The US Ambassador to Tajikistan, Ken Gross, announced on June 25 that the US plans to open a military training center in Tajikistan pending the signing of related agreements with the Tajik side. The proposed center, to be located 45 kilometers (km) from the capital, Dushanbe, would provide Tajik armed forces with counternarcotics and antiterrorist training. Gross emphasized that the center, with a price tag of $10 million, did not seek to establish a US military presence in Tajikistan (www.trend.az, June 28).
The planned military center falls within the Pentagon’s $50 million security program for the Central Asian region as the US prepares to start its withdrawal from Afghanistan. The program seeks to bolster regional security by upgrading and building new security check-points, and training military personnel to combat drug-trafficking and terrorism (US Central Command press release, June 29; www.vesti.kz, June 28).
A possible upsurge in terrorist and drug trafficking activity following the planned US military disengagement from Afghanistan makes such programs important for regional countries. Earlier, in March, the US actually announced opening a similar facility in the south of Kyrgyzstan at the cost of $5.5 million (www.24.kg, March 10). Besides seeking to enhance security in Central Asia, these initiatives are apparently aimed at allaying fears among US regional partners concerning the durability of Washington’s commitments in the region against the backdrop of US plans to extricate itself from the war in Afghanistan.
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The ongoing political instability in Kyrgyzstan further reinforces the need for Washington to pursue stronger military partnerships with regional states should security conditions in Kyrgyzstan jeopardize the only US base in the region (www.rambler.ru, June 28). The US-Tajik military partnership appears to offer strong prospects for deepening bilateral military ties.
Military cooperation between Dushanbe and Washington already boasts a number of beneficial programs, including the construction of the $35 million Panj bridge, connecting Tajikistan with Afghanistan, and the possible purchase of a $1.6 million “Mini-Minewolf” demining machine to help Tajikistan clear over 600 identified minefields along its borders (US Central Command press release, June 29).
Most importantly, the two countries cooperate in the framework of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) –a crucial component in the Afghan war effort. Tajikistan forms one of the routes through which the NDN facilitates the delivery of supplies to Afghanistan without having to rely excessively on the dangerous Khyber Pass in Pakistan.
The proposed military center is yet another initiative that aims to expand the US-Tajik cooperation while assisting Tajikistan in combating drug trafficking and terrorist activity. The clashes between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, reportedly instigated by terrorist organizations feeding on the drug trade (www.ferghana.ru, June 24), demonstrate the logic of such security cooperation.
Meanwhile, Russia has also considered various initiatives to bolster regional security. Moscow is considering plans to deploy another Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) base, or its own, in southern Kyrgyzstan to counter drug trafficking from Afghanistan (www.vedomosti.ru, June 21; www.islamnews.ru, June 26). It is also holding discussions with Tajikistan regarding a possible return of Russian border guards to the country on a counter-narcotics mission (www.ferghana.ru, July 1). However, the Director of Russia’s Federal Narcotics Control Service, Victor Invanov, noted that these negotiations were not in the active stage and questions remained as to whether the two sides were ready to make the related decision (www.regnum.ru, July 4).
Tajik experts note that relations between Russia and Tajikistan have cooled over the last year (www.regnum.ru, July 4). Dushanbe and Moscow disagreed on many issues, including low payments by Russia for its base in Tajikistan, regional water problems, and Russia’s restrictions on fruit imports from Tajikistan (www.news.km.ru, July 1). Last July, disagreements between Moscow and Dushanbe over the use of Ayni airport in Tajikistan and related payment issues even prompted Tajik President, Emomali Rakhmon, to offer the US military use of the airport to transport supplies for the war effort in Afghanistan (www.korrespondent.net, July 7, 2009).
As the US and its NATO allies continue to conduct military operations in Afghanistan, building strong defense assistance partnerships with the neighboring Central Asian states will remain priority for Washington. The proposed military training center in Tajikistan and other similar initiatives elsewhere in the region support this view, while also signaling to Central Asian capitals a more lasting commitment towards the region on the part of Washington amidst its plans to withdraw from Afghanistan.