Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 88

According to reports which took time to surface, the April 21 meeting in Tashkent of four Central Asian presidents discussed the possibility of carrying out “preventive” operations against “terrorist bases” in the region. Such operations had also been considered at the Dushanbe meeting of Security Council Secretaries of four Central Asian countries and Russia earlier in the month. The method primarily considered is strikes by Uzbek and Russian fighter-bomber planes against the “extremists'” sanctuaries in central Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan. The reports suggest that Uzbekistan agitates for this approach, with Kyrgyzstan supporting preventive strikes against the Uzbek insurgents supposedly based on the Tajik side of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Tajikistan seems to favor preventive strikes on Afghan territory, but strongly opposes them on its own territory. Kazakhstan is not directly affected by the controversy. The Russian position seems ambiguous (see below).

At the Tashkent meeting, Tajikistan came under heavy Uzbek and Kyrgyz criticism for tolerating–as it did last year–the presence of Uzbek Islamist leader Juma Namangani’s armed detachment on Tajik territory. Dushanbe’s tolerance stems not only from weakness, but also from a desire to create problems for Uzbekistan, whose perceived hegemonial aspirations are equally resented in Tajikistan by the secular government and by Islamic opposition circles. The government’s duplicity, however, carries the risk of exposing Tajikistan to retaliatory Uzbek strikes.

After attempting to deny the fact of Namangani’s presence, senior Tajik officials accompanied by the former opposition’s commander in chief, Mirzo Zio, traveled last week to Namangani’s base in the Tavildara district and entered into negotiations with him. They hope to persuade him to relocate to Afghanistan, as he did–for a price, which Zio helped negotiate–last November after retreating from Kyrgyzstan. On that occasion, Russian border troops facilitated the rebels’ relocation from Tajikistan to Afghan territory under Taliban control. That discreet move proved that Moscow wants Uzbekistan to remain insecure, and its leadership in need of Russian assistance against its adversaries. Officials in Central Asia estimate the current strength of Namangani’s detachment at 400 men in Tajikistan and some 1,500 in the northern Afghan town of Kunduz; the latter figure is believed to include some family dependents of the fighters.

President Islam Karimov’s May 1-3 visit to India produced more warnings of Uzbek air strikes at Uzbek rebel sanctuaries in Afghanistan and indeed at Taliban targets; Karimov usually blurs the distinction between the two. He appeared to seek Indian political support for such strikes in consideration of India’s rivalry with Pakistan, the Taliban’s main ally. Apparently with similar considerations in mind, Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council Secretary, Bolot Januzakov, told an international conference in Bishkek on “Democracy and Religion” that the Pakistani-supported Talibs pose a terrorist threat to both Central Asia and India.

Russia’s stance, however important to the ultimate decision, is less than crucial inasmuch as Uzbekistan possesses its own capabilities for air strikes, and tested those capabilities last year against Islamist insurgents in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Russian officials, while not discussing the use of force on the territories of CIS countries, do consider using Russian forces based in Tajikistan for preventive strikes against the Talibs in Afghanistan. Yet various Russian officials seem to speak with different and sometimes contradictory voices on this matter. General Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the General Staff of Russia’s armed forces, warned publicly on April 28 that preventive strikes may be necessary because “the religious extremists will almost certainly attack Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan again this year” and those two countries would be unable to cope. Kvashnin supervised last week a command and staff exercise of unusual magnitude, involving the Volga military district command and the 201st Russian division, which is based in Tajikistan and subordinated to that military district. Scenarios considered during the exercise included: aviation and artillery strikes on Afghanistan by Russian forces based in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; “preventive destruction of terrorist bases in Afghanistan” by Russian and Central Asian land troops; and flying in Russian reinforcements in emergency situations. Kvashnin declared that any decision to use force would be made collectively by the presidents of Russia and the Central Asian countries concerned.

Other Russian officials, both civilian and military, tend to underscore the fact that the Talibs and Central Asian insurgents lack the force to mount any large-scale military operations, and that the threat they pose should be handled by internal security agencies of the Central Asian countries and Russia. That seems to be the approach of Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry and also of the Russian border troops command, which is responsible for more than half of the Russian troops stationed in Tajikistan. That command in both Moscow and Dushanbe insists that it has the situation on the Afghan border fully under control. The Kazakh border troops’ command seems to share that assessment, as reflected in the steady reduction of the Kazakh contingent on the Tajik-Afghan border; that contingent is down to a single company this spring. Even the 201st Russian division, the mainstay of Russian military forces in Central Asia, is currently being subjected to manpower cuts due to transfers to the Chechen front. While personnel is being transferred out, the division’s combat hardware remains intact, stored in Tajikistan for possible use in contingencies.

Yet Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry and Security Council officials increasingly accuse the Taliban authorities of hosting Chechen rebels and “international terrorist training camps” from which Islamic fighters are being sent to Chechnya. Unsubstantiated to date, those accusations may be used to justify a Russian-led “antiterrorist” intervention in Afghanistan, should the internal situation in Russia require some military distraction in the form of military action abroad (Itar-Tass, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 26-28; Asia-Plus, April 27-28; Tashkent Radio, Uzbek Television, May 1-2; Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Mashhad), April 25-26; see the Fortnight in Review, April 14; the Monitor, March 14, 30, April 6, 20, 25).