This essay is part of a series by American diplomats sharing their impressions of the dramatic early years of Central Asia's independence from the Soviet Union. These memoirs were written at the invitation of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. We publish these with special thanks to Nargis Kassenova, director of Davis's Program on Central Asia.
The West discovered Tajikistan on September 11, 2001.
That morning, I was consul general in Toronto, in a stalled queue of nominee ambassadors to backwater countries. I had another year in Toronto and time aplenty to refurbish my rusty Russian – learned 30 years earlier mostly by reading Czarist-era texts for a dissertation, “Cotton and the Economic Transformation of Russian Central Asia.” Languid was the operative word.
My language lessons were sharply focused, with no interruptions. So it was to my mild irritation that my wife Pom came into the living room and told me a plane had hit a big building in New York City. Pom offered no other details, and I somewhat distractedly went back to indeterminate verbs with my teacher, Tatiana. When Pom rushed back to say another skyscraper had been hit by another airliner, I excused myself and rushed to the office.
Fifteen minutes later, my office manager Karen Heide, savvy and sagacious as ever, greeted me and said: “I’ve separated out your personal files. Start packing. You will be gone in two weeks, and Central Asia will be rediscovered. Your nomination to Obscuristan is no longer on de facto hold.”
Physically, Tajikistan is cheek by jowl to Afghanistan, and thus useful for bases, overflights, etc. Mentally, its urban elite and the president were in tune with anti-Taliban leaders, who had for years been self-exiled to Dushanbe. Linguistically, Tajik is mutually intelligible with the Dari widely spoken in northern Afghanistan. The CIA and our special forces undoubtedly were aware of these dynamics and already viewed Dushanbe a logical waystation for our less-public forms of warfare and influence-buying. $10 million dollars in fresh hundred-dollar bills fit nicely in the chief-of-station’s armored Peugeot 607, flown into Dushanbe by the time I arrived on October 13.
The Pentagon had launched its Afghanistan campaign the week before, drawing heavily on assets in Uzbekistan, a far more developed country with a regular U.S. Embassy-cum-military presence and a robust bridge over the Amu Darya River. But Tajikistan already had a quiet “Other Government Agency” (CIA) mandate, as did various DOD elements. All this was on the Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s mind at my October 9 swearing-in, where he made it clear that my first task was to achieve a real embassy presence less encumbered by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security rules. Our Tajikistan team, now officially assigned to Almaty, should expect to be in Dushanbe in military field-type conditions, more or less full-time.
Closing the ceremony, Armitage told me to get on the plane to Almaty, then onward to Dushanbe, the next day: “You can do the ambassador course, charm school, some other time,” he chuckled.
A connection on Tragic Air
The Central Asia experience began in Frankfurt, specifically in the transit lounge where Lufthansa premium passengers waited to board the Almaty flight. A couple of muscular and impassive Kazakhs were enjoying the complementary liquor. At one point, they drifted to another section of the lounge, leaving behind a plastic bag of food leftovers. As I sat reading, the cleaning staff waited 20 minutes or so and then swept up the bag into the nearest trash bin.
The loudspeaker system announced Almaty pre-boarding. The pair returned and the larger of the two went into a panic. “Where is the bag?” he said in Russian. I steered him over to the trash bin, and he retrieved his food, along with his diplomatic passport and bundle of large euro bills. He was the picture of alcoholic gratefulness, my friend for life. The kicker came when our Airbus touched down in Almaty. The aircraft front door opened, and the Kazakh pair, one an ambassador and the other a cabinet minister, were ushered off the plane into a waiting security vehicle.
The following day was a quiet Sunday in Almaty, a sort of Soviet suburbia: lots of trees, wide avenues, flecks of snazzy restaurants, a Turkish shopping center, and a dash of Rodeo Drive.
If culture shock began in the Frankfurt transit lounge, it bulked up as I left comfortable Almaty for Dushanbe. Flying Tajik (we called it “Tragic”) Air meant iffy planes over jagged mountains to an edgy country.
I had the front aisle seat next to a man built like an Oakland Raiders’ middle linebacker wearing a thick coat. I politely asked, “Could you put your coat up above so we have enough room?” He pointed to the window and smiled. Once airborne, I realized why he did not shed the coat. The window seat was a meat locker, with thick frost on the inside of the window. On the adjacent aisle seat was Tajikistan’s director for Civil Aviation. He fired up a Winston as the Yak-40 took off, seatbelt dangling on the floor.
