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Spotlight Turning on Tajikistan, Uzbekistan Anti-Terrorism Role


Since last week's terrorist attacks in the United States, attention has focused on two Central Asia countries, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. They share a border with Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden, named by U.S. officials as the prime suspect in the attacks, is believed to be. The two Central Asian countries that are now very much in the news.

Tajikistan and Uzbekistan may share their southern borders with Afghanistan, but their policies toward the country have been very different.

One of the main reasons for this has to do with their giant neighbor to the north, Russia.

Many analysts say Uzbekistan would be far more likely than Tajikistan to offer bases or airspace to the United States, if it were to take military action to get Osama bin Laden. A major reason for this is that Uzbekistan wants to distance itself from Russia, and draw closer to the United States.

Ustina Markus is an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Kyrgyzystan, which neighbors Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. She says the relationship between Uzbekistan and the United States has recently been damaged because of allegations of human rights abuses against the Uzbek government. But by supporting the United States, Ms. Markus says, Uzbekistan could regain U.S. support, which will translate into financial support.

"Uzbekistan is one of the ones most inclined to flex its own muscles and decide what is in its interest," she said. "Right now, it seems it has decided that it is in its own interest to mend some of those fences with the United States over human rights by being a good ally at this stage."

In addition, Uzbekistan has a strong military infrastructure in place that could serve as a launching point for operations into Afghanistan. It was from Uzbekistan that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Earlier this week, Uzbekistan indicated that it might be willing to help the United States, although it gave no specifics.

But while Uzbekistan could offer help to the United States without Russia's approval, neighboring Tajikistan almost certainly could not. Tajikistan shares a long, 1,200 kilometer, border with Afghanistan, and to help ensure the border is secure, Russia has approximately 10,000 troops stationed there. Because of help like this, analysts say, Tajikistan could do little to help the United States, without first gaining Russian approval, something analysts say Moscow would be reluctant to give.

Tajik authorities are also worried that their country could be overrun by Afghan refugees. So far, the former Soviet republic does not have that many refugees, and the Tajik president, Emomali Rakhmonov, made it clear Thursday that he does not want any more. But if the situation deteriorates and Afghans start flooding toward the border, some of them will undoubtedly get through.

The Taleban controls about ninety percent of the country. The last ten percent borders Tajikistan and is controlled by the Northern Alliance, also known as the United Front, which has received considerable backing from Russia.

Ms. Markus, the analyst from the International Crisis Group, says Tajikistan's leaders also support the United Front. "They worry very much that, if the Taleban take over the United Front territory, they're going to end up with well over a 500,000 refugees, and they can't take care of them," she said.

Already most people in Tajikistan live in poverty, getting by on as little as nine dollars a month, and the country is also in its second year of drought.

Refugees are not as much of a concern for Uzbekistan as Tajikistan. The Uzbek border with Afghanistan is very short, and very well fortified on the Uzbek side.

But one concern both governments share is that the type of Islam practiced by the Taleban could gain support in their countries.

Both governments are secular, but most people in each country are Muslims. Analysts say both governments fear a backlash from their Muslim populations if their countries are seen to be supporting the United States in its efforts to track down Osama bin Laden. The Taleban have already threatened to attack any neighboring country that assists a possible U.S. military retaliation on Afghanistan.

Dmitry Trenin is the deputy director of the Moscow Carnegie Center. He says there is a definite limit to how much these and other governments in Central Asia can help the United States, without seeming to be against Islam.

"The problem that they may see there is that this could turn into a war between Islam and the West," he said. "I think that they would be worried that the Taleban, or whoever, would have many opportunities to turn the United States war on Taleban into a war between civilizations."

Mr. Trenin say the countries of Central Asia will be watching very carefully how the United States responds to last week's terrorist attacks. But many already fear that, whatever the U.S. response, their countries are going to be caught in the middle.