Tajik and US experts are evaluating the suitability of military facilities in Tajikistan for hosting American armed forces. The assessment mission could open the way for the conduct of US strategic offensive operations from Central Asian bases against targets in neighboring Afghanistan.
American inspectors, including US military engineers, arrived in Tajikistan shortly after the departure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who just wrapped up a four-day tour through Russia, Central Asia, Pakistan and India. Rumsfeld's trip aimed to rally support for the anti-terrorism offensive. The US experts are focusing their attention on three Tajik airbases.
During his stop in Tajikistan, Rumsfeld finalized details on the scope of the assessment mission during an hour-long discussion with President Imomali Rahmonov and other Tajik officials. Currently, Tajikistan, which shares a 750-mile border with Afghanistan, permits the United States to use its airspace for humanitarian and search-and-rescue missions. Tajik Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov, who participated in talks with Rumsfeld, said Tajik cooperation could potentially be expanded to include military flights.
"We needed to enhance our cooperation in fighting international terrorism," Nazarov told reporters November 3.
Rumsfeld stressed that the United States would not gain immediate access to Tajik military facilities. But he said Tajik officials were providing assistance that was "very real and very important from the standpoint of over-flights, intelligence gathering and various types of military-to-military cooperation."
Some military analysts have suggested Tajikistan's Kulyab airbase, located roughly 60 miles from the Afghan border and currently used by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance for transiting supplies, as the best potential base for US forces.
During the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Moscow's military planners refurbished and expanded Kulyab's facilities to handle large transport planes and military equipment. Other possible bases in Tajikistan include airbases at Khujand and Kurgan-Tyube.
Previously, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated that Dushanbe airport could serve as a possible platform for US forces. But the drawbacks of this airport, experts say, are that it also handles commercial air traffic, and it is located near a heavily populated area.
Beyond granting the United States access to its bases, it is unclear whether Tajikistan is in a position to provide much in terms of active military support. Tajikistan is among the world's poorest countries, and it is still struggling to overcome the devastation of a 1992-97 civil war.
That struggle pitted Rahmonov's government against a coalition dominated by Islamic insurgents. Under terms of the 1997 peace accord, some Islamic leaders and their supporters were integrated into government bodies. However, other opposition commanders have engaged in renegade actions that continue to challenge government control of the country.
Since the Soviet collapse, Tajikistan has relied on Russian troops to secure the country's frontier with Afghanistan. Russia's 201st motorized division also is based in Tajikistan. Given Russia's interests in Tajikistan, and the considerable influence wielded by the Islamic Renaissance Party in domestic politics, Rahmonov's government has so far proceeded cautiously in its participation in the anti-terrorism alliance.
It is unclear exactly what Tajikistan would receive in return for granting basing rights to the United States. Some observers have suggested that Washington would use its influence to help Tajikistan gain access to development aid offered by international financial institutions.
Raffi Khatchadourian is a Tashkent-based freelance journalist.