The three-day visit of US Secretary of Defense Donald Ramsfeld to some CIS countries, Pakistan and India shows that now Washington is concerned not as much about the upcoming meeting of the Russian and American presidents, during which they will finally approve preliminary agreements on strategic stability issues (modification of the ABM treaty of 1972 and further reduction of strategic offensive arms), as about operations of its forces in Central Asia. Having quickly discussed the general and so far theoretical issues of “the struggle of Russia and the US against terrorism and the need to reduce the threat of mass destruction weapons” in Moscow at first with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and then with President Vladimir Putin, Ramsfeld flew to Tajikistan on Saturday midday. On the same day, during his conversation with President Emomali Rakhmonov of Tajikistan, Ramsfeld made a sensational offer: he requested Rakhmonov to provide the base in Kulyab to the US for a while. Tajik Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov reported to journalists that such development of the situation was possible, but it would be up to military experts to define the degree of Tajik participation in the operation in Afghanistan.
Readiness of the Tajik party to such conversation reveals the relevant preliminary consultations. Naturally, consultations were conducted not as much with Tajik authorities as with Moscow authorities. There are no large Tajik garrisons in Kulyab, and moreover a military base. In addition to a combined airfield (civil and military airplanes) and a railway station, the city houses units of the Russian 201st mechanized infantry division. Kulyab is the center of a region where President Rakhmonov was born and worked for a long time. The local population is apolitical, less religious and is mainly pro-Communist and pro-Soviet. The local population respects the authority of its President very much. Thus, Kulyab is the safest place for deployment of American soldiers in the country, where Islamic influence is very strong in other regions and a religious political opposition is active.
Meanwhile, the US wants to have bases not only in Kulyab. Mass media reported that a large group of American military experts arrived in Tajikistan to check the conditions of not only the base in Kulyab, but also the bases in Khudzhand and Kurgan-Tube.
On November 5, Washington Post wrote that the Tajik government agreed with such use of the three former Soviet air bases during the visit of Ramsfeld to Dushanbe. New York Times wrote that should the agreement be used Tajikistan would receive tens of millions of dollars.
The team of American experts is accompanied with officers from the UK, Canada, Turkey and Netherlands. An anonymous officer of Pentagon reported to new York Times that should Tajik bases be in a satisfactory condition, airplanes of the US Air Force would be able to use them for delivery of bomb blows in the interests of the Northern Alliance struggling against the Talibs. The bases can also be used by American Special Forces transported by helicopters, as well as for supply of ammunition and food to forces of the Northern Alliance. The officer added that American experts also planned to check air bases in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
The American request to Dushanbe to have military bases in Tajikistan is a risky decision for the US, but it reflects the seriousness of the situation very well. Attempts of the US to rely on Pushtun tribes failed, collaboration only with Dustum is limited. Dustum will be useful only in the area of Mazar-e Sharif. Thus, only Tajik clans, well-trained and armed with Moscow and Tehran, remain necessary for Pentagon from the opposition to the Talibs. A stake on Kulyab demonstrates the intention of the US to launch a ground operation in close cooperation with the troops of Fahim and allied field commanders of the Northern Alliance (Rashid Dustum, Ismail-Khan, and so on). Americans will obviously start an offensive in collaboration with the Northern Alliance from two strategic directions: from the Mountainous Badakhshan to the Panjsher Gorge and to Kabul, and from Termez to Mazar-e Sharif, Pol-e Khomri, Salang Tunnel, Bagram, and so on.
So far such plans are beneficial for Moscow because the US will undertake the main burden of support of combat operations against the Talibs. Tajik clans will never be either under an American or British heel, says a top-ranking military expert. Probably due to this circumstance Moscow agreed that Americans would temporarily have a military base in Kulyab. Near the 201st mechanized infantry division it does not pose any threat to Russia’s interests.
The response of Iran is not yet known. However, its negative attitude to mass bombing of Afghanistan by the US Air Force is well known. The problem of the military base in Kulyab may make Tehran and Moscow quarrel. However, the time of quarrel did not come. So far the Northern Alliance remains independent enough in its combat against the Talibs. On Saturday, Tory Clark, PR officer of Ramsfeld, reported to WPS agency that the Pentagon was not going to dictate the manner of actions to the Afghan opposition in its war against the Talibs. The US is going to keep helping the anti-Talib coalition with humanitarian and military cargoes. The US also plans to increase the strength of Special Forces operating in Afghanistan. Special Forces will act not only as target designators for aviation but will also be a real force for the destruction of terrorist bases in the country.
Clark avoided a direct answer to the question about a possibility of a large-scale ground operation in Afghanistan, although she did not rule out such possibility. Meanwhile, “carpet bombing” of Mazar-e Sharif and the concentration of troops of the Northern Alliance and American Special Forces around the city manifest the beginning of the first phase of the ground operation for the liberation of northern provinces of Afghanistan from the Talibs. Will Mazar-e Sharif become the main base of American forces in Central Asia?
It is rumored in the Kremlin lobbies that Moscow agreed with growth of American influence in Northern Afghanistan in exchange for concessions with regard to the ABM treaty and reduction of strategic offensive arms. In Moscow, Ramsfeld discussed the threshold to which Washington agreed to reduce the number of nuclear warheads in Russian and American Armed Forces (1,700) under the START-3 treaty.
Thus, Moscow and Washington practically reached a consensus in protection of their interests in Central Asia, and evidently compromised their approaches to solving the problems of national missile defense deployment and strategic offensive arms reductions.