With Uzbekistan’s eager cooperation, notwithstanding strong initial objections from Moscow, the United States has begun deploying air power and some ground force personnel in that country. It is still unclear which Central Asian country or countries opened their air space to the American planes en route to Uzbekistan. With this move, the United States has begun concentrating its forces on the northern border of Afghanistan, preparatory to probable strikes against terrorist organizations and their hosts in that country. Great Britain seems poised to join this operation, and several other European allies are now considering how they might contribute.
While the objective may be short term, and the mission tactical, the implications of this move are potentially strategic and long term, if capitalized on once the present operation is over. For the first time in history, Western forces will be operating from invaluable land bases in Central Asia. Accessible in the past only to the land forces of continental empires, of which the Russian and Soviet was the last, Central Asia was out of range for the land forces of the Western maritime powers. That immunity translated into priceless strategic depth for the Eurasian rivals of the West.
Strategic air power, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence aspirations of regional countries rendered Central Asia accessible to U.S. and allied forces in the mid-1990s. When American airborne troops landed in Central Asia after a nonstop, midair refueled flight from the United States in September 1998, as part of the multinational CentrasBat exercise, a geopolitical revolution seemed set on its natural course. It stopped short of fruition, however, as the Clinton administration decided against an American participation in the region’s security arrangements, deferring to a debilitated, yet proprietary-minded Russia.
That American disengagement not only handed Moscow unmatched leverage in dealing with the region’s countries, but–as is now clear–allowed security threats to develop in Afghanistan, to proliferate inside Central Asia and ultimately to hit the United States itself. While the current American deployment represents an emergency response to a crisis, it can by the same token become the first move toward building a genuinely international security framework for the region.
The deployment at this stage is proceeding incrementally, its planned extent not yet apparent. On or about September 22, at least two C-130 Hercules transport planes landed at the military airfield near Tashkent, with several hundred U.S. troops and a massive amount of intelligence-gathering equipment. Local observers surmise that some of that equipment is destined to support missions by U.S. tactical aviation, which would presumably soon be deployed at the Tashkent and Termez airfields for probable strikes inside Afghanistan.
On September 22, the Taliban authorities claimed to have shot down with machine guns an unmanned, unidentified reconnaissance plane over the Samangan province in northeastern Afghanistan. The location suggests that the plane may have flown into Afghanistan from either Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. On September 23 in Washington, the Pentagon acknowledged loss of contact with an unmanned reconnaissance plane.
In a related development, a four-man British special forces (SAS) team is reported to have entered Afghanistan from Tajikistan and to have exchanged gunfire with Taliban forces on the approaches to Kabul. According to fragmentary reports from London, the team’s mission is to gather intelligence and liaise with anti-Taliban forces, not only or necessarily those of the Northern Alliance.
Following the assassination of its commander in chief Ahmad-Shah Massoud on September 9 by two Arab suicide bomb throwers, the Northern Alliance has designated Massoud’s deputy, General Mohammad Fahim, as commander in chief. On September 21-22 Fahim, the Northern Alliance’s chief diplomat Abdollah Abdollah, and its military attache in Moscow, Mohammad Saleh Registani, conferred in Dushanbe with the visiting chief of the General Staff of Russia’s armed forces, Army General Anatoly Kvashnin, and the chief of staff of Russia’s Border Troops, Colonel Nikolai Reznichenko, in the presence of top Tajik officials. The conference is believed to have discussed a Northern Alliance offensive, to be undertaken in conjunction with the increasingly probable American air strikes in Afghanistan.
Also on September 22, Tajikistan arranged–for the first time–a visit by Western reporters to Afghan territory held by Northern Alliance forces opposed to the Taliban.
The ouster of the Taliban authorities is now a major political objective of the military intervention. The Northern Alliance, however, is not seen as a viable political leader because of its narrow base among Afghan Tajiks. The search is on for a coalition formula that would reflect the size of the Pushtun population, from which the Taliban movement drew its strength. For their part, Uzbekistan and Turkey favor a significant role for Afghan Uzbeks in a post-Taliban coalition government (Afghan Islamic Press, September 22; Asia-Plus, Uzbek Television, Interfax, Western news agencies, September 20-22; see the Monitor, September 18).
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