Two nations of Central Asia Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - are about to play key roles in the war in Afghanistan. Both are making facilities available to allied forces to combat terrorists. But analysts say these two nations also want to use the occasion to suppress domestic opposition, which may not be in the U.S. interest. On top of that, Russia is once again joining the fight in Afghanistan. All this makes for a complex struggle.
After Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's visit to Uzbekistan in early October, about 1,000 American troops arrived in the Central Asian country north of Afghanistan. They were heartily welcomed by Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
His highly authoritarian regime has been threatened by a militant group known as the IMU, which has drawn recruits from other parts of Central Asia and is closely allied with the Taleban. Mr. Karimov says he would personally like to shoot some Islamic terrorists.
Joseph Hulings, former U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan, says President Karimov gladly joins the United States in fighting the Taleban since it may also offer the opportunity to crush the IMU as well.
The ambassador says it also suits the President to cut more of a figure in the region. "Uzbekistan has played a major role in central Asia, back through the centuries," he says. "They still feel that they are the power-house of the region in terms of population, economy and so forth, and consequently, they feel a little bit more comfortable being up front on these issues."
Tajikistan is also welcoming U.S. forces, who will join Tajiks, Russians, and the Northern Alliance in waging war against terrorists in Afghanistan a startling mixture, as analysts note.
A leading Moscow military writer, Pavel Felgenhauer, says Russian troops are already fighting in Afghanistan, and Russian aircraft are attacking Taleban positions. "Russia is definitely in the war," he says.
But Ambassador Hulings says history does not have to repeat itself. "We are going to end up with some very strange bedfellows in all of this, but that is not to say that marriages of convenience cannot turn out to have long-term benefits to both partners," he says.
Ambassador Hulings says the United States is under no illusions about its current partners. It is making clear it does not approve Uzbekistan's repressive policies, and its presence could help change them.
That is possible, says Akbar Ahmed, director of Islamic studies at American University. He says at present, war will strengthen state control. "But I believe that after it is over, many people in that part of the world will say: 'Hey, wait a minute. We want more democracy. We want to be part of the community of nations.' If the Americans would come and open up Afghanistan and bring in new ideas, you will see people wanting to connect with the rest of the world," says Mr.Ahmed."
"Much depends on a durable settlement in Afghanistan," says Ambassador Hulings. That embattled country is the key to regional progress, if the violence can be ended. "These people unite only to fight a common enemy, but once that enemy is defeated, then they just end up fighting among themselves again," he says. "This is the real problem. This is the real political challenge that we have in front of us."
"The challenge has still to be met," says Ambassador Hulings. "We await an adequate post-Taleban plan for Afghanistan."