisfaction both in Britain and the U.S., tracked by opinion polls, about the course of the war so far: Taliban defenses appear robust, the civilian death toll is mounting, and a humanitarian catastrophe seems to be in the making, AFP noted on 30 October. The level of popular support in Uzbekistan is hard to gauge, a Eurasianet report of 29 October pointed out, since the state-controlled press relentlessly promotes the wisdom of President Karimov's decision to support Washington and dissenting voices are permitted no public outlet. On 26 October pro-American student rallies and meetings were held in various parts of the country, including the Bukhara Region, ITAR-TASS reported. It is highly unlikely that these were spontaneous, although they may have been heartfelt. Earlier in October, imams preaching at mosques throughout the country were ordered by the quasi-governmental Spiritual Board of Uzbekistan's Muslims to condemn terrorism in their Friday sermons, the Eurasianet report said, while the U.S. Embassy channeled a message through the same organization to local imams that America's fight was with terrorists, not Muslims. But anti-American sentiments are still rife and on the increase, especially among Uzbek women, to judge by the evidence (necessarily anecdotal in the absence of opinion polls) offered by Eurasianet and an AFP report of 23 October. In Tashkent, about 10 Uzbek women recently staged an anti-American protest which was rapidly suppressed by police, AFP reported. The agency quoted a female Muslim activist as saying, "There is a Christian crusade going on against Muslims." She said that "Bush is the No.1 terrorist in the world," and added that Karimov is terrorist No. 2. He let the Americans use our bases so that they could annihilate Muslims."

In Kyrgyzstan, a poll reported on 18 October by Kabar news agency indicated that while 89 percent of respondents said the Taliban must be destroyed, only 55 percent supported the antiterrorist operation being conducted by Washington. Some 48 percent said Kyrgyzstan should declare itself neutral in the conflict.

In Kazakhstan, in a poll reported on 8 October by Channel 31 TV an unspecified majority of respondents condemned America's campaign in Afghanistan, and two-thirds feared the possibility of its setting off a third world war.

In Russia, a poll described on 18 October in a Eurasianet report showed 56 percent of Moscow residents opposed to America's campaign in Afghanistan.

WORLD LEADERS COURT GAS-RICH TURKMENISTAN ON TENTH ANNIVERSARY. Turkmenistan marked the tenth anniversary of its independence with a two-and-a-half-hour celebration on the main square of the capital Ashgabat on 27 October. The event featured a parade of servicemen and armored vehicles, a fly-by of military jets, and song-and-dance performances in traditional costume, and was watched by President Saparmurat Niyazov from the second-floor balcony of his golden-domed palace, Turkmen news sources reported. In remarks addressed to the nation, Niyazov claimed that the agricultural sector was booming and predicted that investment in the country's oil and gas sector would increase tenfold in the next 10 years to reach $10.4 billion. The president also boasted that 70 percent of the national budget was dedicated to social benefits including free water, gas, electricity, and salt. Meanwhile, citizens were given a 10-day paid holiday from 20 to 30 October, workers and pensioners received bonuses, and students got an extra stipend this month, RIA-Novosti reported.

According to Turkmen State News Service on 29 October, Turkmenistan has received $20.3 billion in investment since independence, with the bulk of state investment going into industrial development and most foreign investment devoted to construction projects.

In preparation for the anniversary, Niyazov -- who became the country's leader for life in 1999 and has established an all-pervasive personality cult -- was awarded the title "Hero of Turkmenistan" and the Order of the Golden Crescent for the fifth time by the supine People's Council for his political and social achievements, and for writing the "Ruhname," intended to be a "spiritual constitution" for the nation. Both the "Ruhname" and the president's standard are depicted on a 301-square-meter carpet produced in honor of the anniversary. The carpet has gone into "The Guinness Book of World Records," RIA-Novosti reported on 22 October. A further book expounding the president's thoughts, entitled "Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great: On Democracy and Human Rights," was reviewed in the newspaper "Neitralnii Turkmenistan" on 26 October. The review said the book demonstrated "our country's unwavering adherence to the fundamental principles of human rights and freedoms, democracy, humanism, and justice." A more common view of Niyazov, expressed by Amnesty International and other watchdog organizations, is that he runs the most repressive, authoritarian regime in the ex-USSR.

Nevertheless, traditional congratulatory telegrams from world leaders to Niyazov, read out on Turkmen TV and radio, seemed not merely perfunctory but actually warm -- an indication of how Turkmenistan is suddenly being courted with a view to the important role it could play in the region after the Taliban. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami expressed hopes in his telegram that "cooperation between our two countries will continue to expand." Russian President Vladimir Putin called Turkmenistan "our long-standing and reliable partner." U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell noted that "the attention of the entire world is focused on Turkmenistan and Central Asia" and said that American was "ready to assist Turkmenistan in its transition to democracy and a market economy and to develop its rich natural resources."

