Earlier this month the Collective Security Treaty Organization held the third element of its “Rubezh” (Frontier) command staff exercise in Tajikistan. The CSTO was established after the collapse of the USSR in December 1991. The initial CSTO members were Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan; Georgia, and Belarus joined in 1993. Azerbaijan joined the defensive pact in 1994 but withdrew five years later. Uzbekistan quit the organization along with Azerbaijan, only to rejoin in 2006.
The first phase of the exercises, covering the “use of forces and equipment of the system of collective security in a counter-terrorist operation in the Central Asian area of collective security,” was held March 27-29 in Russia (Itar-Tass, April 3). The third and final operational exercise involved 500 CSTO servicemen, about 50 armored vehicles, Sukoi-25 fighters, and MiG-24 helicopters maneuvering at Tajikistan’s Lyaur facility, located 10 miles north of Dushanbe (Kazinform, April 3). Russian, Kazakh, Tajik, and Kyrgyz military units participated in the joint operations, while CSTO members Armenia, Belarus, and Uzbekistan sent observers.
The latest CSTO exercise underscores a fact largely overlooked in the West: after the dissolution of the USSR Russian forces remained in Tajikistan, as the 201st Motorized Rifle Division continued to be stationed there, a source of ongoing concern to Washington as Russia’s influence in the region continues to gather strength (U.S. State Department Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, April 2007). The 201st Motorized Rifle Division has been in Dushanbe since 1989, following the Soviet retreat from the debacle in Afghanistan, ostensibly patrolling the volatile Afghan border.
As Tajikistan slid into a brutal five-year civil war that claimed around 50,000 lives, the 6,000 troops of the Russian division informally took sides and helped Emomali Rahmonov (who has now altered his name to “Rahmon,” see EDM April 25) to power in 1994.
Moscow’s payoff came in April 1999, when the Russian and Tajik defense ministers signed a mutual defense treaty allowing Moscow to establish a base in Tajikistan and to house the 201st Motorized Rifle Division for the next decade.
The collapse of the USSR offered unprecedented opportunities for Washington to extend its influence into previously closed areas, and the United States developed its Centrazbat joint exercises, which began in 1997 and involved Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani troops. After 9/11 the U.S. also acquired military bases in Uzbekistan at Karshi-Khanabad (K-2) and in Manas, Kyrgyzstan. Along with France and Italy, Washington also acquired basing rights at Tajikistan’s Kulob air base, about 30 miles from the Afghan border. At the height of its involvement, the Pentagon maintained about 200 personnel with helicopters at Kulob, supported by French and Italian teams, but the endeavor was short-lived and wound up by the end of 2002 (Demokratizatsiya, fall 2006).
Three months before 9/11, Central Asian leaders created a security organization that subsequently grew over time. On June 15, 2001, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan signed a protocol founding the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an embryonic organization that slowly accreted power as a counterweight to U.S. “hegemony.” In a telling move, the United States applied for observer status in the SCO and was rebuffed.
Tajikistan remained wedded to Moscow and the 1999 agreement was codified during an October 2004 meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Rahmonov. Putin said in Dushanbe, “The military base in Tajikistan, along with the air base in Kyrgyzstan, will be a reliable element in the united system of collective security in the region (Itar-Tass, October 18, 2004). Besides formalizing its Dushanbe presence, Russia also acquired a military space observation center in Nurek.
Nine months later the Bush administration’s Central Asian policy would stumble badly, leading to the loss of its K-2 base in Uzbekistan. After the May 2005 tragedy in Andijan, Tashkent unilaterally abrogated its defense agreement with Washington, leaving Manas the sole U.S. military base in Central Asia outside Afghanistan. A year later Uzbekistan relented and became a full-member of the CSTO. Tajikistan, drifting between Washington’s relative indifference and Moscow’s signs of interest, has been slowly moving back toward its former Soviet partners, as the recent CSTO exercises underline.
A further regional gravitational pull on Tajikistan is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which was established in June 2001 by Tajikistan and China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. From the outset, members insisted that the SCO “is not an alliance directed against other states and regions and it adheres to the principle of openness,” but it has hardly been pro-Western. Two months after the May 2005 Andijan shootings a SCO summit issued a communiqué calling on the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force coalition in Afghanistan to set a specific deadline for withdrawal from Central Asian military facilities, a thinly veiled reference to the U.S. facilities in Manas and Karshi-Khanabad (Declaration of Heads of Member States of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Astana, July 5, 2005). Four months later, the U.S. left K-2.
Washington has been slow to consistently engage the isolated country, an opportunity that Moscow has been quick to exploit. If the U.S. government is to re-engage Tajikistan on a significant basis, it will face challenges from both Moscow and Beijing, which have been assiduously gaining from Washington’s mistakes and will no doubt schedule more joint military maneuvers in the interim.