- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2001

The Bush administration is seeking help from states that can provide geographic access to Afghanistan. Internal politics in Iran and Pakistan make them uncertain allies, so Washington is also approaching countries in Central Asia. Tajikistan is too concerned about a possible Islamic backlash, but Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are potential partners for the U.S. military.

A spokesman for Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry said Sept. 18 that his country is ready to discuss any form of cooperation with the United States in what he called the struggle against international terrorism. U.S. military planners are taking a hard look at running military operations from Central Asian states as internal politics in Iran and Pakistan may prevent them from permitting the United States to attack Afghanistan from their soil.

Central Asian governments are considering requests from Washington, but they must also take into account pressure from Russia and the threat of a fundamentalist backlash.

Although they are not likely to give permission for a massive buildup of ground forces, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan will probably allow the United States to base aircraft and perhaps even special-operations forces within their borders.

Located in the middle of the world's largest continent, Central Asia is for the United States the most logistically difficult area from which to attack Afghanistan. But Central Asian countries have better infrastructure than Iran or Pakistan and their comparatively short borders with Afghanistan are easier to secure.

U.S. diplomats have no doubt already begun negotiating military options with Central Asian governments. Their responses will be strongly influenced by Russia, the dominant power in the region. Despite the Russian defense minister's strong objection to NATO troops being on Central Asian soil, the Russian high command is still likely debating the issue intensely and has good reason to approve limited actions by the U.S. military.

Even if Russia itself withheld permission for military action, the political position of some Central Asian governments could still allow the United States to move aircraft and limited numbers of troops into the region, although transportation by land would be nearly impossible.

Both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan operate quite independently from Russia and could be cajoled or bribed into Washington's corner. U.S. aircraft could follow a difficult, but passable, route across Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and across the Caspian Sea into Turkmen airspace and on into Uzbekistan if necessary.

Turkmenistan is the key to U.S. involvement in Central Asia, simply because of geography. At minimum, the United States must secure overflight rights or the whole plan would be dead. In 1979, Turkmenistan, still part of the Soviet Union, was the primary staging ground for the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. There is still a large air base by the city of Kuska, near the border with Afghanistan.

The government at present has offered positive, but vague, support to the United States. President Saparmurat Niyazov has relatively good relations with Afghanistan's ruling Taliban. In return for a relatively open border and steady electricity, the Taliban avoids operating in Turkmenistan.

Another consideration for the government is that Russia is its biggest customer for natural gas the lifeline of Turkmenistan's economy. Mr. Niyazov has gone against Russian wishes in the past, but doing so in this case could be expensive.

Mr. Niyazov has to decide if the United States is a worthwhile partner, one that will protect it from Taliban reprisals and possible Russian economic pressure. To win the government over, Washington could offer financial inducements, such as bilateral loans and foreign investment incentives and use its influence with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

The United States could also alleviate Turkmenistan's defense fears through increased military links. In exchange, Turkmenistan would likely give overflight rights to U.S. aircraft and probably agree to base warplanes and some special-operations forces as well.

Landlocked Uzbekistan would supplement an arrangement with Turkmenistan. Uzbekistan also served as an invasion route for the Soviets, and the city of Termez still has usable air facilities. Uzbekistan also offers an advantage for U.S. special-operations forces.

Close proximity to anti-Taliban Northern Alliance troops might provide infiltration routes for U.S. forces on the ground, plus some protection from reprisal raids. The Uzbek government also has close ties to one of the largest factions in the Northern Alliance. Also, unlike its Central Asian neighbors, Uzbekistan has a relatively well-equipped and well-funded army. Given enough financial incentives, many of its troops could be persuaded to join forces with the Northern Alliance.

Uzbekistan also must take Russia's economic leverage into consideration, but it is more concerned about internal dissent from its own fundamentalist population. The United States will likely offer Tashkent the same incentives as it will to Turkmenistan, along with increases in supplies of high-tech weapons, in exchange for permission for air basing and deployment of special-operations forces in Uzbekistan.

Another country that could provide access to Afghanistan is Tajikistan, but it is simply too weak to offer much help. After nearly a decade of civil war between radical Muslims and the government, the Tajiks rely on Russian infantry to guard their border with Afghanistan.

The Tajiks must also take the attitude of neighboring China into account, and Beijing does not want to see U.S. troops on its western border. But above all, the Tajik government is terrified of an Islamic backlash, either directly from the Taliban or from its own population.

STRATFOR.COM in Austin, Texas, is a provider of global intelligence to private companies and subscribers. Its Web site is Stratfor.com.

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