In 2001, the U.S. made a deal with Tajikistan to set up an air base near the Afghanistan border, but backed out at the last minute in favor of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, said the man who was U.S. ambassador to Dushanbe at the time. The diplomat, Franklin Huddle, said that Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense who made the decision to use Manas instead of the Tajikistan base, agreed to fund a bridge to Afghanistan as a sort of consolation prize.
While it was reported at the time that the U.S. was looking at bases in Tajikistan, it hadn't been known until now that a deal had been reached. Huddle said that the government of Tajikistan had agreed to allow the use of the base at Kulyab, even going so far as to kick out the Russian troops who were then occupying it. It also hadn't been reported until now that the bridge at Nizhny Pyanj, funded by the U.S., was given to Tajikistan to mollify the Tajiks disappointed by losing the clout, and money, they would have gotten by hosting a U.S. military base. Huddle told the story at a conference this week in Washington. Here's how he told it:
“Rumsfeld had come to Tajikistan, he'd had orders from the president to get a base in Tajikistan. I sat in in the meeting and translated, in fact [for part of the meeting]. That base was then given to them, and the Tajik government asked the Russians to leave, which was a big deal. Well, then Rumsfeld changed his mind and decided to use Kyrgyzstan instead, just as the base was all ready to open, trains were coming to bring ammunition. That was Christmas Eve. So Christmas Day, I had to go in an tell President Rahmon what was not a very nice piece of news. The Tajik government, to their credit, took it like a man and didn't say anything about it and kept the relationship going.
“A year later, there was [an official] visit by the president [Rahmon]... He went to the Oval Office, and before [Rahmon] came in, Secretary Powell, Secretary Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, myself and President Bush were there. Secretary Rumsfeld turned to me and asked me, 'So how did the Tajiks take it when we didn't use the base that they offered?'”
-- Well, they pulled up their socks like a man and they marched on... they didn't say anything public, they took it like a man.
-- Well, I guess we owe them one.
-- I think so.
-- What can we do?
“Well, for two years I've been trying to raise money for a bridge, through his organization [the Pentagon?] I'd gotten a million dollars, from the Norwegians I'd gotten a million dollars, but we needed 12 million dollars. I told this story, and Secretary Rumsfeld, as they often do at this level, didn't say anything, just sort of nodded.”
“Three weeks later, a check showed up at the embassy, to the defense attache, for this ten million dollars. And the defense attache came to me and said 'You know, Mr. Ambassador, they're not allowed to just send money like this from the Department of Defense.' And I said 'Well, major, go ahead and rebuke Secretary Rumsfeld, I'm sure that would help your career.' And with that money, that bridge got built.”
Maybe the most remarkable part of this story is how the Russians apparently just rolled over and let the Americans kick them out of Kulyab. After his talk, Huddle explained to The Bug Pit that it was a different time: Russia at the time had not yet regained its assertiveness that it lost in the immediate aftermath of the USSR's collapse, and because they were cooperative after 9/11, that they also didn't publicly complain about being kicked out. This is borne out in Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cables: in 2006, Tajikistan's foreign minister "reminded the [U.S.] Ambassador that in 2001, Tajikistan was very interested in coalition troops establishing a military presence at Kulyab airfield, but the United States did not take up the offer." But then when Rumsfeld made another attempt to establish a base in Tajikistan that year, he was denied, because by then the geopolitical situation had gotten more complicated, and Russia (as well as China) had lost patience with the U.S. operating in its back yard. "We have commitments to the regional organizations (especially the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Commonwealth Strategic Treaty Organization [sic], and the Eurasian Economic Community). Could we allow ourselves to by ostracized in those regional fora?" the foreign minister asked.
Huddle said he didn't know why Rumsfeld changed his mind from Kulyab to Manas, but guessed that despite the fact that Kulyab is much closer to Afghanistan than is Manas, the infrastructure in Tajikistan is much worse than in Kyrgyzstan, making the latter easier to operate in. (Rumsfeld's office did not respond to a request for comment.)
Huddle said the bridge was his initiative, jokingly calling it a "Chinese type of development" and "a bridge to nowhere," but one which has the potential to stimulate commerce in remote parts of those two countries. It ended up costing $35 million and has been criticized for being underutilized and even inadvertently aiding drug traffickers. But one wonders whether Rahmon considers it a worthwhile compensation for the loss of the base.
Meanwhile, discussions about a U.S. base keep trundling along. In spite of the geopolitical difficulties alluded to in 2006, as recently as 2010 Tajikistan officials were again saying that "they would be happy for the U.S. establish an air base in Tajikistan." With the U.S. leaving Afghanistan starting in 2014, though, and the U.S. presumably reducing its military footprint in Central Asia, that ship may already have sailed.