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Battlefield developments continue to go the anti-terrorism coalition's way. Northern Alliance forces appear to have crushed most pockets of resistance around the Northern city of Kunduz. Meanwhile, a US Marines expeditionary force is deploying near the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan. The 1,000-strong force is expected to lead the assault on the last Taliban bastion.
Despite the favorable developments on the ground, the long-term security outlook in Afghanistan and Central Asia remains tenuous, experts believe. Both Martha Brill Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and military analyst Oxana Antonenko of London's Institute of International and Strategic Studies, believe that US military action and long-term presence of the armed forces in the region do not address the root causes of terrorism.
The analysts base their assessments on information gained during recent visits to Central Asia. Even the rumored death of Juma Namangani, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) leader, announced by Northern Alliance warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, as well as the possible future elimination of Osama bin Laden will not rid Central Asia of the factors that fuel the terrorist threat in the region. These include the glacial pace of economic reform; widespread poverty; narcotics trafficking, human rights abuses; and the growing influence of Islamic radicals in mosques and other religious establishments in the Ferghana Valley.
Doubts remain about the veracity of news about Namangani's death, sources in Tashkent tell EurasiaNet. Even if true, Namangani's demise would be less of a blow to the IMU than would be bin Laden's death to the al Qaeda network's operational capability, Olcott believes. "Namangani was an accidental leader, much less of a commanding presence than Osama bin Laden was for al Qaeda - for the simple reason that he [Namangani] did not control the sources of funding," Olcott says.
Looking beyond the Taliban, the picture remains for Afghanistan and its northern neighbors remains complicated. Irritation with the Western presence in Central Asia - especially US support for Uzbek President Islam Karimov - is on the rise at many mosques in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. This may contribute to resurrection of the terrorist groups in the region after the shock of the war wears out, Olcott believes.
The US military, especially Special Forces units, which have performed so well to date in the fight against the Taliban, have no immediate answers to systemic challenges in Central Asia, where problems mostly have economic and religious roots.
So far, US forces in Central Asia have concentrated on bolstering the military capabilities of Central Asian states to respond to terrorism-related issues. Current and former Pentagon officials recently revealed that the groundwork for military cooperation in Central Asia was laid long before September 11. For example, the US Defense Department has been working with Uzbekistan's military establishment since the early 1990s.
Speaking at a Carnegie Endowment conference on Central Asia in late November, the former Assistant Secretary of Defense Ted Warner and Deputy Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Starr revealed that, initially, the Pentagon tried to promote counter-proliferation, regional cooperation, military reform, and a joint peacekeeping force called CentrAsBat, military speak for the Central Asian Battalion.
In 1997, The Atlantic Command conducted the first annual CentrAsBat annual exercise, in which US paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division participated. Later on, the Pentagon transferred responsibility for Central Asia from the Atlantic Command to Central Command, located in Tampa, Florida. Central Command has overall responsibility for the Middle East, among other theaters of operation.
This was an important step which, from the perspective of the US military, integrated Central Asia to the Middle East and South Asia, as opposed to the former Soviet Union, of which the European command was historically in charge.
As the terrorist threat increased, then-commander of the US Central Command, Gen. Anthony Zinni, authorized deployment of US Special Forces to train their Uzbek and Kyrgyz counterparts. US advisers helped develop regional military capability in a number of areas, including in the use of helicopters in counterinsurgency operations.
The Uzbek government's desire to modernize its military forces intensified with the emergence of the IMU as an insurgent threat. By 1999, the IMU, which seeks to oust Karimov's government, had already developed close ties with the Taliban and the al Qaeda network. In addition, the group had improved its training and tactics to the point that it could pose a credible threat to national security. It was in 1999 that the IMU allegedly set off a series of explosions in an attempt to assassinate Karimov. That same year, IMU insurgents took hostages in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
To counter the building security threat, Karimov reached out to Americans to expand military training programs. The Uzbek leader also sought closer ties with Russia. The Kremlin eventually agreed to supply weapons, and more traditional Soviet style training, in exchange for Uzbek cotton.
From the start, one outcome the US advisers sought to avoid was a repetition of the brutality that has characterized the conflict in the renegade Russian province of Chechnya. Poorly trained and equipped Russian troops in Chechnya aggravated the conflict by indiscriminate assaults on civilians, causing many Chechens to side with Islamic radical forces. "We wanted the Uzbeks to think like Americans, to and influence officers and soldiers," Starr said, referring to a main motive behind US military assistance in Central Asia.
In recent years, US military aid focused increasingly on anti-terrorism training, and development of border patrol techniques and anti-drug operations. Meanwhile, British advisers engaged in a successful cooperation program to help Kyrgyzstan strengthen its border patrol capabilities. Assistance efforts paid off when, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the need to deploy US forces for the war in Afghanistan became clear. Today, elements of the US 10th Mountain Division and special forces operate from the base in Hanabad, Uzbekistan, and from old Soviet air force bases in Tajikistan.
A couple of significant achievements arising out of earlier US-Central Asian cooperation can be listed so far. First, the level of intelligence cooperation and special forces coordination with Russia has never been better. In addition, border guards along the Amu-Darya river successfully managed the flow of refugees, averting a potential crisis in which a massive influx of Afghans could have overwhelmed the social infrastructures of neighboring Central Asian states.
It now appears that US support for Central Asian leaders means that US and British special forces will stay in the region for the foreseeable future. However, the underlying causes for terrorism need to be addressed by the indigenous governments and the international community, not by foreign military involvement. Reform and reconstruction are vital, but they are beyond the mandate of the US military.
Editor's Note: Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, and the author of "Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis," (Greenwood/Praeger, 1998).