For embassy staff other than those with the Other Government Agency (which had its own plane), Tajik Air was our sole means of transport. As such, it was front and center among our security-related problems, given that the Bureau of Diplomatic Security mandated that we get specific permission from Washington to be allowed in Dushanbe only for short stints before flying back to Almaty.
Special-purposes trips were routine: We literally flew to Almaty to write a classified cable and receive some classified information. As Tajikistan lacked a functioning banking system, we hand-carried pouches with 50 or 100 grand for operating funds. The previous ambassador had bemoaned the nonsense of this, observing that repeated flights on one of the world’s most troubled airlines was itself a greater security threat than simply reopening the embassy in Dushanbe.
Said another way: Our enthusiasm for commuting on Tajik Air waned as the planes got older.
A silver lining – these flights had dramatic scenery: Rows upon rows of serrated, almost triangular snow-capped peaks broken by lakes and high valleys, where rivulets fingered their way down to a distant sea – the now-all-but-evaporated Aral. Then and now, most waters are intercepted to feed the thirsty cotton of Uzbekistan. They made for great photography, which became a subject of discussion with President Emomali Rahmonov in the Oval Office 14 months later.
Between the Pentagon and Diplomatic Security
My wife Pom, who stayed in Almaty, mused about hubby’s grand ambassadorial residence. But the truth was that hubby slept in a converted storeroom above a garage. And that was lucky since other Foreign Service officers bunked out on couches. The embassy itself was a Persian-style house with a courtyard and persimmon trees.
The search for new embassy quarters and housing would be the first priority; second was reliable, classified communications; third was ferrying in supplies and money on those iffy flights. Fourth, overarching, was convincing the Tajiks that we were serious about the war with the Taliban – whom they had hated for a decade – and about cooperation. Tellingly, when my predecessor had asked for my agrément some months back, Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov had observed: "Why should we bother when Huddle will just stay a day or two and then go back to Almaty?”
In military style, we also compiled a wish list of highly specific embassy objectives. (This was not State's formal, so-called Mission Program Plan steeped in generalities and wishy-washy hopes for better-behaved autocrats – like “achieve democracy,” “improve the economy,” “human rights”.) Among our 43 goals were basing rights, overflight and landing permission, a Status of Forces Agreement (to allow us to station troops, if necessary), a site to build a new embassy, a bridge to Afghanistan, and a president-to-president visit in Washington. (When Rahmonov had gone previously, he was met by a deputy assistant secretary.)
It was my job to establish durable, quality relations with the top Tajiks. For most purposes, this was just President Rahmonov (now called Rahmon) and his longtime foreign minister, Nazarov. Rather quickly, the department showered us with the full monty of assistance funds – $50 million dollars to start, or roughly a third of the published Tajik government budget. The foreign minister was impressed at learning this on the eve of Centcom Commander General Tommy Frank's visit two weeks hence, though he wryly quoted a Russian saying, "The only free cheese is in a mousetrap." Then the scholarly diplomat added, "as the Hungarians say, 'money talks, dogs bark’.”
I will gloss over the second mission component; Bob Woodward captures the flavor but not the scope in Bush at War. That Other Government Agency was active on many fronts, with bilingual Persian Americans, special activities muscle, James Bond gadgets, and mini ultra-modern communications, only for them. A dozen – or two, or three – special forces and other military elements were in safe houses, but also wandering our house chancery, especially nights, when they chatted up the winsome duty secretary and satellite-phoned for hours to coordinate with Centcom.
From my first day, it became clear that the elephant in the room 10,000 miles away was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who quickly arrogated to himself the lead role in many of our activities. To this end, he had manpower, a mission – and money. When, for example, I grumped that the temporary military component was using the three-dollar a minute satellite phone for hours on end and would quickly exhaust Dushanbe's $5,000 yearly budget, a Defense Department fund citation for $500,000 came in the next day – enough for two lifetimes of big embassies. $5,000 would have been chump change: “Go away, sonny, we are the big boys,” they could have said.
