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On the front line

As NATO's Central Asian Partners take up frontline positions in the international coalition against terrorism, Osman Yavuzalp (1) examines the Alliance's relations with these countries.


When it became clear that the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States had been masterminded by Osama Bin Laden's Afghanistan-based al-Qaida network, their ferocity and audacity came as little surprise to the countries of Central Asia. The international community had, of course, been aware of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and expressed concern about human rights' violations, the wanton destruction of Buddhist statues and the arrests of international aid workers for allegedly preaching Christianity. But the Kyrghyz Republic, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and, to a lesser extent, Kazakhstan had experienced first-hand the dangers posed by Afghanistan's Taliban regime, having long suffered consequences of the drugs trade and been victim, since 1998, of several incursions by terrorists linked to al-Qaida.

Indeed, the countries of Central Asia had been among the first to draw the world's attention to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the potential risks to international security. As early as 8 September 2000 - a year before the attacks on the United States - Uzbek President Islam Karimov warned the UN General Assembly that: "Afghanistan has turned into a training ground and a hotbed of international terrorism" and that: "The continuing war in Afghanistan stands as a threat to the security of not only the states of the Central Asian region, but to the whole world."

Mindful of the need to restore law and order and to end the suffering of the Afghan people, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have, since 1997, tried to work for a peaceful solution to the Afghan crisis through the so-called "six plus two group" of countries which includes China, Iran and Pakistan, and is supported by both Russia and the United States. More recently, this group met Ambassador Lakdar Brahimi, UN special envoy to the region, in New York on 12 November, on the fringes of the UN General Assembly, for talks about a post-Taliban Afghanistan at which the representatives of the six neighbouring countries expressed support for the formation of a broad-based, multi-ethnic and freely chosen post-Taliban government.

In the immediate aftermath of 11 September, the countries of Central Asia joined fellow members of the Euro- Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) in unconditionally condemning the attacks and pledging to undertake all efforts to combat the scourge of terrorism. Since then, they have made good their pledge by making territory and assets available to the international coalition. Kazakhstan announced its readiness to support the US-led coalition with all the means at its disposal on 24 September. Similarly, the Kyrghyz Republic, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have made their support for the fight against terrorism clear. And Uzbekistan has become a vital element in the campaign against the Taliban, announcing on 5 October that it would open its air space to US planes and grant landing rights on Uzbek territory for search-and-rescue and humanitarian missions. Given that all these countries have predominantly Muslim populations, their support demonstrates that, contrary to Bin Laden's claims, the international campaign against terror is neither a crusade against Islam nor a clash of civilisations.

The 11 September attacks have demonstrated the indivisibility of security in the Euro-Atlantic area. All countries now face the same threats, whether they be in North America, Europe or Central Asia. Moreover, the attacks and the ensuing campaign against terrorism have also brought into focus the importance of Central Asia to Euro- Atlantic security and the need for closer cooperation between NATO and its Central Asian Partners - not just within the context of the current crisis, but beyond.

Central Asia and Europe have a long history of close interaction. During the 19th century, the region attracted the attention of both British and Russian empires because the Great Silk Road, the major trade route linking Europe to the Far East, passed through it. Today, Central Asia's energy reserves hold out the possibility of great wealth for the development of the region. However, NATO's interest in the region during the past decade is neither the result of Central Asia's history nor its economic potential. Instead, the Alliance has wished to foster security in Central Asia as part of its strategy of building partnerships with emerging democracies, meeting new security challenges and promoting stability throughout the Euro-Atlantic area. Efforts to pursue closer partnership and cooperation through both the Partnership for Peace programme and the EAPC have been of benefit to all.

The Partnership for Peace offers an extensive menu of security-related activities covering areas, such as civil emergency planning, crisis management, language training, scientific cooperation and the interoperability of armed forces. From this menu, each Partner can pick and choose on the basis of individual requirements and priorities. Moreover, under the terms of the Partnership, NATO Allies will consult with any Partner, at its request, if that Partner perceives a direct threat to its territorial integrity, political independence or security.

Two key principles underpin the Partnership for Peace. First, it is not directed against the interests of a third party. Neutral countries, such as Austria, Ireland, Moldova and Switzerland, are also able to benefit from the wide range of activities offered. Second, it does not seek to substitute or duplicate other cooperative initiatives but rather to complement them, as NATO has always respected the specific interests and regional considerations of its Partners. In Southeastern Europe, for example, countries participate in a number of parallel, multinational initiatives and have special bilateral relations among themselves, in addition to cooperating with NATO. In the same way, the Alliance is eager to support the various cooperative activities in which some Central Asian Partners participate, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, and it respects the relations that have been built up with Russia for historical, geopolitical and socio-economic reasons.

On the basis of such understanding, NATO and its Central Asian Partners have been able to embark on cooperative activities in various areas. Structured dialogue takes place between Alliance members and 27 Partner countries on virtually all issues of common concern within the framework of the EAPC. Through this multilateral forum, Central Asian Partners have been able to keep Allies and other Partners informed of developments in their region, since the emergence of Taliban-sponsored terrorism. A series of regional, security-cooperation seminars addressing Central Asian security issues have also been organised under EAPC auspices. These have been held in the region itself to help NATO Allies and other Partners get a better understanding of conditions on the ground. The first took place in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in October 1999. The success of this initiative led to a second seminar in Bishkek, the Kyrghyz Republic, in November 2000, and a third in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in September 2001 - only a few days after the terrorist attacks against the United States.

Civil-emergency planning is another key area of cooperation. Central Asian countries are prone to natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods, and are therefore keen to explore ways of protecting cities and populations located in high-risk zones. Planning for such civil emergencies and preparing the way for civil-military cooperation in disaster-response operations is being facilitated by participation in workshops and activities organised within the framework of the Partnership for Peace. To this end, tailored courses have taken place in the Kyrghyz Republic in 1996, in Uzbekistan in 1999 and in Kazakhstan in 2001.

NATO and its Central Asian Partners are also benefiting from the opportunity to work together in the field of scientific and technological research. Some 120 NATO science and technology grants have been awarded to the five Central Asian countries in the eight years since NATO's Science Programme was opened to Partner-country participation. In October this year, the Science Programme launched a major project, the "Virtual Silk Highway", to provide internet access via a satellite network to the scientific and academic communities of eight countries in Central Asia and the Southern Caucasus. Other NATO-sponsored science projects in Central Asia include a pilot study on environmental decision-making for sustainable development, launched in February 2001, involving Kazakhstan, the Kyrghyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; projects addressing radioactivity problems at the former nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk in the Sarzhal region of Kazakhstan; and initiatives to tackle pollution in the Aral Sea.

Once the scene of "the Great Game", Central Asia remains a region of crucial, strategic importance at the beginning of the 21st century. However, the zero-sum games of the past have now been consigned to history. Recent events have again demonstrated the wisdom of promoting cooperation, stability and security throughout the Euro-Atlantic area. While the Alliance does not claim to have solutions to all the problems there, or elsewhere, it is increasingly clear that long-term investment in building relationships, improving understanding and enhancing cooperation strengthens security for all.

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