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Central Asia Report: November 8, 2001

8 November 2001, Volume 1, Number 16

U.S. SEEKS NEW MILITARY RELATIONSHIP WITH TAJIKISTAN. With Uzbekistan proving reluctant to widen the scope of its military cooperation with the Pentagon, even as the focus of the U.S.-led campaign against Afghanistan shifts from air strikes to insertion of ground troops, the search for new partners and platforms in Central Asia brought U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Tajikistan on 3 November as part of a four-day, five-stop trip to Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and India.

On 30 October, chief of the U.S. Central Command General Tommy Franks visited the Uzbek capital Tashkent and reportedly tried to persuade President Islam Karimov to let Washington deploy more armed forces in Uzbekistan for military operations in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan publicly maintains that the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops stationed at the Hanabad air base, 140 kilometers from the Afghan border, are there only for search-and-rescue and humanitarian missions despite credible reports that U.S. Special Forces have launched operations against the Taliban from Uzbek territory. On 2 November Rumsfeld said that the number of special forces teams in Afghanistan should "go up by three or four times" and indicated that the Pentagon was looking for ways to insert them "as soon as humanly possible," AFP reported. There are believed to be between 100 and 200 such troops on the ground in Afghanistan already.

Nevertheless, Karimov refused Franks' request, ITAR-TASS reported on 31 October. It was against that background that Rumsfeld flew into the Tajik capital Dushanbe three days later.

Rumsfeld's talks with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and other top officials were "very productive," according to Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov, and yielded agreements on U.S. use of Tajik airspace, information sharing, and "cooperation between military personnel" in the antiterrorist campaign, Tajik radio reported on 4 November. But Rumsfeld had come specifically to request access to at least one Tajik air base to launch military operations against Afghanistan, Dow Jones International News reported on 3 November, citing a senior Pentagon official. In exchange, Washington was promising tens of millions of dollars in foreign aid, the news agency said.

Rumsfeld denied after the talks that a military agreement had been concluded, AP said. But clearly an understanding was reached, with Rumsfeld announcing that an "assessment team" would investigate the possibilities for further cooperation. Soon after Rumsfeld's departure, an American inspection team arrived in Dushanbe to look over air bases at Kulyab, Kurgan-Tyube (both in the south of the country), and at Khojand in the north, all of which are likely to be in a dilapidated state, AP and "The New York Times" reported on 4 November. Since at present U.S. air strikes must be launched from far-off Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea, or even the North American continent, access to Tajik airfields would accelerate and simplify sorties, the newspaper noted. The bases could also be used for helicopter-borne special-forces missions, delivery of humanitarian aid, or supplying the Northern Alliance with weapons and military materiel.

No sooner had the mission of the U.S. assessment team in Tajikistan been widely reported in world media than Tajik officials tried to hush it up. On 5 November, Chief of Staff of the Tajik Armed Forces Ramil Nadirov denied that any American experts were inspecting Tajik airfields, that any "legal foundation for implementing concrete projects" existed, or that "political decisions on the presence of a U.S. military contingent in Tajikistan" had been made, Interfax reported. Meanwhile on the same day a Pentagon spokesman freely acknowledged that American inspectors were in Tajikistan, and explained why (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 November 2001). But Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov was still tight-lipped on 6 November about the team's arrival, and would only say that Tajik airspace might be available for U.S. air strikes "if the situation in Afghanistan required it," RIA-Novosti reported.

Such circumspection on the Tajiks' part could just be the typical behavior of ex-Soviet officials accustomed to keeping their cards close to their chests. But it also likely reflects continuing uncertainty in Dushanbe about Russia's position as America encroaches on a country that Moscow considers within its special sphere of influence. There are some 18,000 Russian troops stationed in Tajikistan, and on 1 November the general in charge of Russian border guards in the country, Nikolai Reznichenko, re-emphasized that its protection was in Russian hands, promising that the 201st Motorized Rifle Division would defend the Afghan-Tajik frontier if it was threatened, RIA-Novosti reported. Consequently Rumsfeld, before flying to Dushanbe, was careful to touch base first with his Russian counterpart Sergei Ivanov on 3 November during an 8-hour stop-over in Moscow, where the U.S. bid for Tajik airfields was discussed and Ivanov gave it his blessing, "The New York Times" reported.

