Turkmenistan is quietly developing into a major transport hub for the northern supply network, which is being used to relay non-lethal supplies to US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has confirmed a small contingent of US military personnel now operates in Ashgabat to assist refueling operations.
The United States has a deal in place that allows for the landing and refueling of transport planes at Ashgabat airport, according to the US Department of Defense. NATO is also seeking to open a land corridor for supplies destined for troops in Afghanistan, a source tells EurasiaNet.
If secured, an overland rail and road route for cargo would provide military planners with a quick, well-worn path into western Afghanistan. The move would also build on Turkmenistan's low-profile support role for the war effort.
Ashgabat has already played an important support role in Operation Enduring Freedom. Since at least 2002, aviation fuel purchased in Turkmenistan has been forwarded "via rail car to the northern [Afghan] border cities of Turghundi and Hairaton," according to Fuel Line, the in-house magazine of the Defense Energy Support Center (DESC), a Defense Department contractor that facilitates fuel supplies.
Refueling also takes place at Ashgabat airport. According to DESC, Turkmenistan is among the Central Asian countries that are "invaluable to the success of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom."
Lt. Col. Mark Wright, a spokesman for the Defense Department, on July 7 described the nature of US-Turkmen transit arrangements. "As recently discussed by Turkmen President [Gurbanguly] Berdymukhamedov in a February speech in Uzbekistan, the Government of Turkmenistan now allows the US overflights of humanitarian cargo in support of stabilizing and rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan," Lt. Col. Wright said in a written response to questions posed by EurasiaNet.
"The United States has a small Air Force team, normally around seven airmen, who assist US aircraft who refuel at Ashgabat Airport, as part of this rebuilding and stabilizing effort for Afghanistan," he added.
"These airmen live in a nearby hotel and the fact that they are there is public knowledge," Lt. Col. Wright continued. "As a matter of policy, the United States does not discuss details of ongoing or future operations, specific types of aircraft, locations, facilities, etc."
The Defense Department's "Notice to Airmen" service indicates that Ashgabat airport facilitates the arrival of the Air Force's giant C-5 and C-17 transport planes. According to information generated on June 10, 2009, and valid until August 4; "aircraft doors cannot be opened until Turkmenistan Customs and Border Patrol are on-scene; aircrew must wait for approval from Air Force ground crew before opening any doors. C-5 aircraft requesting transit through [Ashgabat] must coordinate with [Ashgabat air traffic control] at least three days prior to [their estimated time of arrival] due to limited ramp space for servicing. Aircraft [Model Design Series] other than C-17 must have a tow bar onboard."
In 2004-2005, Turkmenistan appeared to permit the overland supply of operational rations, bottled water and construction materials through its territory. The supplies originated at Germersheim, Germany, at the Defense Distribution Depot-Europe, according to a strategy paper prepared by Col. Kurt Ryan and published by the US Army War College. Such overland supply operations terminated when Uzbekistan evicted US forces from the Karshi-Khanabad air base. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In addition, the Turkmen government permits the presence of US troops on its territory. Last November a "small unit" of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing deployed "at a remote location in Turkmenistan where supplies don't come often" managed to get a Thanksgiving food parcel delivered.
"We sent them the whole shebang; turkeys, sweet potatoes, stuffing, even cranberries," a member of the 376th Expeditionary Force Support Squadron stationed in Kyrgyzstan told the public affairs wing at the Manas air base near Bishkek.
The Turkmen Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment on any aspect of its cooperation with the US military. A State Department spokesman told EurasiaNet that the Defense Department did not want American diplomats publicly discussing "basing issues in Turkmenistan."
But Ashgabat is keen to tout the "high momentum" of cooperation with Washington since Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov visited the United States in June. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Russian media reports say Meredov, in lieu of American investments in Turkmenistan's energy sector, offered to open the sprawling ex-Soviet air base at Mary to flights carrying non-military goods.
A source familiar with the operations of the northern distribution network told EurasiaNet developments at the Mary air base could not be ruled out, but added the main focus of US attention at present is on utilizing the Turkmen road and rail network.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in late June sought quotes from commercial logistic companies for freight operation from Riga, Latvia, to Afghanistan, via Mary and Turghundi and Herat in Afghanistan, the source said.
Turghundi is directly across the Turkmen-Afghan border from Chemenabat, the site of "large-scale" tactical exercises held last March and attended by foreign diplomats including representatives from the US Embassy in Ashgabat. In recent weeks, Turkmenistan has entertained officials from Spain, a NATO member that has both military and non-military transit deals in place with Russia.
Turkmenistan is among the Central Asian countries included in the "National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010." This act enables the Defense Department to procure goods and services locally in designated countries. The aim is to "encourage the states of Central Asia [?] to cooperate in expanding supply routes through their territory in support of operations in Afghanistan."
Experts suggest the Mary base, in southern Turkmenistan, could function in a commercial capacity in much the same way the Navoi Airport in Uzbekistan is helping transport goods destined for coalition forces in Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Andre Grozin, the director of the Central Asia Department at the CIS Institute in Moscow, told EurasiaNet; "If an American base appears at Mary, it will not be military, or at least it will be declared as non-military. This way it won't contradict Turkmenistan's neutral status."
Deirdre Tynan is based in Bishkek.