The "rich natural resources" in question are about 11 billion metric tons of oil and 5.5. trillion cubic meters of gas that Ashgabat is eager to export to European and Asian markets and Western firms are eager to extract, but whose most viable export route has been blocked by instability in Afghanistan. Since the prospect arose of a pro-Western government installed in Kabul and a generally more secure regional environment, energy cooperation with Turkmenistan is back on the table. Last week Niyazov again floated the idea of a trans-Afghanistan gas pipeline to visiting UN humanitarian chief Kenzo Oshima, "Neitralnii Turkmenistan" reported on 23 October. Earlier, the U.S. envoy on Caspian energy issues, Steven Mann, was in Ashgabat talking up the need to develop more routes for exporting Caspian gas and oil and promising "to fully restore dialogue" on energy issues, Turkmen State News Service reported on 19 October. The newspaper "The Guardian," reminding its readers on 23 October that both the U.S. president and vice president were sympathetic to American hydrocarbon interests, wondered to what extent the war in Afghanistan was really about oil and gas and concluded, "now comes the U.S. oil industry's big chance." It was notable how many articles and editorials in Middle Eastern newspapers last week equated the campaign against Afghanistan with the Gulf War and concluded that in both cases America�s dominant motivation was securing access to oil. On 30 October, "The International Herald Tribune" described American oil giant Unocal's pursuit in the 1990s of a project to run a $2-billion, 1,400-kilometer gas pipeline across Afghanistan from Central Asia to the coast of Pakistan, noting that it did not scruple to negotiate with the Taliban for the right to build the pipeline and was forced to abandon the project in 1998 due to bad publicity at home and the renewal of civil war in Afghanistan.

There could be a "spectacular change," and international interest in the pipeline would revive, if a stable Afghanistan emerges after the Taliban, the newspaper pointed out.

RELIGIOUS REPRESSION WORSE ON THE GROUND THAN ON PAPER. Neither Turkmenistan nor Uzbekistan were designated "countries of particular concern" in the U.S. State Department's annual report on international religious freedom issued on 26 October. It was apparent that Uzbekistan would not rate that status when the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom failed to recommend the country for censure to the Bush administration, an omission that the executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division, Elizabeth Andersen, called "utterly incomprehensible" at the time. According to a HRW report of 26 October, Turkmenistan "suppresses all forms of religious practice other than state-sanctioned Islam and Russian orthodoxy," and both Protestant sects and Hare Krishnas have been frequently harassed. The Keston News Service reported on 24 October that in the last few years hundreds of foreign citizens have been expelled from Turkmenistan for practicing non-state-sanctioned faiths, adding that 12 more Baptists are expected to be deported imminently. Also absent from the State Department's religious freedom report's blacklist was Saudi Arabia, which, like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, is a country on whose goodwill the United States depends for the success of its military and humanitarian operations in Afghanistan and post-Taliban strategy.

In the past week other Central Asian countries have cracked down on followers of non-state-sanctioned Islam in the form of the banned, Islamist Hizb-ut Tahrir party, which advocates the non-violent establishment of a Muslim caliphate in Central Asia. On 29 October, Asia-Plus reported that four Tajik and two Uzbek members of the banned group were sentenced to jail terms of up to 15 years in Tajikistan, charged with performing or abetting subversive activities by distributing their party's literature.

Eight more Hizb-ut Tahrir members were arrested in Kyrgyzstan's southern Osh Region, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz bureau reported on 24 October. The prisoners, all of whom were ethnic Uzbeks, were found in possession of 240 party leaflets.

On the same day, the Kyrgyz newspaper "Delo no" said there were 3,000 members of the party in Kyrgyzstan, with a hardened core of 500 people who had been lying low since 11 September but were preparing to stage anti-American protests in the country. The 3,000 conspirators are divided into five-member cells that are operationally separate and unknown to one another, the newspaper said, and their goal is to spread seditious literature, promote jihad, and "encourage religious hatred." This year 117 alleged Hizb-ut Tahrir conspirators have been arrested in Kyrgyzstan.

Keston News Service further reported on 23 October that a letter, leaked from the government's religious affairs agency in southern Tajikistan, expresses concern over the local activities of Christian churches, mainly Baptist and Catholic, and says that they should be placed under "the most stringent control."

Kazakh Commercial TV ran a self-congratulatory report on 30 October claiming that, in Washington's judgment, Kazakhstan was the only Central Asian state where the religious environment was improving.

Many Central Asia-watchers are becoming increasingly worried that Washington might be willing to overlook human rights abuses in the region to reward support for its anti-Taliban operations, as in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, or in anticipation of lucrative business deals in the future, as in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Meanwhile Reuters reported on 26 October that Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Russia are states that the Bush administration is trying to release from the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, whereby normal trade relations with the U.S. are dependent on the partner country demonstrating each year that it does not restrict emigration. Waiving the requirement would be a goodwill gesture, a U.S. official told Reuters. The official did not explain why the countries deserved a goodwill gesture, or whether they could otherwise meet the requirement for normal trade with the U.S.