Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 225

A first contingent of approximately 200 French and some forty Italian troops have arrived in Tajikistan in recent days, adding to the several dozen Americans known to have been there since October. The French and Italian deployment was staggered, with small groups of special forces and air force personnel landing at Dushanbe and other airports over several days. More U.S. and Italian planes and troops are expected to land shortly for operations in Afghanistan out of Tajikistan.

This is the prelude to a strong Western military deployment, predominantly American, slated to materialize in the coming weeks. Tajikistan’s deputy prime minister for defense and security affairs, Saidamir Zuhurov, and the presidential political adviser Kurbon Vosiev have in recent days disclosed a modicum of information both on the current and planned deployments and on official Dushanbe’s expectations from closer relations with the U.S.-led coalition.

The Tajik government is currently completing its draft of an agreement to cover the stationing of these forces. The document is said to be designed for authorizing deployment and operation short of granting any basing rights.

President Imomali Rahmonov had in October opened the door to this deployment by reaching agreement directly with the United States on overflight and landing rights. In November, he went a step further by offering specific airports to host American aviation. Tajikistan’s ally Russia acquiesced, but insisted on keeping the Dushanbe airport out of the arrangement. It is the country’s largest and best equipped, and is being used mainly by Russians for both civilian and military purposes while also functioning as an international airport.

Promises of economic assistance were a major factor in Rahmonov’s decision. Japanese promises helped precipitate his October decision in favor of the United States. Last month, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Andrew Natsios, conferred with Rahmonov in Dushanbe. Natsios delivered messages from President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, which are said to hold out the prospect of significant economic assistance. On the French side, significantly, it was Cooperation Minister Charles Josselin–in charge of French foreign aid activities–who negotiated the agreement with Rahmonov on military deployment.

Meanwhile, U.S. Air Force and Pentagon teams were inspecting the Hujond, Kulob and Kurgon-Tobe airports. A French team joined last week, and an Italian team this week. The U.S. team had already determined that Kulob is the only one suitable for immediate use. Though dilapidated and lacking modern navigation systems, it is in relatively better shape than the other two. Kurgon-Tobe is next in line, subject to repair and upgrading. Kulob and Kurgon-Tobe are conveniently located in southern Tajikistan, not far from Afghanistan.

Kulob is the political stronghold of the eponymous clan, which controls the government in Dushanbe. It is also Rahmonov’s native area. The president strives to include Kulob in most foreign assistance programs, particularly those for infrastructure support. He wants this small, cotton-trading town to become the hub of a modern transport system, and the surrounding area a focus of Western investment. Undoubtedly he envisions such benefits to trickle down from the U.S. military presence, should it last beyond the short term. Russia can deliver nothing in that way.

The airport is partly being used by Russian combat and transport planes and helicopters. Some of those are organic to the Russian forces in Tajikistan, others are on shuttle missions from Russia to supply its proteges in Afghanistan. Tajik forces also use this airport for their few helicopters. Kulob also hosts a regiment of Russia’s 201st division, further regiments of which are stationed in Dushanbe and Kurgon-Tobe.

American and allied planning calls for immediate deployment at Kulob of thirty-five American, French and Italian warplanes for missions over and in Afghanistan. The mix includes transport planes, fighters, tactical bombers and helicopters. The French and Italians are to deploy Mirage and Tornado planes, respectively. According to Tajik officials, the government would consent to humanitarian and search-and-rescue missions “in the first place,” and combat missions “if necessary.” That language skirts over the difficulty of making, verifying and enforcing such distinctions in practice.

In two interviews on Russian television in recent days, Rahmonov has predicted that the stationing of Western aviation in Tajikistan will continue long after the end of active military operations in Afghanistan. He pointed out that it would take several years to achieve pacification and stabilization there, and implied that the effort requires a backup military presence.

Rahmonov’s adviser Vosiev, moreover, is hopeful that the Western military presence in southern Tajikistan can strengthen international efforts to “deter and suppress” the rampant narcotics business in both Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Voicing such a hope amounts to an admission of the failure of Russian border troops and of Tajik authorities to curb the drug trade in the Tajik-inhabited northern Afghanistan and in Tajikistan itself. The former is now the main production center, and the latter the main trading route for Afghan drugs to Russia and Europe (AFP, ANS, Corriere della Sera, Asia-Plus, Dushanbe Radio, Interfax, Russian Public Television, ORT Television, December 1-6; see the Monitor, November 1, 6, 9, 12, 16, 19, 21, December 4; Fortnight in Review, November 30).