This represents a significant volte-face since September, when Ivanov categorically ruled out American use of ex-Soviet bases in Central Asia. However, among other shared interests, both Washingon and Moscow now appear anxious to deliver as many military supplies as possible to the Northern Alliance via Tajikistan before winter sets in. On 4 November, the Russia TV correspondent on the Afghan-Tajik border noted the green crates of Russian munitions being piled up for transport across the Pyanj River and commented that the hardware was old, but it worked.

UZBEKS REMAIN LOW-KEY ABOUT ROLE IN AFGHAN CAMPAIGN, MAKE DOMESTIC SECURITY A PRIORITY. Following his talks in Tajikistan, Rumsfeld arrived in Tashkent where he met President Islam Karimov and Defense Minister Qodir Ghulomov on 4 November, Russian and Western news agencies reported. If Rumsfeld made another pitch for Uzbek permission to beef up the American military presence in the country, apparently he failed, stating in a joint press conference with Ghulomov that there were "no changes" in October's agreement with Tashkent granting Washington the use of Hanabad airfield for humanitarian and search-and-rescue operations only. According to the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent's transcript of the press conference, Rumsfeld said the campaign against "terrorist networks" in Afghanistan was "proceeding at a pace that is showing measurable progress" but refused to confirm that his visit to Central Asia, the second in a month -- and more particularly his discussions in Dushanbe about the use of Tajik air bases -- heralded plans to move the military operation to a new level. He further refused to say from what locations U.S. Special Forces were entering Afghanistan, and then abruptly walked out of the room, AP reported.

Tashkent's reluctance to publicize the true extent of its military cooperation with America against the Taliban, or allow Washington to publicize it, comes from Karimov's fear of turning more of the country's Muslims against him, a EurasiaNet report of 5 November said. It added that opposition to his regime is said to be strongest in the Ferghana Valley, traditionally a conservative stronghold. Security in the valley is reportedly so tight at the moment that, at least on the Uzbek side, it is swarming with police, freedom of movement has been severely hampered to a point where farmers cannot get their products to market, cross-border trade with Kyrgyzstan has almost stopped, and the scarcity of some goods this winter could cause inflation that the impoverished region can ill afford. In a related development, the Uzbek opposition Birlik website reported on 4 November that last week's government-imposed price-hikes of up to 30 percent on staples like flour, meat, and sugar, as well as on commodities like gas and electricity, were causing widespread discontent in Uzbekistan, any public manifestations of which the police were swift to suppress.

Security also took precedence over humanitarian concerns on Uzbekistan's southern border until late October, when the Uzbek government finally agreed to let the UN use the Termez river port, which was closed in 1998, to deliver assistance to Afghanistan by barge. UNICEF, the humanitarian agency, said on 5 November that the first aid shipments via Termez across the Amu Darya River should start within the next week, and that high-protein biscuits, water containers, clothes, and blankets were already being flown into Termez airfield and stockpiled in warehouses, Reuters reported. But the Uzbeks still refuse on security grounds to reopen the so-called Friendship Bridge in Termez that spans the river and used to represent the main crossing point between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, the news agency said. According to some American newspapers, Rumsfeld visited Tashkent in part to urge the immediate reopening of the bridge, which was closed four years ago when the Taliban took over the Afghan side, but Uzbek officials told the U.S. defense chief that until the Taliban are routed the bridge will stay closed.

Furthermore, Karimov remains wary of being seen to be cooperating too closely with America against Afghanistan in the wake of Taliban threats to retaliate against Uzbekistan for aiding and abetting the campaign against them. Meanwhile the terrorist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has close ties with Osama bin Laden�s Al-Qaeda network and has bases in Afghanistan, is looking to move back into the Tajik Pamir mountains to stage new attacks on both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan such as it mounted in the summers of 1999 and 2000, the newspaper "Vechernii Bishkek" reported on 2 November, quoting Tajik military and intelligence sources. IMU leader Juma Namongoni, now a member of the Taliban senior command, is hoping to assemble a new coalition of his own 9,000 fighters, who include Muslim Chechens and Uighurs, Taliban gunmen, and disgruntled Islamist warlords in Tajikistan left over from the 1992-97 Tajik civil war, for the purposes of launching jihad against Uzbekistan with a view to establishing an Islamic caliphate in the Ferghana Valley, the newspaper said.

