Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 215

Presidents Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan met on November 16-17 in Astana to assess the implications of the Taliban reverses and the gains of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Both presidents underscored the urgency of forming a representative Afghan central government that would reflect the Pushtun share of the country’s population. Significantly, Karimov now insists on that point while, at the same time, backing the Uzbek element of the Northern Alliance in the northern provinces adjacent to Uzbekistan.

In Astana at the concluding joint briefing, Karimov played down the military merits of the Northern Alliance’s Tajik element and explicitly criticized its entry into Kabul. “If someone advised them to take, or rather enter Kabul, [the advice] was a mistake,” Karimov added, alluding to Moscow. He went on to urge the inclusion of Pushtun defectors from the Taliban into a broadly representative Afghan government. Karimov pointed out that Pushtun tribes themselves are now abandoning the Taliban and taking over province after province. To reinforce the argument, he overstated the Pushtun share of Afghanistan’s population while reminding the northern groups that they form only “minorities.” “We want a legitimate government to be formed that would live in good harmony with all its neighbors.”

Nazarbaev supported Karimov’s position regarding the formation of a representative Afghan government. Both expressed a strong interest in Afghanistan’s potential as a transit route for their landlocked countries to Pakistan and the open seas. To make that possible, they called for stabilizing Afghanistan politically, with international assistance, and restructuring its economy.

This agenda dovetails with that of the American-led coalition but differs significantly from that of Moscow and its current Afghan proteges. Russia and the dominant element in the Northern Alliance rule out the participation in government by Pushtuns who collaborated with the Taliban in the past. This stance is designed to ensure a disproportionate role for Afghan Tajiks in the government, freeze out Pakistan, reduce American and Western influence, and maximize that of Russia and Iran in the post-Taliban Afghanistan.

This calculation is not primarily inspired by transit and pipeline issues, but does have a bearing on them. Moscow and Tehran oppose creating transit routes and pipeline corridors from Central Asia via Afghanistan to Pakistan. Such projects can be blocked indefinitely if the government in Kabul is beholden to Russia and Tehran, or if it fails to qualify for international recognition, or if Afghanistan splinters de facto along north-south lines.

In Moscow on Monday (November 19), U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow addressed the differences between the United States and Russia on the issue of Pushtun representation. While both governments agree, he said, on excluding the Taliban “as a group” from the Afghan government, Vershbow pointed out that Pushtun individuals who have broken with Taliban ideology should be eligible for government roles.

In Tajikistan, President Imomali Rahmonov seeks to use the present constellation to reduce dependency on Russia by developing relations with the United States. Rahmonov, Moscow’s sole real ally in Central Asia for almost a decade, has offered military bases to the United States in return for substantial aid commitments from it, Japan and most recently Turkey. On November 8, while receiving Turkish President Ahmed Necdet Sezer in Dushanbe, Rahmonov declared: “Pursuant to the U.S. president’s request, we are offering three airfields. If the American experts say they want Kulob, we will give them Kulob. If they say Kurgan-Tobe, they will have Kurgan Tobe. If they want Hujand, they will have Hujand. They may even have two airfields” (Western and Russian news agencies, November 8-9).

On November 16, Moscow reacted with an oblique warning in the government’s official newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta: “Another U.S. military base may appear on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Uzbekistan was the first. Now it is Tajikistan’s turn. The United States has admitted that it has found common ground with President Imomali Rahmonov regarding the use of three airfields. The republic’s leadership is also admitting, reluctantly, that such talks have been taking place. There is talk that the Americans may conduct combat operations from such bases. The U.S. bases may remain for a long time. Right now it is hard to tell which way they will turn their guns, once they have finished off Usama bin-Laden. If U.S. soldiers do come, it will not be easy to see them off.”

Such broadsides show that the Central Asian presidents have taken real risks in supporting the American-led coalition to the extent they have, and that they regard this relationship as a long-term one, beyond the immediate exigencies of the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan (Uzbek television, Kazakh television, Zhahon, November 17, 19; Interfax, November 19; Rossiiskaya Gazeta, November 16; see the Monitor, November 1, 6, 9, 12, 16, 19).