Building Bridges with the Taleban

Central Asian republics need to adopt a more realistic approach to the troublesome war in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Building Bridges with the Taleban

Central Asian republics need to adopt a more realistic approach to the troublesome war in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Central Asia's leaders, with the exception of Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov, approved the creation of a new centre to combat terrorism at the Commonwealth of Independent States summit in Moscow on June 21.

The Central Asian republics have been pushing for such a centre for many years in the hope of more effectively combating the threat posed by an increasing number of armed Islamic groups and the region's proximity to war torn Afghanistan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the decision "a crucial step forward in the fight against religious terrorism and extremism in the post-Soviet space."

Most of the Central Asian governments share the Kremlin's opinion that the region's principal exporter of international terrorist activity is Afghanistan. The Taleban authorities, who control 90 per cent of the country, have been accused of supporting Islamic groups operating in Central Asia, trafficking narcotics and training Chechen separatist fighters.

Numerous external forces are keen to see the Afghan conflict continue. Russia and Iran, for example, benefit economically from the instability. Ninety-five per cent of Central Asia's rich energy resources currently reach world markets through Soviet-era pipelines, which pass through Russia. Iran has ambitions to open a pipeline through its territory to the Persian Gulf. A peaceful Afghanistan could offer an alternative "southern tap" for Central Asian oil and gas.

Russia is therefore exploiting the Taleban threat as a means of strengthening her position in Central Asia. Moscow also funnels military and technical aid to the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance forces under General Massoud in north east Afghanistan. Tehran too provides aid. Without this assistance, it is unlikely the Northern Alliance forces would last long against the Taleban.

The United States, on the other hand, would prefer to see an end to the fighting. American companies are eager to participate in the construction of alternative pipeline networks out of Central Asia, for example through Afghanistan or the southern Caucasus to Turkey. Large-scale US involvement in such projects would greatly increase Washington's influence in the region.

For the young countries of Central Asia, the seemingly endless fighting has no benefits. Sharing borders with Afghanistan, these countries are under threat from the constant stream of refugees, drugs and weapons.

China too shares a border with Afghanistan and is suffering as a result. The Xinjiang-Uigur Autonomous Region, XUAR, has long been a source of instability in north western China. Separatists within the Uigur minority are increasingly vociferous in their demands for independence. Afghanistan has again been accused of preparing training bases, this time for Uigur fighters.

The Central Asian republics are incapable of influencing or withstanding Afghanistan independently. Rivalries between the various republics have also prevented them from dealing with the problems as a group.

Turkmenistan has taken a neutral stance on Afghanistan and is an excellent neighbour for the Taleban. The republic has huge resources of oil and natural gas and is prepared to deal with all countries prepared to offer transit routes for its natural resources. The opportunity to construct a "southern tap" for these resources, whether through Afghanistan, Iran or Turkey, has long been an ambition in order to break Russia's current monopoly.

Tajikistan on the other hand is in the most vulnerable position. The republic's proximity to Afghanistan and the large ethnic Tajik minority living in the country's northern regions have for many years been a source of instability. A profusion of drugs, weapons and military expertise have all undermined stability in Tajikistan.

An end to the fighting in Afghanistan would benefit Tajikistan, but only if peace could be negotiated between the Taleban and the Northern Alliance forces. Around six million ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan are currently in the territory controlled by Massoud. Should his forces be defeated, Tajikistan could face a massive influx of refugees.

Kazakstan is further from the epicentre but would welcome a stable Afghanistan. Astana takes a similar view to Turkmenistan and would welcome the opportunity to open a southern pipeline. The knock-on criminal and legal problems created by Afghanistan, particularly with relation to the porous borders with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, are also a constant annoyance to Kazakstan.

Uzbekistan's open hostility to the Taleban is unique among the Central Asian republics. Tashkent has accused the Taleban of sheltering fighters from the opposition Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Tashkent therefore welcomed Russia's recent warnings that air strikes were being considered against training bases in Afghanistan, which Moscow claims are preparing Islamic fighters.

Uzbekistan has also voiced support for Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek and one of the founders of the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance.

Like her other Central Asian neighbours, however, Uzbekistan too would profit from a new energy corridor through Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, is too small a country not to lose out in these geo-political games. The tiny republic is dependent on all sides and is particularly vulnerable to the instability in Afghanistan. In the autumn of 1999, for example, IMU fighters based in Afghanistan raided southern Kyrgyzstan seizing several hostages. The Bishkek authorities were forced to call on the assistance of fellow CIS members to oust the insurgents.

The Central Asian republics need to reign in their paranoia over radical Islam and adopt a more realistic approach when dealing with Afghanistan. The fact remains that the Taleban controls most of the country and that the Northern Alliance, despite the aid coming from Russia and Iran, is unlikely to regain its lost territory. To continue relying on Russia and its policy of supporting Massoud's forces, Kyrgyzstan and its neighbours face an endless war on their doorstep.

A potentially more fruitful approach would be to begin building bridges with the Taleban. The Central Asian republics should devise a unified initiative and push for this to be brought before the United Nations.

A collective approach from Central Asia could break the existing inertia over the Afghan crisis. More active UN involvement would break the region's existing dependency on Russia. Such an approach may not bring peace to Afghanistan but it could produce greater stability - something that would greatly benefit Central Asia as a whole.

Turat Akimov is a political analyst with the Kyrgyz national news agency Kabar.

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