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Dateline: Role of Central Asian States - 2001-11-03

On his trip to Central and South Asia, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Because of their strategic location, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the other Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union may play a significant role in the war against terrorism. They also will be a critical factor in the campaign against Afghanistan's ruling Taleban. In this Dateline report, Judith Latham examines the "Role of the Central Asian States" in that war effort.

Three of the states of central Asia Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, share a border with Afghanistan. Kazakhstan is home to the vast oil and gas reserves of the Caspian region. And Kyrgyzstan, like Uzbekistan and Tajikstan, has been subject to the activities of Islamic religious activists which thratens to destabilize the country. All five former Soviet states have faced enormous economic and political challenges in the decade since they received their independence.

Martha Brill Olcott, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, is a specialist in Central Asia. She is co-director of the Project on Ethnicity and Politics at Carnegie's Moscow Center. Ms. Olcott says Uzbekistan plays a critical role in the war on terrorism because it provides the "only direct land entrée into Afghanistan." And last week U.S. General Tommy Franks, who commands the military campaign in Afghanistan, met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Ms. Olcott says.

OLCOTT: If the Northern Alliance takes control of Masar-i-Sharif in particular, then the land corridor into Afghanistan will really prove to be critical. Now it's mostly a staging area, but it's very important to have a land staging area close to Afghanistan, given the fact that the central command is largely sea-based.

LATHAM: And the Central Asian states are all land-locked.

OLCOTT Including Afghanistan. And traditionally one would have entered Afghanistan through Pakistan.

LATHAM: Which is politically impossible.

OLCOTT: Right. Which would really be the end of the Pakistani government at this point.

LATHAM: What are the benefits to both the United States and Uzbekistan with respect to what each hopes to gain from their "special relationship" and from their current military cooperation?

OLCOTT: Potentially, Uzbekistan could use this opportunity for increased military as well as economic assistance. So, it gives President Karimov a second chance to reform his economy. It is also likely to lead to increased military assistance to modernize his army and make it completely independent of the Russian command and control system. What the U-S gets from this in the long run is a question. Certainly, right now it's critical that we have this relationship.

LATHAM: You didn't say anything about the "Islamists" in Uzbekistan.

OLCOTT: The Islamists have been subject to a lot of political repression in Uzbekistan, and that's not a basis of friendship with the U-S. The U.S. policy is very explicit that it is targeting Islamic terrorism not Islamic fundamentalism. But not everybody being arrested in Uzbekistan is advocating terror. There are people who are fundamentalist who are peaceful. And this is a challenge before every Muslim society in which there is a [religious] "revival." When people who are not themselves believers try to regulate the community of believers, believers get angry. And that's precisely what is happening in Uzbekistan. LATHAM: Does it seem to you that the cooperation between the United States and Uzbekistan might have any effect on human rights issues?

OLCOTT: I would argue that in the long term, this could really lead to a healthier U.S.-Uzbek relationship, if increased economic assistance is forthcoming. I think eventually a political liberalization will occur and that in turn will lead to less tolerance by the Uzbek polity of these human rights abuses.

LATHAM: Tajikistan shares a much longer border with Afghanistan than Uzbekistan does. What role do you think Dushanbe might play in the war against the Taleban in the months to come?

OLCOTT: If Masar-i-Sharif is liberated by the Northern Alliance and if they create some sort of provisional government in this part of the country, then I would expect Tajikistan would play a role.

LATHAM: What roles do you see for Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan in the war against terrorism?

OLCOTT: Unless there is a serious effort to restart a discussion about building a pipeline that goes from Ashgabad [the capital of Turkmenistan] to Pakistan and on to India, Turkmenistan is going to try to do as little as possible. Provide access to its airspace for humanitarian assistance, but not play a direct role. If and when the Taleban falls, Turkmenistan will try to influence the situation in the Herat area. Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are indirectly affected by events, and so far they've not been given any opportunity for a direct role.

LATHAM: The borders now are closed with Afghanistan. What humanitarian concerns are there about the possibility of refugees coming over those borders?

