Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 212

The collapse of the Taliban/al-Qaida front in parts of Afghanistan and the likelihood of a protracted unconventional conflict has strengthened the rationale for deploying Western forces under U.S. leadership in Central Asia. By all evidence, NATO allies are the only ones both able and willing to join America in this particular foxhole.

On November 14 in Tashkent, British Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon held talks with President Islam Karimov, Defense Minister Kadyr Ghulomov and other Uzbek officials. In a public statement, Hoon underscored that “the logical conclusion of the antiterrorist operation being carried out by the United States and its allies should be the destruction of the global terrorist network”–a goal that clearly implies a long-haul effort.

The discussions opened prospects for British assistance to the Uzbek military. While clearly second to the United States in terms of assistance capabilities, Britain is willing, according to Hoon, to provide some types of equipment and training for Uzbek forces, establish regular military-to-military contacts with Uzbekistan, and teach English to Uzbek officers.

Britain already has a small number of special troops operating in the theater. The issue of stationing them in Uzbekistan “was not considered,” Hoon said in his public statement. Hoon’s was the first visit by a British defense secretary to Uzbekistan in the ten years since the country became independent. As such, the visit and its planned consequences signal the end of benign neglect of Central Asia by the West European allies of the United States. (Uzbek Television, Zhahon, November 14-15).

In a parallel development, French Defense Minister Alain Richard has announced his country’s intention to deploy a small number of special troops to Afghanistan. The official announcements are phrased to suggest that the troops would carry out both military and humanitarian activities. They are to be stationed in the Tajik-inhabited area of northeastern Afghanistan (AFP, November 13-14).

The choice of location reflects long-standing political sympathies enjoyed in France by the local commander Ahmad-Shah Masood, whose prestige in his native area–and not only there–outlasts his death. The French-speaking Masood had paid a highly publicized visit to Paris and to European Union headquarters in Brussels only weeks before al-Qaida terrorists assassinated him in September in northern Afghanistan.

Turkey, whose armed forces are among the strongest in NATO, is sending ninety commandos to the theater as its first contribution to the war effort. In their comments accompanying that decision, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit and other officials have cited their country’s links with Afghanistan during the presidency of Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s and 1930s, when Turkey sent officers to train the Afghan army and teachers to establish secular education in Afghanistan (Anatolia news agency, The Turkish Daily News, November 12-13).

Although the place of the Turkish commandos’ deployment has not yet been disclosed, it seems likely to be the Uzbek-inhabited area of Afghanistan. Turkey is in a position to build on its earlier contacts both with Uzbekistan and with the Afghan Uzbek commander Abdurashid Dostum. Underlying those contacts is the intense secularism common to the Turkish military and political establishment, to Uzbekistan’s leading elite and to Dostum himself. When the Taliban–together with local rivals of Dostum–crushed his local Uzbek troops and drove him into exile in 1998, Dostum found a haven in Turkey, whence he returned this year to Afghanistan.

On the Turkish side, moreover, policy toward Central Asia is to some extent inspired by a sense of Turkic solidarity. In Afghanistan that sense embraces not only the Uzbeks but also the Shiite Hazara, who are considered descendants of Turkic warriors, settled in an area close to that of the Uzbeks. At present, Dostum’s forces and those of the Shiites are allied, having jointly captured the strategic city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Their alliance is fragile, however, because the Shiites are highly susceptible to Iranian influence. Iran, moreover, wants a disproportionate role for the Shiites in the future government in Kabul. That factor can in turn deepen the existing differences between Iran and Uzbekistan, as well as setting their respective Afghan proteges at odds with each other. In this context, Turkish engagement both with the Uzbeks and with the Shiites can play an especially constructive role, not least by narrowing the scope for Iranian mischief-making.

Even before the collapse of the Taliban/al-Qaida northern front, Uzbekistan was seeking a special status for the Uzbek-inhabited area of Afghanistan. Dostum is now emerging as the likely political leader of that potential autonomy. After his forces swept the area, Dostum has assumed the title of Vice-President of Afghanistan and has appointed political and military officials with quasi-ministerial sounding titles. A privileged relationship with Turkey can sustain that process. Alternatively, Dostum can leverage that position into a major role in the central government of a unitary Afghanistan (Radio Balkh [Mazar-e-Sharif] monitored by the BBC, General News Service, November 13-14).