TASHKENT, Uzbekistan, DUSHANBE, Tajikistan, and ALMATY, Kazakhstan--Nerves were taut across the former Soviet Central Asian states amid reports that the United States was preparing a major military operation in Afghanistan in response to the 11 September terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
The potential U.S. strike was particularly generating great tension in Tajikistan, which shares a long border with Afghanistan. While early reports after the terrorist strike suggested that the Tajik government would be prepared to allow U.S. troops to take up positions in Tajikistan for any potential attack, the Tajik Foreign Ministry has issued a foreceful denial of those reports.
And while Tajik Prime Minister Akil Akilov said that his country could provide an air corridor for the United States in the event of a strike on Afghanistan, he added that it would do so only after consulting the world community, according to the Times of Central Asia. Analysts have noted that Tajikistan is likely to follow Russia's lead on the issue, since Moscow has its own troops stationed on the Tajik-Afghan border. For its part, Russia has appeared to send out mixed signals on the issue.
Nevertheless, local political analysts based in Dushanbe say Russian and Tajikistan might allow the United States to use Tajik territory for strikes if it produces clear evidence that Osama Bin Laden--who is widely suspected to have taken part in the terrorist attacks--is actually in Afghanistan and if it is clear that such strikes would be a reasonable and effective way of dealing with the problem.
Meanwhile, many people in Tajikistan are worried that any fighting in neighboring Afghanistan could upset the delicate political balance in their own country, which is still recovering from a civil war that raged through much of the 1990s. Both the government and international aid organizations in Tajikistan are underequipped to deal with flood of Afghan refugees that would pour into the country in the even of a bombing campaign. As with past exoduses from the war-torn Afghanistan, Tajikistan and the other Central Asian states also fear the flow of people would increase the flow of drugs, infectious diseases, and extremists into their region.
In contrast to the cautious Tajik approach, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev--whose country does not share a border with Afghanistan--said Kazakhstan would "do everything necessary" to help "punish the terrorists" if the United States asked it for help, the news agency Kazakhstan Today reported. He also sent a special message to U.S. President George W. Bush saying Kazakhstan supports the U.S. fight against terrorism.
At the same time, Nazarbayev warned against anything that might lead to conflicts between religions, adding on 13 September that he had warned the world community about the situation in Afghanistan, which has been racked by civil war for decades, on many previous occasions. Altymbek Sarsenbayev, Nazarbayev's national security adviser, was quoted by Reuters as saying that while Kazakhstan acknowledged the importance of striking back at the terrorists responsible for the attacks on the United States, he added there would be no end to terrorism from the region until peace is achieved in Afghanistan.
“Here in Central Asia, we have been acutely feeling the echo of terrorism from neighboring fundamental states. A long time ago, I spoke about the necessity of establishing peace in Afghanistan with the help of the UN Security Council," Nazarbayev said last week.
In Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov has offered to join the United States in fighting terrorism immediately. On 16 September, the Uzbek government announced that it would allow U.S. forces to use the country's airspace or territory to launch an attack across its border with Afghanistan.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov said: "We're prepared to discuss any issue that would be conducive to eliminating terrorism in our region and strengthening stability." And U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has also raised the possibility of working with the Uzbeks.
Last week's events in the United States have touched a chord in Uzbekistan, where many people still recall the 1999 terrorist bombing in their own capital, Tashkent, which killed 16 people. Radical Islamic groups were blamed for the attack. Karimov's administration, which has been criticized by observers for its authoritarian ruling style, has also been battling the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a shadowy group that has launched incursions from bases in Afghaninstan and Tajikistan into other Central Asian states--with the goal of forming a region-wide Islamic state.
Abdulla Ibodov, an Uzbek veteran of World War II, said: "We old people of Uzbekistan, remember well how the president of Uzbekistan called on the world community at various international meetings-- first of all to fight against the financing of terrorist groups."
"He even made a call for awareness and for countries to join forces in the fight against it during his speech at the [50th anniversary] meeting of the United Nations, " recalled Kamol Rakhimov, chairman of the Yulduz textile company. "We don't just know about this terrible international terrorism from the newspapers, but we also unfortunately had to face it on the 16th of February 1999 during the explosions in Tashkent. And we cannot stay indifferent to what had happened across the ocean."
Still, many people in Uzbekistan, like their neighbors in Tajikistan, are worried about a possible flood of refugees from Afghanistan in the event of a U.S. attack. "If Afghanistan is attacked via air, it affect the region negatively by causing distability in Central Asian region," said Vasiliy Popov, who works in Uzbekistan as a marketing specialist. He said some members of the Taliban, the radical Islamist group that rules much of Afghanistan, as well as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan might try to enter Soviet Central Asia along with the flood of refugees.
The above story is reposted with permission from Transitions Online (TOL). TOL (http://www.tol.cz) is an Internet magazine covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. If you aren't already a member, you can fill out the registration form at <http://www.tol.cz/trialsubscr.html> to receive a free two-month trial membership. If you're a citizen of a post-communist country, FREE annual memberships are available at <http://www.tol.cz/trialsubscr2.html>.