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Washington Assures Central Asian Leaders Over Afghan Drawdown

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, walks with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov before their talks at the Oguzkhan Presidential Palace in Ashgabat on November 3.

During his ongoing trip to Central Asia, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sought to reassure the presidents of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan that Washington remains committed to the region's security despite withdrawing most troops from neighboring Afghanistan.

Both nations are threatened by the spread of hard-line Islamic militants after the Afghan Taliban destabilized provinces in northern Afghanistan that border Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

"I emphasized the United States' commitment to work with Tajikistan and other countries ... to strengthen border security," Kerry told reporters after meeting Tajik President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe on November 3.

Dushanbe hosts a Russian military base, and a senior Russian official said last month that Moscow could re-establish security operations to guard the country's long border with Afghanistan. Russian forces played that role until 2005, when an agreement with the Tajik government lapsed and Russian troops withdrew.

On the last day of his Central Asian tour, Kerry also met with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow in Ashgabat.

"We have concerns (about Afghanistan) that we need to work on together," Kerry told journalists, adding that Ashgabat and Washington would sign a memorandum of understanding on "strategic security."

Kerry is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Turkmenistan after James Baker in 1992. He didn't elaborate on the kind of security cooperation the two nations will engage in.

After his talks with Berdimuhamedow, he said they discussed the "human dimension" in relation to security issues.

Washington has long been urging Central Asian governments to not use fears of extremism as an excuse to crack down on dissent. Earlier in the week, Kerry said security concerns should not be used as a "license to use violence indiscriminately." This, he said, will only serve to radicalize more people.

U.S. officials are hoping Central Asian leaders will see President Barack Obama's decision last month to slow the pace of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as a sign that Washington is not abandoning them.

The visit was also aimed at indicating that Washington wants to deepen economic ties in addition to security cooperation.

Kerry's Central Asia tours followed warnings from Russian officials about the danger of a spillover of Islamist militants into the region from northern Afghanistan. Russian officials hinted that Moscow will respond by increasing its military presence in Central Asia.

Moscow has said it is responding to threats from Islamic militants, but such actions have fueled U.S. suspicions that Russia is attempting to rebuild its old empire.

Reported by Matt Spetalnick for Reuters