Central Asia Plans Closer Political Ties

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Central Asian leaders meet to strengthen their ties this week against the background of a regional political landscape transformed by the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and tensions between other former Soviet states.

On Thursday, the presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, all of whom host U.S. military personnel, and Kazakhstan, which has offered to, were to sign a document switching their existing economic union into a more overtly political one.

"We plan to create this organization to promote a political dialogue and to deepen our security ties," a Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman said Wednesday of the shift in focus of the Central Asian Cooperation grouping.

A day later, they and other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States plan a low-key meeting outside Almaty designed not to exacerbate tensions among the former Soviet states.

The CAC leaders, all of whom fear the spread of religious fundamentalism, drugs and extremism from Afghanistan, have not been slow to realize the benefits of their new ties to Washington.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, President Vladimir Putin effectively gave them permission to join the U.S. anti-terror coalition by saying he would not object if they offered the use of military facilities to the United States.

At least 1,500 U.S. troops are thought to be based at Uzbekistan's Khanabad airbase, with a handful in Tajikistan and 3,500 troops from several coalition members due at Kyrgyzstan's Manas airbase in the next few weeks.

French Mirages, the first foreign fighter aircraft to be deployed in Central Asia, were expected in Manas on Wednesday.

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Muratbek Imanaliyev said recently that he saw the changing political climate following the new relationship with the United States as exclusively beneficial to his country.

Even Uzbek President Islam Karimov, long condemned for his country's poor human rights record and undemocratic electoral practices, has been rewarded with a state visit to Washington scheduled for March 12.