Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 204

On November 3 in Dushanbe, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld obtained Tajikistan’s consent to the use of three military airfields by American-led antiterrorist forces. The United States has in turn agreed to pay an as yet undisclosed sum, to the order of tens of millions of dollars, for the privilege. Rumsfeld and Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov agreed, furthermore, to initiate regular exchanges of information regarding antiterrorist operations and to establish permanent military-to-military contacts between the United States and Tajikistan.

Use of Tajik airfields should substantially enhance the effectiveness of American-led offensive air and ground operations in Afghanistan. Politically, the understandings with Tajikistan–once formalized as agreements–should significantly broaden the U.S. presence in Central Asia beyond Uzbekistan.

The airfields are situated near Kulob and Kurgan-Tobe, both in southern Tajikistan near the Afghan border, and at Hujand in northwestern Tajikistan. On November 4, an American Central Command team–which included British, Canadian, Dutch and Turkish officers–began inspecting these Soviet-era airfields to assess their condition and the upgrading they probably require. The team’s composition suggests that several NATO allies are considering joining the United States in operating from these airfields.

Kulob and Kurgan-Tobe are ideally located as starting points for helicopter attacks and commando raids against Taliban forces in large parts of northern Afghanistan. The Taliban have thus far successfully contained the local Uzbek and local Tajik forces which operate in those two separate Afghan areas. Hujand, more distant from Afghanistan and separated from it by mountains within Tajikistan, is suitably located and equipped for handling bomber and transport aviation on shuttle missions to Afghanistan. All three airfields are also suitably located for fighter aviation operations.

Last year, the Russian military discussed using Hujand for either bombing raids on Afghanistan or stationing a Russian air force squadron there under “CIS Collective Security Treaty” (CST) pretenses. Those proposals had few takers in Central Asia. Uzbekistan, not a CST member, worried aloud that Hujand is too close to Tashkent for comfort if used by Russia.

Politically, Kulob is the stronghold of Tajikistan’s main governing clan. Dushanbe’s authority, weak in most parts of the country, is firmly entrenched in Kulob and the nearby Kurgan-Tobe. Rahmonov almost always seeks to include his native Kulob in international cooperation projects in order to ensure trickle down benefits. Hujand is located in the partly Uzbek-inhabited, relatively developed, and secularized Soghd Region of Tajikistan. During the civil war of the 1990s, militant Islam never penetrated either Kulob or Soghd. Recently, however, the underground movement Hezb ut Tahrir has made serious inroads in the Soghd Region and the city of Hujand. Tajik authorities are regularly announcing–most recently last week–arrests of Hezb ut Tahrir militants and confiscation of their literature in that area.

Tajikistan is the third Central Asian country, after Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, to have made its airspace and military airfields available to U.S.-led antiterrorist forces. Dushanbe made that offer on October 8 after some friction with allied Moscow, which stations military forces in Tajikistan under a bilateral treaty. The November 3 understandings with Rumsfeld are both broader and more specific than that initial offer. As in that case, Dushanbe informed Moscow about its move in advance. Rumsfeld, en route to Tajikistan, discussed the matter with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in Moscow on November 2.

Publicly at least, Russia has not objected this time. Yet it has apparently managed to veto the American use of the air base outside Dushanbe, which is Tajikistan’s best-endowed military installation, in good working condition and capable of accommodating strategic aviation. The Tajik government had in early October attempted to include that base in its offer to the United States, but ran into insurmountable Russian objections (see the Monitor, October 10).

General Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, in charge of this antiterrorist operation, visited Tashkent and Dushanbe on October 30-31 in preparation for Rumsfeld’s visit. Franks conferred with Rahmonov on the American use of Tajik airfields, and with General Mohammad Fahim, commander of Afghan Tajik forces, on coordination between those forces in northern Afghanistan and the U.S. military. They discussed, furthermore, emergency supplies of U.S. equipment to Afghan “Northern Alliance” forces. Rumsfeld declined to meet with Fahim in Dushanbe, apparently in order to avoid conferring a political coloring on the incipient military relationship with this component of the “Northern Alliance.”

Two considerations are leading Tajikistan into the rapprochement with America. One is the prospect of vitally needed economic assistance and investments from the United States and its allies (such as Japan). The other is the realization that only America has the power to eradicate Islamist terrorism and bring the war in Afghanistan to a successful conclusion. Dushanbe clearly realizes that Russia is incapable of delivering on either count.

In mid-October, Foreign Affairs Minister Talbak Nazarov had already declared to the Western press that Tajikistan “does not rule out the stationing of U.S. forces in the country.” He explained that Dushanbe has a vital stake in the success of the American campaign in Afghanistan. Failure to suppress terrorism “would bring devastating consequences for Central Asia. The region would be destabilized and investors would stay away” (DPA, October 18). In the same vein during Rumsfeld’s visit, Nazarov declared that “the security of Tajikistan depends on the outcome of the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan.”

U.S.-Tajikistan military cooperation faces a set of local political hurdles. Dushanbe insists on a disproportionate role for Afghan Tajiks in a future government in Kabul, at the expense of Pushtuns favored by America’s key ally Pakistan. The government of Tajikistan, moreover, is chronically at odds with that of Uzbekistan on a number of issues. These now include the status of Afghan Uzbeks and their area in a post-Taliban Afghanistan. The Dushanbe government is clan-based to a degree unparalleled elsewhere in Central Asia, and thus inherently ineffective if not unstable. Tajikistan’s authorities, moreover, run a disastrous economy dependent on the drug trade for up to one-third of the unofficial gross domestic product.

These are sequels of the final Soviet years, the civil war, the Afghan chaos and Russia’s inability to address the problems, once it had reestablished a form of control over Tajikistan. A military relationship with the United States can open the door to economic assistance and know-how for seriously addressing Tajikistan’s problems (Western news agencies, Dushanbe Radio, Asia-Plus, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Mashhad), Interfax, November 4-5; see the Monitor, October 2-3, 8, 12, 30, November 1; Fortnight in Review, September 28, October 12).