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Regional “Allies” Have Their Own Axes to Grind

by Michael W. Cotter

The author of the following commentary served as U. S. ambassador in Turkmenistan in the late 1990s. A career U. S. diplomat from 1970 to that time, he has traveled in most of the region he discusses below. —Ed.

Most countries in the heartland of Asia (from Russia to India and Iran to Kyrgyzstan) have expressed some degree of support for the coalition now being formed to track down those responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks. Their actual motives, and the likely degree of concrete cooperation the coalition can expect, however, vary widely. It will take nuanced diplomacy and consistent political leadership from the United States over a long period to maximize that cooperation.

As the Bush Administration builds a coalition to track down and bring to justice the terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks in New York City and Washington, it needs to keep in mind that potential coalition members will bring their own agendas to the effort. While the United States and the Western European democracies may have similar concerns and goals, the same will not be true of some other states.

Two that come immediately to mind are Israel and India. Both have long-standing differences with part or all of the Islamic world and both find it in their interest to have Islam identified with September 11. Israel has already engaged its potent public relations machine to identify Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinians in general with the tragedy. India, engaged in a long-standing dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir, undoubtedly sees potential advantages if the West takes on the numerous radical Islamic groups in Pakistan.

Afghanistan’s northern neighbors present a more complicated picture. Russia, although not a direct neighbor since the breakup of the Soviet Union, retains varying degrees of influence and interests in the new Central Asian republics that do border on that country. The Russians claim to fear radical Islam, although in fact they primarily use that fear more as a rationale to justify maintaining a security relationship with or presence in the Central Asian republics. Russia has supported the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, the sole remaining opposition to the Taliban. So a coalition effort to reduce Taliban influence or eliminate the regime entirely would be a mixed blessing for Russia, reducing the threat of Islamic fundamentalism in the region, but concomitantly reducing the justification for continued Russian military influence there.

At the same time, as much as it may fear radical Islam, Russia resents even more Western—and particularly American—influence and presence in Central Asia. This explains its quick retreat from early immediate support of an international coalition to root out terrorists. That support, the Russians now say, does not extend to having U. S. or other western forces operating out of Central Asian bases.

As for the Central Asians themselves, their concern over Islamic fundamentalism and the degree of dependence on/allegiance to Russia will color their positions, whatever rhetorical support they bring to the coalition. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan do not have common borders with Afghanistan, so their cooperation is probably less useful than what might be called the “front-line” states—Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Kazakhstan, which has a long border with Russia and a significant ethnic Russian population, will be unlikely to stray from Moscow’s line to offer more than moral support for the coalition. Kyrgyzstan, a poor country which depends heavily on western investment and assistance, is squeezed between Russia and China, neither of which will want western military forces in their backyards.

The “front-line” states are likely to take different positions. All three have ethnic ties to northern Afghanistan; and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are generally believed to have provided support to the various groups that have resisted Taliban control. The Tajiks are perhaps the most interesting of the three. Unlike the other Central Asians of the former USSR, Tajiks speak a variant of Farsi, the tongue spoken in Iran and parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan (where it is called Dari). Although their common language creates a tie between Tajiks and Iranians, the former are Sunni Muslims, not Shi’a. While its long, mountainous border with Afghanistan and its support for the Northern Alliance might make Tajikistan an ideal launching pad for action against Osama bin Laden, the country is still recovering from its own civil war ostensibly against Islamic fundamentalism (although the roots of that conflict were much more complicated). It is also the only Central Asian state to still have Russian combat forces on its soil and has already announced that it would not allow U. S. aircraft to be based there.

Turkmenistan, which shares a 600 kilometer border with Afghanistan, has indicated it will support the coalition. However, surrounded by larger, stronger countries, Turkmenistan bases its foreign policy on what it calls “positive neutrality,” for which it sought and obtained U.N. recognition. The Turkmen have maintained good relations with all parties to the Afghan conflict and have refused in the past to participate in efforts to counter or neutralize Taliban control of that country. Having expelled all but a few hundred Russian advisors from their territory and taken over former Russian bases, the Turkmen are unlikely to permit western military forces use those bases as a launching pad against the Taliban or Osama bin Laden. The Turkmen are much more likely to offer their services as a neutral site for negotiations between the Taliban and their opponents, as they have done in the past.

That leaves Uzbekistan, which probably offers the greatest potential as an active coalition partner. The most populous of the Central Asian countries, Uzbekistan also has the largest and most professional military force in the region. Like the Turkmen, the Uzbeks have carved out a foreign and defense policy largely independent of Moscow. They are the driving force behind a joint Central Asian military unit in which Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (but not Turkmenistan) also participate, and have pursued a “strategic” relationship with NATO and the United States in an effort to ensure their independence vis-á-vis Moscow. Although recent problems with armed Islamic insurgents have caused the Uzbeks to soften their rhetoric regarding military cooperation with Russia, a concerted international effort to counter the brand of radical Islam espoused by the Taliban could offer the Uzbeks greater assistance in defending against such elements in their own society.

Gaining the active support of Central Asian states in the effort to bring bin Laden to justice and, perhaps, reduce Taliban influence in Afghanistan, will depend to a great extent on the coalition’s ability to convince them that it will stay the course. These countries are located in a volatile region where the geopolitical vacuum created by the demise of the Soviet Union will take years, if not decades, to resolve itself. Russia, China, Iran, India and Pakistan are all regional powers with long-term interests in influencing the new order that will ultimately emerge. The Central Asians will have to carefully weigh support for what may end up as short-term intervention by outside powers—which the United States, NATO and an anti-terrorist coalition inevitably will be perceived as—against their own long-term futures.

Ensuring that they reach the correct conclusion will require a serious and nuanced diplomatic effort by the United States and other coalition partners. This will be a challenge for the new leadership in the State Department, much of which is still finding its way. One priority will be to confirm ambassadors to those regional countries where our embassies are now led by chargés d’affaires. A second challenge for Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice will be to ensure that U. S. diplomacy speaks with a single voice. With increased resources for intelligence and expanded authority for a reinvigorated FBI, the State Department will need all of its skill and strong presidential support to keep the diplomatic effort on a consistent track and the coalition focused on its goals.

Of course, the key to success of the anti-terrorism effort will be consistent high-level political leadership from Washington over an extended period. The president must remain focused on it as a goal throughout his administration and the Congress must be willing and able to put aside partisan interests to ensure adequate funding and other legislative support. Our past history does not leave one very sanguine that this will be achieved, but if September 11 does indeed rank in our history with Pearl Harbor, we can hope the story will be different this time.End.

Michael W. Cotter
Michael W. Cotter

Ambassador Cotter is associate publisher of this publication. He holds degrees from Georgetown University, the University of Michigan Law School, and Stanford University.


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