Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Central Asia Is Crux of Dilemma

In a flurry of diplomatic activity by Russian leaders trying to find their place in the emerging U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, Moscow has focused largely on the volatile states of Central Asia -- whose neighbor Afghanistan is the most likely target of a U.S. military strike.

Despite Russia's stated support for a joint anti-terrorist operation, Moscow is apprehensive about hints from the region's former Soviet republics that they are willing to let Washington use their bases and airspace without seeking Russian approval. Moscow fears that the region's direct involvement in a U.S. military operation could both undermine its already waning influence there and destabilize the region, leading to conflagrations on Russia's southern border.

Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan -- impoverished nations ruled by heavy-handed secular regimes -- have all faced the threat of militant Islamic groups suspected of links with the Taliban, which controls much of Afghanistan and has been playing host to suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden. And while the downfall of the Taliban regime could defuse tensions by depriving local radicals of their nearby support base, experts warn that a hasty and short-sighted operation could plunge the region into crisis and further radicalization.



The Players



The only country in the region where Russia still maintains a military presence is Tajikistan -- a pauperized nation of less than 6.5 million people emerging from a devastating five-year civil war between a pro-Moscow secular government and an Islamic opposition. The country is so weak that its 1,200-kilometer border with Afghanistan is guarded by 10,000 Russian troops, with 15,000 more scattered throughout the country.

The border they guard is a tough zone to patrol.

According to Reuters, Tajikistan is the transit route for 65 percent to 85 percent of heroin smuggled out of Afghanistan, the world's largest producer.

The border also serves as a bulwark against thousands of Afghan refugees, some of them armed, whom the Tajik government has refused to accept. The refugees live in a no-man's land on the islands of the Pyandzh River, which separates Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Dushanbe, whose government includes former Islamic opposition leaders, fears some of the refugees might be affiliated with radical Islamic groups and could bolster the warlords who still control parts of the country.

Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov reiterated Thursday that his country would not take in refugees should the United States launch strikes against Afghanistan.

"We cannot allow the penetration of a single refugee from Afghanistan into Tajikistan because there could be emissaries of different international terrorist organizations among them," Rakhmonov told Reuters during an inspection of the Tajik-Afghan border together with Russia's Security Council chief, Vladimir Rushailo.

Tajikistan's other problem is neighboring Uzbekistan, which does not conceal its animosity toward its smaller eastern neighbor. Uzbekistan, a country of 23 million, accuses Tajikistan of housing training camps and allowing the free passage of members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, the region's largest armed extremist group.

The IMU is suspected of having strong links with the Taliban, which allows it to operate through bases in Afghanistan. The movement staged an attack on Uzbek President Islam Karimov in 1999 and conducted a major raid in Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley in 2000.

The Uzbek government has responded to the threat with repressions against all practicing Moslems. In the last four years, hundreds of mosques have been closed and thousands of devout Moslems have been imprisoned. Many among them, according to human rights groups, have been tortured.

But Uzbekistan's border with Afghanistan is the shortest and best guarded of all -- its 137 kilometers are reportedly fortified by 20,000 troops, some of which are U.S.-trained.

Neighboring Turkmenistan is in a far less enviable position: Its 744-kilometer border with Afghanistan is virtually unguarded. Aware of his weakness, the country's megalomaniac ruler, Saparmurat Niyazov -- whose 40-meter gold-covered rotating statue adorns the capital, Ashgabat -- has opted for neutrality in dealing with the Taliban.

Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry reiterated its stance Wednesday, saying it had no plans to allow the United States and its allies to use its territory or air space for retaliatory strikes against Afghanistan.

Fragile Balance



The caution with which the Central Asian countries have reacted to the possibility of joining the U.S.-led military operation is justified, and the risks of destabilization are real, according to Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate and Central Asia expert with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment.

"The war in Afghanistan has the capacity to destabilize the region," Brill Olcott said in a telephone interview from Washington on Wednesday.

Experts agreed that Central Asia could face two dangers in the event of a U.S. attack: a wave of refugees and the fueling of radical sentiment.

"For any of these states, a new refugee burden is not a welcome gift," Brill Olcott said. "They simply do not have the resources to deal with it unassisted."

According to Alexander Golts, a military correspondent for Itogi magazine, the flood of refugees is "unavoidable" if Afghanistan is invaded, so it should not deter the Central Asian nations or Russia from participating in a military operation. "It will happen whether we participate in the operation or not," he said in a telephone interview. "The only difference is that if we are partners, we could count on some form of aid. And if we're not, we'll be left to cope with it alone."

