Along with other states in the region, Kazakhstan is struggling to find a way to appear supportive of the US campaign against terrorism, while avoiding direct involvement in hostilities. The opening of the US bombing raids on Afghanistan serve to deepen the dilemmas faced by Kazakhstani leaders.
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Kazakhstan has attempted to isolate itself from destabilizing forces buffeting the region. Authorities have reinforced border guards and have instituted a tough visa regime with Tajikistan to discourage the possible influx of refugees. Meanwhile, in the international arena, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has adopted the stance of a supportive onlooker.
To a certain degree, Nazarbayev has successfully tread a fine line between engagement and detachment. US Senators Sam Brownback (R-Ka.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) recently characterized Kazakhstan as "ready for the United States to engage on the topic of terrorism." At the same time, Kazakhstan has been reluctant to match Uzbekistan in making airfields and other facilities available to US forces. Indeed, Defense Ministry officials have even hastened to assure the local population that no US military-transport airplane has landed on its territory.
"Of all the assistance our state can offer towards military counter-terrorism operationsallowing use of our airfields, opening air corridors and sharing intelligence informationthe last would be the least risky for Kazakhstan," said a Defense Ministry expert who wished to remain anonymous. "Allowing the use of airfields means going into direct confrontation with the Taliban, [the militia that controls most of Afghanistan,] and that is not a good scenario in our situation."
A high-ranking Foreign Ministry Official also asserted that potential US strikes on Afghanistan create a significant security danger throughout Central Asia. "The influx of refugees is one problem, but the greater problem is that terrorists and militants might flee northward disguised as civilians," he said.
Authorities have devoted most of their attention to controlling population movements, tightening control of Kazakhstan's borders with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and introducing the visa regime with Tajikistan. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan had mutual visa requirements in place prior to September 11. According to Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry Press service, only those Tajik citizens who are on business or are making official trips are now allowed to enter Kazakhstan. Since September 21, the country has deported more than 1,000 illegal immigrants, according to the Interior Ministry. On October 8, the second day of American and British strikes on Afghanistan, the government stepped up border security procedures.
So far, the twin strategy of combining vocal support with self-protection has not appeared to annoy US officials. However, Kazakhstan's use of police to deter visitors from its neighboring nations has alarmed some human rights activists. Speaking at a recent conference in Almaty, political analyst Nurbulat Masanov argued that the deportation of immigrants did more to fuel regional tension than to promote stability.
Some local experts are predicting a long, sloppy campaign, saying it is too early to tell what the ramifications will be for Kazakhstan. Nevertheless, they are concerned about the future. "There is no military solution to the Afghanistan problem," says Professor Murat Abdirov, the director of the International Relations Institute of the Eurasian University. "If Afghan civilians are hurt by US retaliatory strikes in Afghanistan it would provoke a strong backlash in the Islamic World."
Nazarbayev and other leaders are doubtless concerned that the violence connected with the US anti-terrorism campaign could spread beyond the borders of Afghanistan. Therefore, Kazakhstan's participation in the anti-terrorism cause will be limited mostly to providing moral support. "Kazakhstan cannot stay away from the international anti-terrorism coalition, but we should proceed with caution," said Abdirov.
Alima Bisenova is a freelance journalist, based in Astana, Kazakhstan.