OLCOTT: The refugees pose the greatest short-term security threat to the Central Asian states. Before September 11, there were 10,000 to 15,000 people on an island on the Panj River between Tajikistan and Afghanistan that the Tajiks weren't letting in. But that population was already in bad shape in terms of malnutrition and disease.

LATHAM: A million people in Tajikistan were potentially facing starvation from drought.

OLCOTT: The possibility of the refugee population coming in is more than Tajikistan can handle. So, the Tajiks don't have much choice other than to keep their borders closed.

LATHAM: How important is Uzbekistan in the effort of humanitarian workers to deliver aid to Afghans displaced from their homes?

OLCOTT: It's going to be important if they can get in from the north. Until Mazar-i-Sharif is captured, there is a limit to what you can do by land. But it does make it easier to send planes. It's a staging place, the only safe staging place in the area right now." Martha Brill Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace spoke from her office at the Moscow Center's Project on Ethnicity and Politics. She will be travelling in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan for the next two weeks.

Nazif Shahrani is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Indiana at Bloomington. His field is Central Asian and Middle Eastern studies. Professor Shahrani comes from an Uzbek family in Afghanistan's northeastern province of Badakhshan.

SHAHRANI: That is the only province that the Northern Alliance has always controlled.

LATHAM: The United States and Uzbekistan have signed an agreement to cooperate in wiping out terrorists and their infrastructure. What is the relationship of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, al-Quida?

SHAHRANI: From what we hear from inside Afghanistan, the so-called Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has been an ally of al-Quida and is supported and harbored by the Taleban. These Uzbek Islamists have been fighting on the side of Taleban against Afghanistan's Uzbeks in the northern parts of the country. The question we have to ask is, 'What conditions in Uzbekistan produced certain fringe elements within Uzbek society to take up arms and join the Taleban and also go through Tajikistan a couple summers ago and create disturbances in Kyrgyzstan as well as near the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan?' We fundamentally need to blame the policies of President Islam Karimov and his government for producing them out of a community that was not inclined to armed resistance of any kind.

LATHAM: What is it the government of Uzbekistan hopes to gain from an alliance with the United States?

SHAHRANI: They perceive a threat from these extremist elements with the Taleban in Afghanistan. And, if the Taleban regime survives, they would pose a serious threat to the security of Central Asia.

LATHAM: How critical is the support of Uzbekistan to the war against the Taleban?

SHAHRANI: In a military sense, I'm not convinced that they're playing any great role so far. The way this war has been conducted so far is very disappointing to the people of Afghanistan and is beginning to be disappointing to some of our own American citizens here. The country is a significant one in terms of its strategic location in terms of U.S. regional interests in the future.

LATHAM: Tajikistan shares a much longer border with Afghanistan. What role do you think Dushanbe might play in the war against the Taleban in the months to come? And how much pressure is there on the border from Afghan refugees?

SHAHRANI: There have been refugee problems along both the Tajik and Uzbek borders. And both those countries have denied entry to Afghans, Tajiks, and Uzbeks from the north who have run away from the Taleban.

LATHAM: What roles do you see for Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazaakhstan in the war against terrorism?

SHAHRANI: Turkmenistan shares a fairly long border, and it is the only Central Asian country that borders Afghanistan that has taken in some Turkmen refugees from the adjacent area. But at the same time, they have been the closest ally that the Taleban has had economically. They have claimed to be neutral in the war in Afghanistan, but in fact have been on the side of Pakistan and the Taleban. There are no indigenous militant groups within Kyrgyzstan. And Kazakhstan is somewhat similar.

LATHAM: In the long run, does it seem more likely that the involvement of the states of Central Asia will strengthen autocratic rulers in the region or lead to eventual democratic reforms?

SHAHRANI: If the U.S. government is going to support the regimes that are in power and do not curb their heavy-handed policies against opposition groups, whether they are Muslim-based or secular, I think conditions will get worse in the long run. But we have some influence to correct some of these policies and to persuade those who are in power to allow political opposition."