Perhaps a greater danger is potential retaliation by the Taliban.

Days after Washington threatened the Taliban with strikes, Kabul warned that it would fight back. The only means at its disposal other than terrorist attacks, observers say, are measures to destabilize neighboring countries -- first and foremost, Pakistan, followed by Central Asia.

According to Rustam Shukurov, an associate professor of history at Moscow State University, the Taliban has had "very serious plans for Central Asia."

"Ever since they came to power, they've been supporting the Islamic movements in those countries, financing them and helping them build networks throughout Central Asia," he said in a telephone interview Thursday. "It was obvious they were planning serious operations there in the coming years."

However, observers also believe that an attack against the Taliban might actually bring the region some stability, or at least buy it some time to solve its internal problems.

An attack on Afghanistan could deplete the Taliban's resources to such an extent that the movement might find itself unable to help anybody anymore, according to Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert with the Jane's Intelligence group in London.

"They are not that rich, they will be busy fighting the U.S. and a civil war in their own country, with the Northern Alliance. They might try to pour some more arms to their affiliates in the region, but not more than that," Galeotti said.

As if confirming this, the Indian government announced Thursday that some of the Taliban forces that fought alongside rebels in the province of Jammu and Kashmir have started withdrawing to Afghanistan.

"The danger of the Taliban destabilizing the region exists, but I find it a bit exaggerated," Alexei Malashenko, an expert with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

"The Taliban is going to fall eventually," Galeotti said. "It is fragmented and lacks a real power base. And if it's going to collapse, it's better for its neighbors to have it collapse under American pressure. That would make the U.S. feel responsible for the consequences and invest in the region's recovery."

Carnegie's Brill Olcott agreed.

"An invasion that has broad international support and is accompanied by some sense of responsibility for rebuilding Afghanistan ... might not be destabilizing at all," she said.

But Professor Shukurov cautioned that eliminating the Taliban -- "a black hole that does not recognize any international rules of the game" -- while a necessary step, is "just the first one."

The future of the Central Asian states is determined first and foremost at home, Shukurov said, and there the prospects are grim. Both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan -- countries with majority Moslem populations -- are ruled by "virulently anti-Moslem regimes" that could use the global fight against terrorism as an excuse to step up repression at home.

"These regimes with their indiscriminate persecution of all Moslems are breeding radicalism," Shukurov said.

Russia's Game



Here, Shukurov believes, is where Russia can help -- first by participating in efforts to neutralize the Taliban, then by helping the democratization of Central Asia.

But, thus far, there is little sign of either and Russia's political and military leadership appear to have conflicting ideas on how to handle the situation.

Reuters cited a senior U.S. State Department official as saying that Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, during his visit to Washington, had made it clear that Russia would not stand in the way of U.S. cooperation with former Soviet states in Central Asia.

Ivanov said Wednesday that Russia and the United States should "give up the stereotypes of the Cold War" and that in fighting terrorism "no means can be excluded, including the use of force."

At the same time, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was adamant that there was no "basis for even the hypothetical possibility" of a NATO military presence in Central Asia.

Dushanbe and Tashkent have been careful not to rile their northern neighbor. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which is home to two air bases that were used to launch attacks against Afghanistan during the Soviet military campaign there, initially said they would consider all means of cooperation with the United States, including the use of air bases. But a day later they back-pedaled, saying they had not received any concrete requests from Washington.

Washington has seemed sensitive to Russia's touchiness in the region as well, and has been conspicuously low-key in dealing with the Central Asian regimes.

Jane's Galeotti said Russia's military top brass was lobbying very hard against U.S. use of air bases in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan.

"Their arguments were, among others, that the U.S. planes might spy on Russian military facilities," he said.

"[Russia's] help will most likely be limited to intelligence," Galeotti said. "Russia can offer the help of officers who fought in Afghanistan and remember the terrain there. It's easy, it can make a difference and it costs nothing."

Russian Chief of General Staff Anatoly Kvashnin has been touring the region, making sure none of the countries extends too helping a hand to Washington.

"Russia has not considered and is not planning to consider participation in a military operation against Afghanistan," Kvashnin told reporters during his visit to Tajikistan on Wednesday. As far the "territorial integrity" of the Central Asian nations, he said, "there are relevant bilateral and other obligations."

"The problem is, Russian policy in the region is not conducted by politicians, but by military people," Shukurov said. "And they unfortunately lack vision: They still see America as the main enemy and the repressive governments as their main allies."