AN EXTRAORDINARY PERSONAL ATTACK ON THE AUTOCRAT OF ASHGABAT� Turkmenistan's recently sacked ambassador to China, 52-year-old Boris Shikhmuradov, who also served as Turkmen Foreign Minister from 1993 to 2000, spectacularly broke ranks with President Saparmurat Niyazov on 1 November by issuing a press statement from Moscow in which he released a torrent of invective against his former boss. Shikhmuradov accused the president of "pure hypocrisy," a lack of the elementary norms of political and diplomatic behavior," "cruelty toward the people," and running an authoritarian regime that spread "an atmosphere of fear" while applying "the most hateful methods of Soviet-style administration." "The situation in my country has forced me to make a decision not only to improve it for the better, but to stand in open opposition to the policies of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov," he said (see "RFE/RL Weekly Magazine," 3 November 2001).

Shikhmuradov, who was to fly from China to the Turkmen capital Ashgabat for Turkmenistan's tenth-anniversary festivities, went to Moscow instead where he is said to have checked into a hospital for an unidentified illness.

� AND NIYAZOV RETALIATES. The day after unleashing his broadside, Shikhmuradov was indicted by the Prosecutor-General's Office in Ashgabat on a host of charges, the newspaper website reported on 2 November. The charges, dating back to 1994 when he was deputy prime minister, include abuse of power, embezzlement, and illegal weapons possession. Shikhmuradov is accused of robbing the state of $25 million in property by illegally selling five Su-17 military jets to Russia, and of stealing 9,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles and ammunition worth a total of $2.5 million. Furthermore, the Turkmen prosecutor-general has demanded Shikhmuradov's extradition from Russia, the Internet newspaper said.

All in all, the charges against Shikhmuradov are remarkably similar to those brought this summer against former Kazakh Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who emerged as the Kazakh president's major political rival and maintained that the accusations against him were politically motivated. Kazhegeldin was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison. Shikhmuradov's attack on Niyazov, and the battery of charges leveled at him in return, seem now to position him as Niyazov's primary (and maybe only) credible political opponent. All year rumors have been circulating of a possible coup against Niyazov -- whose erratic rule and megalomania are also sources of growing worry to Russia and the United States, a EurasiaNet report noted on 2 November, given both countries' interest in working with Turkmenistan to develop its hydrocarbon resources after a stable, post-Taliban Afghanistan has been established. In fact a major power may well be quietly backing Shikhmuradov, the report suggested, and conceivably Russia would like to try to depose Niyazov and replace him with a figure more congenial to Moscow's interests.

On 5 November the website reported that, according to the Russian Energy Ministry, a Russian-Turkmen agreement on cooperation in the gas sector should be signed by the end of November. In line with the agreement, the Russian energy company Gazprom is to purchase up to 30 billion cubic meters of Turkmen natural gas annually, the news source said.

Although Shikhmuradov's press statement hinted at the possibility of a popular revolt against Niyazov, he told the Keston News Service, in an interview reported on 6 November, that the Turkmen National Security Committee (formerly the KGB) had added 10,000 officers to its numbers this year and painted a picture of a citizenry under stifling government control. "The absence of freedom, democracy, and religious liberty" blocked all avenues to express discontent peacefully, and thus made for "a great danger for the potential appearance of terrorism," Shikhmuradov said, but simultaneously implied that Turkmen were too focused on their own day-to-day problems to mount any organized opposition to Niyazov.

Meanwhile, Niyazov's capricious management style was on view last week as Turkmen television on 30 October broadcast a meeting between the president and members of the Turkmen diplomatic corps. In quick succession, he fired the ambassador to the United Arab Emirates for nepotism; accused the ambassadors to Turkey and India of laziness and lining their own pockets; told the ambassador to Russia that he was too ingratiating and indecisive; announced that the Turkmen Embassy in Moldova should be moved to Romania; called the ambassador to Britain ineffective and unworthy; and told the ambassador to Uzbekistan that he seemed clueless of developments going on around him. Since June, Niyazov has peremptorily sacked four government ministers, at least five deputy governors of provinces, and the mayor of Ashgabat.

Shikhmuradov himself was fired from his position as ambassador to China on 30 October, two days before he launched his attack on Niyazov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 November 2001).