Day one in Dushanbe: In the airport lounge there was a blaze of greetings and then a near sprint to a fully armored eight-ton Chevy Blazer. En route to the embassy-cum-ambassador's residence, Dushanbe reminded me of Kabul in my 1968 world-traveler days. Mountains in the distance, a sparkle in the dead-still air, 80 degrees with intense blue sky, strolling families and truly minimal traffic in the best Soviet tradition. Main street Rudaki was crisp and clean on the surface, lined with solid if not stolid Soviet architecture and a parsimony of ads and wall notices.
Days two-three-four centered on confidential Afghan-war related issues, the arrival of more temporary staff from several agencies, and house-hunting for a better temporary embassy facility and quarters. Because of State’s security strictures, we were in a staffing bind. A more robust embassy was essential for the war – and people were pouring in – but we needed to stay below the Bureau of Diplomatic Security radar in terms of our growing official American presence. That meant that as we shot up from four to 18 U.S. non-military, non-intelligence employees, we were not supposed to advertise this fact or ask for more resources.
Day five: The first telephone spanking. We had been too obvious about engaging Washington for assistance in operating funds and house hunting. A deputy assistant secretary phoned during our daily coordination meeting on an open line, so I let the whole gang listen in and imbibe the flavor of official D.C. reminding its Dushanbe ambassador not to take that extraordinary and plenipotentiary stuff too seriously. All recognized the dilemma: We had been told to ask obliquely for resources in an open-channel message which observed as justification that we were now eighteen people, not four. Diplomatic Security weighed in: What were we thinking, putting security needs aside to fight a war?
After 9/11 Washington episodically hued and cried that we had to have a better chancery “now.” So, on days two-to-seven we flailed for hours around greater Dushanbe, looking for houses. Most of the places offered for rent or sale looked like over-the-top narco-structures air-dropped out of Cali or Sinaloa. Typically, the owners were well-placed government servants feverishly accumulating savings from their official $30-a-month salaries. After two months of back-and-forth, the State Department reversed course and said the best solution was to build from scratch. $60 million. We broke ground months later, but it was three years before my successor Ambassador Richard Hoagland raised the flag.
So you need an airbase?
After the first week things gradually settled down. The war in Afghanistan was going well, especially in the north, where the Taliban was disliked and our $100 million to influence Northern Alliance leaders was a thumb on the scale. American generals began to come through Dushanbe. First a one-star. Then a two-star. The first tranches of special security assistance for Tajikistan were showing up, and the lack of a banking system was becoming a real challenge.
After the civil war, the Tajik economy remained a mix of cash and barter. At times, the only foreign currency available in the backdoor exchange places came in 500 euro notes. Just try to cash this "700 dollar" bill. Even in Europe, you must go to a bank.
Meanwhile, the defense attaché team and others hand-carried money from Almaty. This went smoothly, save for the time when one of our soldier diplomats was absorbed in practicing his fluent Russian with a comely seat partner and left the pouch under the Yak-40 seat as he exited the plane. Twenty minutes later, he was able to talk his way back on the aircraft and retrieve the $50,000. What impressed me the most was that he trusted me enough to confess the near mishap.
Week two was action-packed, with a clear emphasis on a new U.S.-Tajik-Russian engagement against the Taliban. Vladimir Putin came to Dushanbe first – we got along with him then – and spoke with authority that came from the presence in southern Tajikistan of a Russian division (Tajik grunts as well as 7,000 Russian troops). Two days later was my presentation of credentials to President Rahmonov.
The meeting went 110 minutes: five minutes of ceremony and 105 minutes of Afghan-oriented talk, way longer and more congenial than anticipated. Palpable was the sense that Tajikistan saw the stars aligning such that it could reduce its dependency on Russia and have us as a powerful, albeit distant great-power asset. In this spirit, we already had gotten informal overflight rights and informal approval of various forms of landing rights.
While I would meet with the president periodically, he essentially deputized Foreign Minister Nazarov as our one-stop facilitator. A charmer, Nazarov made himself ever available and would have his secretary call if more than a week passed without our standard hour-or-two meeting. If we needed approval for larger concerns, say, the Status of Forces Agreement, he said it would take a day for parliament to get it done. That was the arrangement: The president ran the show, the foreign minister was the enabler, and parliament clicked its heels.
