A new world focus on Central Asian states

The US-led war on terrorism holds new opportunity, and risks, for a remote region.

Afghan rebels increasingly portray themselves as indispensible to America's declared war against terrorism, and those living in their territory have the message down pat.

"I saw Osama bin Laden on TV, and he's a bad person and very naughty," says Shamsoleh, an Afghan English student. "If I find bin Laden, I will cut off his head."

Not a surprising view, in this valley hamlet surrounded by bleak stone ridges.

The United Nations-recognized government of Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani "rules" from this picturesque town, but only over about 10 percent of the country.

His Northern Alliance - a coalition of fractious rebel groups - is fighting Taliban control over the rest of Afghanistan.

With the US threatening to attack the Taliban to press for the handover of Mr. bin Laden, its most notorious guest, Northern Alliance officials have firm ideas about what must be done.

"The US should consult us. If they don't, the results of this operation will be bad," says Col. Saleh Registani, Northern Alliance military attache to Moscow. "We are inside Afghanistan, and ready to help," he says, adding that "missile and air attacks are not enough. We need to collaborate."

But while a new US presence may prove a boon for some in Central Asia, analysts warn that any US misstep risks boosting instability in a region already renowned for poverty, Islamic militancy, and drug- and gun-running.

Another caveat: the US military focus on Afghanistan - and possible use of former Soviet bases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - also cuts to the heart of Russia's sphere of influence.

"It remains to be seen how much Russia will willingly allow this to happen," says John Schoeberlein, head of the Forum for Central Asian Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "I predict a major confrontation will develop between Russia and the Central Asian states, if they decide to go with the US."

Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is committed to the US-led antiterrorism coalition, and already Washington has expressed a newfound understanding of Russia's hardline tactics - including extensive human rights violations - against separatist rebels in Chechnya.

Russia also says it will boost its longstanding military and cash support for the Northern Alliance.

American officials are already in contact with the group, though its own three years in power in the early 1990s were marred by corruption and misrule, which helped fuel the spread of the Taliban.

President Putin yesterday spoke by telephone with the president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov. The chief staging post for the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan is likely to be the focus of any US military presence. It has also been one of the former Soviet states most eager to snub its nose at its former masters in Moscow.

According to a Kremlin statement, the two leaders discussed "the situation taking shape in Afghanistan and around it, as well as practical issues of mutual action by both countries in the war on international terrorism."

The fiercely secular, authoritarian regime in Tashkent has been conducting its own crackdown on Muslims, shutting down mosques and arresting more than 5,000 people at one point for infractions as slight as growing a beard or wearing a religious hat.

One result was the birth several years ago of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, which works out of Tajikistan and has attacked targets Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Despite Uzbekistan's poor human rights record, the US has already begun to warm up its rhetoric, paving the way for future help against Afghanistan. President Bush explicitly mentioned the IMU when he outlined his war against terrorism to a joint session of Congress. IMU assets were among those frozen on Mr. Bush's terrorism list.

'Of all the Central Asia countries, it is Uzbekistan that will face the most serious problems participating in the antiterrorist war," says Aziz Niyazi, director of the Institute for Central Asia Development at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"The state already does not control a lot of Uzbek territories. Instead there are illegal radical military groups that keep them under their control. The radicals' positions are reinforced by serious economic and social mistakes, made by Uzbek leaders," he says.

The likely results are also unclear for Tajikistan, torn by a series of brutal civil wars since 1991 independence from the Soviet Union have claimed at least 25,000 lives. A fragile 1997 peace deal brought Islamic rebels into the government, though the regime ever since has been unable to prevent Tajikistan from being the major transit route for heroin from Afghanistan into Europe. This despite the 10,000 to 20,000 Russian troops that patrol the Afghan-Tajik border. Their presence vastly complicates any possible US military deployment.

"The US presence is going to increase substantially," says a Western diplomat in the capital, Dushanbe. "America will bring money, and if it is well-managed, it's a unique chance for Tajikistan.

"The question is: Are the authorities in a position to harness it for the better, or will it aggravate the situation?"

Tajikistan is one of the poorest of the former Soviet Central Asian states, with a per capital income of about $290 - less than $1 a day.

The risk of divisive instability is also real, and depends on American actions. "There will be a certain split in the society of these countries, between the state authorities, supporting the American action, and their peoples, who are not at all so eager to do it," says Mr. Niyazi. "This is a direct way to the instability and mass disorder."

Meanwhile, back in Afghanistan, despite the Sept. 9 assassination of Northern Alliance military chief Ahmad Shah Masood - known as the "Lion of Panjshir" for his exploits fighting Soviet occupation here in the 1980s - there is a rekindled hope among rebel ranks that their sliver of turf, which they say adds up to one quarter of the country, is soon to expand with US help.

"We are the most optimistic we have been in five years," Colonel Registani says. "It's a good opportunity for us."

But while the Northern Alliance groups may be rubbing their hands in glee that the US appears to have taken up their cause against the Taliban, some warn that the result could be unprecendented instability.

"If people see suffering because of this, it will be seen as an action taken on behalf of dubious and often dictatorial leaders, in alliance with the West," says Schoeberlein. "It could create a great impulse to extremism, and create an anti-West, anti-American view that has so far been absent in Central Asia."

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