The Kremlin opposes the use of staging areas in Central Asia for U.S.-led NATO retaliatory strikes against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. U.S. officials had sounded out Moscow about that possibility in the wake of the September 11 terrorist assault on America. According to military planners, those staging areas would be indispensable to a successful antiterrorist operation.
To justify its refusal, Moscow has claimed openly that Central Asia constitutes its own sphere of influence. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov (President Vladimir Putin’s closest associate) made a declaration to this effect on September 14, “Central Asia is within the zone of competence of the CIS Collective Security Treaty. I see no reasons whatsoever, even hypothetical, for any suppositions about conducting NATO operations from territories of Central Asian countries, members of the CIS” (ORT Television, Vremya program, September 14; Itar-Tass, September 14). The statement’s first part is false inasmuch as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are not members of the CIS Collective Security Treaty. The second part speaks on behalf of the CIS countries and is thus in line with Moscow’s practice, particularly that of the Defense Ministry.
Tajikistan had been uncertain about the line from Moscow. Only hours before Sergei Ivanov’s statement, Tajikistan’s Prime Minister Okil Okilov declared–in answer to press queries–that his government might consider an American request to provide air corridors for strikes against terrorist groups in Afghanistan. While evading a straight answer, Okilov was certain of one thing only: Dushanbe would “obligatorily consult with Moscow first.” That done, a Tajik Foreign Affairs Ministry statement on September 16 rejected “mass media claims that Tajikistan would make its territory available to the U.S. military for strikes against Taliban military bases and the international terrorists entrenched in Afghanistan. Those claims are totally without foundation.” The ministry claimed to fear that American strikes would cause an influx of refugees into Tajikistan (Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostey, Interfax, September 14; Dushanbe Radio, NTV, AFP, September 16). The argument is bogus, because the likely targets are in Pushtun areas very distant from Tajikistan, and because the Tajik authorities as well as the Russian border troops have meanwhile successfully interdicted the movement of even Afghan Tajik refugees from inter-Afghan fighting along the Tajik border.
In contrast, Uzbekistan is offering its full support to the United States. In a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush, made public on September 13, President Islam Karimov spoke of “combining efforts to fight terrorism.” On September 16, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that Washington “will be talking to the Uzbek authorities” about that possibility. That same day, Foreign Affairs Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov declared that Uzbekistan is open to “any form of antiterrorist cooperation with the United States,” including the possible use of Uzbek territory for strikes on terrorist camps in Afghanistan. With reference to Sergei Ivanov’s warning, Kamilov stated that Uzbekistan is not obliged to “coordinate foreign policy with anyone,” and that Tashkent’s top priority is the “liquidation of terrorists, to make certain that the world would not see a terrorist resurgence.” The following day, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Bahadir Umarov confirmed the readiness to discuss all forms of antiterrorism cooperation with Washington, including possible deployment of U.S. forces in Uzbekistan.
Meanwhile, at the opening of the UN General Assembly, Uzbekistan has resubmitted its initiative for setting up a UN-sponsored antiterrorism center. Tashkent had unsuccessfully submitted that initiative at the summits of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1999 and of the UN in 2000. The proposal is partly designed to limit Russia’s latitude to manipulate in its own interest the antiterrorism issue in Central Asia (Zhahon news agency, Uzbek Television, September 13-15; Washington Post, AFP, September 17; The Guardian, September 18).
On September 14, President Saparmurat Niazov responded positively to an American proposal for Turkmenistan to support retaliatory strikes, “if organizers of the terrorist assault prove to be in Afghanistan.” U.S. envoy Eric Schultz in Ashgabat told the international media that he had asked for “Turkmenistan support to a coalition that the United States is assembling to fight the war against terrorism. The president pledged his support for such a coalition and said he would fully support the United States.” A presidential administration official confirmed for Russian media the president’s readiness to consider joining such a coalition. Turkmen state television quoted Niazov as adding a proposal that the coalition’s goals, mandate, procedures, and missions be clearly defined, and that it function under UN aegis (Turkmen Television, September 13-14; AP, Interfax, Itar-Tass, September 14).
Turkmenistan’s stance, however, is likely to prove less firm than Uzbekistan’s. Niazov will have to reconcile his steps with the status of Turkmenistan as a permanently neutral country–a status officially registered at the UN that has helped keep Turkmenistan out of Russian-led security structures. Furthermore, and uniquely in Central Asia, Turkmenistan has maintained consistently good and functional relations with Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities, as well as pro-forma relations with the Afghan opposition. Niazov now seems willing to turn away from the Taliban if they are proven complicit in the assault on the United States. Yet, with Turkmenistan sandwiched geoeconomically between Russia and Iran, Niazov will find it difficult to ignore those countries’ stance if both of them object to Turkmenistan’s joining an American-led coalition.
Kazakhstan seems to have moved from initial hesitation to a firmer stand on the side of Washington. On September 14, when asked about the possibility of granting an air corridor to American-led NATO forces, Prime Minister Kasymzhomart Tokaev told Russian journalists that carrying out antiterrorist air strikes is less important than the goal of avoiding an exodus of refugees from Afghanistan. Tokaev was speaking at a joint briefing with Okilov and possibly deferring to him. That same day, Sergei Ivanov had ruled out Moscow’s consent to American antiterrorism operations in Central Asia. But, on September 15, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev visited the U.S. embassy and declared publicly afterward: “The terrorists and their sponsors should be punished. Kazakhstan is prepared to support U.S. antiterrorism measures with all the means at Kazakhstan’s disposal. A request has not been received, but if such a request is made, we shall provide everything necessary for punishing the terrorists” (Habar Television, Habar news agency, AFP, September 15-16).
The Kremlin appears displeased at the countries that are willing to cooperate with U.S. forces in Central Asia. On September 17, Putin made phone calls to the presidents of Azerbaijan and the five Central Asian countries, and urgently dispatched Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo for talks on the “international situation now developing.” Putin urged the presidents to “act in the CIS framework, and use CIS bodies for consultations and decisions,” on issues relating to antiterrorism and to the situation in Afghanistan (Itar-Tass, Interfax, Turan, September 17).
The three countries bordering on Afghanistan possess military infrastructure capable of supporting strikes by tactical aviation and the landing of airborne forces in Afghanistan, should America and NATO decide to embark on such operations. Uzbekistan has major bases for aviation and armor forces outside Tashkent and near Termez on the Afghan border. Turkmenistan boasts the region’s largest air base at Mari, some 60 kilometers from the Afghan border. Tajikistan possesses military airfields outside Dushanbe, fit for strategic aviation, and at Parkhar near the Afghan border, in President Imomali Rahmonov’s political fief Kulob, where smaller planes and helicopters shuttle to and from northern Afghanistan. They carry military supplies for the anti-Taliban forces and, often, with drug loads for the officially tolerated Tajik criminal groups.
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