Case in point: When the Minister of Justice, who lived around the corner from our embassy, unilaterally tore down one of our blast barriers, the next day Nazarov phoned his Justice colleague – in front of me – and chewed him out for compromising our security. The dressing down began in Russian: "What kind of idiocy..."
Week two closed with a visit from General Franks, who set the standard for blunt, unvarnished yet persuasive chit-chat. For two hours, he and Rahmonov bonded over the elimination of Osama bin Laden and specific military assets that Tajikistan might provide. At one point, Rahmonov barked a suggestion to his soft-spoken, slightly built Minister of Defense wherein the latter disappeared to retrieve map rolls which we poured over like excited schoolboys. Franks was an ideal diplomat in the Central Asian context: imposing and, as I observed several times, supremely capable of downing three vodka shots over a presidential lunch.
Week three was Rumsfeld's. The agenda was explicit basing rights, most likely near Rahmonov's hometown in Kulyab, where the Russians had a presence at the aged airfield and would have to be ousted. (I already had positive soundings on this score but a closer with real authority was needed).
On November 4, a C-17 flew the defense secretary and a large delegation from Moscow to Dushanbe. The trip was haphazard in the extreme: no details, no talking points; State was largely in the dark. No one had arranged formal landing rights. On departure, as I walked Rumsfeld to the bulky gray cargo jet, the owner of Dushanbe's Airport (yes, it was a private concession) was badgering the secretary for money. The Tajik defense minister told the owner in Russian (a language not known to Rumsfeld, who was within earshot), "don't disgrace Tajikistan."
Equally goofy was the armored-car ride from Dushanbe Airport to the Presidential Palace. The driver and bodyguard occupied row one; secretary and ambassador got row two. Row three had a stack of guns and flak jackets. I slid in first and ushered Rumsfeld into the seat of honor by the door. Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith then jumped in between us, whereupon Rumsfeld turned to him and said: "Doug, it's too crowded here, get in the back." So, the undersecretary, no ballet dancer, had to clamber over the seat to be splayed atop AK-47s in the third row. Rumsfeld whiled away car time by reminiscing about his days as a congressman and otherwise, rather disarmingly, running out the clock rather than talking substance with a State official.
Once inside the president's inner office, Feith aggressively shoehorned himself next to Rumsfeld – a bad idea, as neither knew a word of Russian. (Rumsfeld even asked me after the meeting full of da's and nyet's what language was being spoken. He was jet-lagged). Meanwhile, the aged Defense Department emigre translator, bumped to the far end of the table, fumbled by failing to translate the magic moment: Rahmonov's off-hand, one-word approval of the bases: “Pozhaluista!” ("you are welcome" or "help yourself").
A disconcerted Tajik president looked at me. I immediately went into horror mode because in much of Asia, if somebody gives you a "yes" and you don't respond, they may assume this means that they gave the wrong answer and should reverse course by saying no. So, I jumped in from my nickel seat and translated loudly, "the president said yes." We landed our base.
After the Rumsfeld visit, the embassy slowly regularized itself and the Tajiks continued to meet Washington’s concerns with alacrity. Meanwhile, we prepped local contacts on how to accommodate a brigade-sized American presence in backwater Kulyab. Seven weeks passed. Then, on Christmas Eve, as Maersk was unloading the ammunition in a European port and freight trains were carrying in materiel for our base, an American brigade commander phoned from San Diego on the open line: "Well, there was a video teleconference yesterday and a Rumsfeld surprise – we will use a base in Kyrgyzstan instead."
Christmas Day, I called on President Rahmonov to deliver the bad news. He took it surprisingly well, the more so given that his government had already asked the Russians to vacate the Kulyab airfield. Nazarov also took it like a man and kept the weekly relationship going. In his words: "every silver lining has a cloud."
Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney's office began to work the Tajik account. A member of Cheney's growing foreign policy group flagged our upbeat biographic cable on Foreign Minister Nazarov. Cheney reportedly said: "I want to meet this foreign minister." Thus, a foreign minister from Obscuristan was invited to meet with a uniquely influential U.S. vice president. The visit went well and almost immediately teed up a follow-up Oval Office meeting for Rahmonov. My sense from afar was that Cheney's office and not the State Department drove this encounter, which was to have many of the hallmarks of a formal State visit. To wit: Blair House accommodations, 21-gun salute at Arlington Cemetery, a meeting with Cheney in his residence, lunch with Secretary of State Colin Powell, a pull-aside with the CIA director.
