On October 18-22, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer visited, for the first time in this capacity, the five Central Asian countries. He conferred with the head of state, the defense minister, and other top officials in each of the five capitals. The visit’s main goals were threefold: demonstrating NATO’s understanding of Central Asia’s importance to Euro-Atlantic security, encouraging the region’s countries to intensify bilateral cooperation with the alliance in the Partnership framework, and obtaining transit passage rights for NATO forces to Afghanistan via Central Asian countries.
Ambassador Robert Simmons, newly appointed as the NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the South Caucasus and Central Asia, accompanied de Hoop Scheffer on the visit. Simmons, a U.S. diplomat, will be based in Brussels and travel regularly to the region. NATO will also station one liaison officer in Central Asia and one in the South Caucasus. The alliance’s summit in Istanbul in June had decided on these arrangements. They signify a late start for NATO in Central Asia; a start that needs to be made more credible by treating the South Caucasus and Central Asia as distinct regions and by stationing a liaison mission, rather than a lone officer, in either region.
The visit occasioned a review of implementation of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP), Planning and Review Process (PARP), and Individual Partnership Action Plans (IPAP) programs with the Central Asian countries. These programs, tailored to each partner country’s circumstances, aim to assist Central Asian militaries to become increasingly interoperable with NATO, offering them the possibility of participating in NATO-led operations. The programs include joint exercises for peacekeeping troops, officer training, reform of military establishments, preparedness for natural disasters and calamities, conversion of military industry to civilian production, English-language education for military personnel, and the NATO-funded Virtual Silk Highway providing Internet connectivity for the countries of Central Asia.
In Afghanistan, NATO intends to deploy part of its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the west of that country, particularly in the Herat region near the Iranian border. To sustain ISAF more effectively, the alliance seeks lines of communication and corresponding transit agreements with all five Central Asian countries. ISAF, operating since December 2001, and under NATO command since 2003, has thus far been confined to northern Afghanistan. Its troop strength has been augmented from 6,500 to 8,500 for the duration of Afghanistan’s elections. De Hoop Scheffer made clear during the visit that NATO forces will stay in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, as long as necessary for providing stability and ensuring that the country does not again become a failed state. However, he ruled out any role for ISAF in suppressing the pervasive opium cultivation in its area of responsibility; he urged the Afghan state and society to take action in that regard.
In Kazakhstan, de Hoop Scheffer favorably assessed the performance of that country’s military unit operating in Iraq. A participant in the PfP program since 1994, Kazakhstan recently appointed a Military Representative to NATO Headquarters. De Hoop Scheffer proposed upgrading the relationship from PfP to IPAP (Khabar, October 19).
In Turkmenistan, President Saparmurat Niyazov agreed to begin negotiations toward a military transit agreement for NATO forces bound for Afghanistan, albeit taking into account Turkmenistan’s status of permanent neutrality. “Our region is a very complicated one, with such countries as Afghanistan and Iran. Conflicts may break out, and NATO’s role is to prevent them. We are not and have never been worried by NATO’s enlargement,” Niyazov declared. Turkmenistan has been providing transit passage for U.S. and allied humanitarian relief cargos to Afghanistan since late 2001. It has also been delivering electricity and liquefied natural gas, and the government expects to increase such deliveries. De Hoop Scheffer commended Turkmenistan’s contribution to maintaining stability in northern Afghanistan (Turkmen government website, Turkmen Television, October 20, 21).
Uzbekistan had submitted its proposals to NATO on a military transit agreement ahead of de Hoop Scheffer’s visit. Uzbekistan has provided regular passage to Afghanistan since early 2002 through the Termez transit point, and it is now considering opening a second transit point. It also hosts U.S. forces at the Khanabad air base as part of the Enduring Freedom operation that is unrelated to NATO’s ISAF. De Hoop Scheffer remarked on Uzbekistan’s constructive role in northern Afghanistan and Uzbek participation — “more active than that of other countries in the region” — in NATO’s PfP program; that relationship is now being upgraded to IPAP. He also discussed with President Islam Karimov a proposal to set up in Tashkent a training center on combating contemporary threats and challenges to security. While in Uzbekistan, de Hoop Scheffer cautioned the Central Asian countries, “Terrorism finds a breeding ground where basic freedoms and the rule of law are lacking or deficient” (Uzbek Television, October 20).
Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akaev listed three goals of his country’s cooperation with NATO: “ensuring regional security, national security, and national development.” Kyrgyzstan joined PfP in 1994 and PARP as of 2004, with a view to reforming its forces. De Hoop Scheffer’s visit resulted in an agreement to set up a training center for military alpine rescuers, which will in a follow-up stage be turned into a center for training peacekeeping troops (Kyrgyz Radio, Kabar, October 19). U.S.-led coalition forces at the Manas air base near Bishkek are a component of the Enduring Freedom operation, unrelated to NATO.
Tajikistan signed the agreement on ISAF transit during de Hoop Scheffer’s visit. Although it was the last Central Asian country to enter into PfP with NATO (in 2002), Tajikistan has become the first to grant transit passage rights to allied forces en route to Afghanistan (Avesta, October 20; Tajik Television, October 21). In the aftermath of 9/11, Tajikistan allowed U.S. and French forces to use its airspace and airfields in bilateral agreements. The agreement with NATO collectively is a significant step forward.
In his public remarks during the visit, de Hoop Scheffer duly acknowledged Russia’s role in regional security without emphasizing that factor. At each stop he briefly noted that NATO does not compete with Russia; that Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which host Russian military bases, are fully within their sovereign right to choose their partners; and that those Russian bases do not impinge either on NATO-Russia cooperation or on NATO’s cooperation with Central Asian countries.