Of course, the centerpiece for Rahmonov was the coveted Oval Office visit in December 2002. Besides a dozen officials, Secretary Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and (without RSVPing) Rumsfeld were to join President Bush on the padded seats. Before the pre-briefing, Rumsfeld wandered over and asked, "Hey Pancho, so how did the Tajiks take it when we didn't use the base they offered?"
"They pulled up their socks like a man and marched on," I replied.
"No, no, I'm serious, how did they react?" Rumsfeld pressed. I told him that they didn’t complain and they didn’t go public, whereupon the Defense Secretary mused: "Well, I guess we owe them one."
"I think so," I agreed.
"What can we do?"
“Well we've been passing the cup trying to raise money for a bridge, the Bridge of Enduring Freedom, between Tajikistan and Afghanistan,” I told him.
Rumsfeld then asked how much was needed. Answer: $10 million. State had ready $1 million and I had gotten $1 million from the Norwegians. (After gold-plating and the contracting process, the bridge, completed in 2007, ultimately cost much more.) As we wrapped it up with President Bush walking in, Secretary Rumsfeld, as they often do at his level, didn't venture anything. He just nodded.
Three weeks later, my defense attaché received $10 million signed by the Pentagon comptroller. He grumped, "You know, Mr. Ambassador, they are not allowed to just send money like that.” I laughed and said, "well, Major, go ahead and rebuke Rumsfeld, I'm sure that will help you get pinned on quicker for your next promotion.”
Kodak moments in the Oval Office
During the pre-brief Bush directed all the questions to his ambassador. When he asked what the country looked like, I pulled out a photo of snow-stained mountains with gorgeous fields of flowers and handed it to him. The president said: "It looks like West Texas." Rice interjected: "No, it looks like Colorado."
Earlier that day, over breakfast at Blair House, I had passed a copy of the same photograph to Rahmonov with the idea that it might help two heads of state bond. Also, it would give our president a sense of how beautiful his impoverished country could be. That came to pass as the two presidents exited the Oval Office and talked about mountain scenery, photos in hand. Rice pulled me aside and said: "This wasn't an A meeting. It was an A-plus.”
Bush himself deserves the credit. He artfully used the pre-briefing to get a sense of Rahmonov's personality and family. The highlight came when he turned to the Tajik leader and asked with a warm smile:
"You're married, right?"
"Yes," Rahmonov replied.
"How many kids do you have?"
"Well, nine," Rahmonov enthused.
“How many girls and how many boys?”
"Seven girls and two boys."
Then Bush said with a smile: "Wow, you've got the stuff, hunh." It was pitch-perfect for a Tajik leader routinely photographed dandling his grandchildren on a knee. We were to get everything we wanted out of the meeting, including how to fit Tajikistan's delicate relationship with Russia into the equation and not unduly raise Tajikistan's expectations of eternal U.S. involvement.
For the rest of my two-year tour, Tajikistan remained in Discovered Mode. Inspectors came and observed, and Embassy Dushanbe had a remarkable range and depth of responsibilities. We broke ground with brass shovels on the new chancery. Incoming Ambassador Dick Hoagland had a real house and real communications. And step by step, the Bureau of Security lessened its overweening grip, yet charitably kept employed my 31 armed guards (11 of whom were doctors who happened to be crack shots, because the U.S. government paid better than Tajik hospitals).
9/11 was a magic "open sesame" moment that let Tajikistan into a treasure cave – not Aladdin's, but the immense financial and political support of the U.S. In so doing, it opened for Tajikistan a unique and perhaps only temporary escape from Russian dominance.
When I departed in 2003, the war in Afghanistan was – or at least, should have been – winding down. Rahmonov was dead against our Iraq adventures and told me so, but did not go public with his objections thanks to our diplomacy. His hope was that we would finish the job in Afghanistan and that Washington-Moscow cooperation would continue, with Russia a partner in the global fight against religious extremism and the U.S. acknowledging Russia's geographic dominance and historical equities in the region.
Alas, this has not come to pass. Instead, as we look ahead, we see a Chinese highway into Tajikistan and a new Great Game marketed as a refurbished Silk Road.
Franklin (“Pancho”) Huddle, Jr. was U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan from 2001 to 2003.