U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is back home from what appears to be a fruitful trip to Central Asia. He is reported to have made progress in getting permission for American troops to mount offensive strikes against Afghanistan from at least one -- and as many as three -- Central Asian countries. Analysts say this could greatly improve America's ability to defeat the Taliban and destroy Al-Qaeda.
Washington, 6 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Even before U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had returned to Washington, military and diplomatic analysts said his trip to Russia and Central Asia appeared to have been successful.
Tajikistan is reported to be negotiating an agreement to allow U.S. forces to use air bases in that country to mount military strikes against Taliban and Al-Quaeda targets in neighboring Afghanistan. In return, Washington is said to have promised tens of millions of dollars in aid to the government in Dushanbe.
A group of Americans already is inspecting three former Soviet air bases in Tajikistan, according to Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem, a Defense Department spokesman. He told reporters yesterday in Washington that inspectors also are checking out bases in other Central Asian countries. Stufflebeem did not identify the countries, but published reports say they are Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
About 1,000 American troops are already stationed in a fourth Central Asian country -- Uzbekistan -- but they are not permitted to mount offensive operations from there. Therefore, defense analysts say allied forces will gain an important tactical advantage if they can use bases in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan to mount strikes in Afghanistan.
Kenneth Allard, a retired U.S. Army colonel, says the limits imposed by Uzbekistan have so far hampered allied operations against targets in Afghanistan because air strikes must be launched from distant bases: "To this point, there have been no -- I emphasize 'no' -- flights taking off from there [Uzbekistan] that had anything other than humanitarian or logistical missions behind them. So consequently, all of the combat aircraft that have been flying have come from bases in the Middle East and Persian Gulf."
Allard -- now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy institute -- says that if the U.S. is able to use bases in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, it can launch strikes more spontaneously as targets of opportunity arise. Secondly, according to Allard, an American military presence in all four Central Asian countries means U.S. forces would nearly surround Afghanistan: "You clearly have got to have better bases in much closer proximity to the territory that you're seeking to bomb, and the other thing is the fact that you've got to have 360 degrees [that is, surround your enemy]. And right now we don't."
Another defense analyst, James Phillips, says being able to base American forces in these countries would also make it easier for the U.S. to begin a large-scale ground war in Afghanistan: "The development of this logistical infrastructure would make it possible to mobilize and deploy U.S. ground troops inside Afghanistan on a much larger scale."
Phillips, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, another Washington policy center, says eliciting such cooperation from nations in the region is not a new task for Rumsfeld. He recalled that the secretary did the same in the Middle East before the Gulf War 10 years ago, when he held the same job under a different president.
Rumsfeld's visits to allied leaders kept the coalition together back then, Phillips says, but now the secretary's job is more difficult: "In a sense, I think the diplomatic ground work going on now is more difficult that what U.S. officials had to do following [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait."
Phillips says Saddam's threat was much clearer, while the threat from Al-Quaeda-- and, by extension, the Taliban -- is more difficult to quantify. Still, he says, Rumsfeld had the benefit of visiting with leaders who he says are receptive to the U.S. Defense Department's views of dealing with various security problems.
"Part of [Rumsfeld's] job as defense secretary -- actually a pretty big part of it -- is diplomatic work, because many of the countries surrounding Afghanistan are increasingly anxious about terrorism and drug-smuggling and the export of revolution out of Afghanistan, and I think they see the Pentagon as an important ally in that struggle."
Leon Feurth agrees, but only up to a point. He served during the administration of President Bill Clinton as national security adviser to Clinton's vice president, Al Gore. According to Feurth, Rumsfeld appears to have done a very good job during his trip, which ended with stops in Pakistan and India. Asked whether the secretary showed special skills as a diplomat during these visits, Feurth replied: "As a diplomat, I wouldn't know. But as a secretary of defense in wartime, he's quite effective. And this kind of travel is important. It's equally important that at the other end of this crisis, the United States government maintain these contacts and not just let them fall into disrepair."
Rumsfeld also made progress of another sort in Moscow, where he began his trip on 3 November. There he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. After the meetings, Ivanov indicated Russia may drop its opposition to making amendments to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty (ABM). This would clear the way for Washington to pursue the deployment of a missile-defense system, which is forbidden by the ABM.
"The ABM treaty is an important, although not the only, element of strategic stability. [U.S. officials] tell us often that the ABM treaty is hopelessly out of date, that it is a relic of the Cold War. In part -- I emphasize, in part -- agree with that," Ivanov said. "But before we get rid of one or another agreement, although it is the sovereign right of the United States to pull out of this or that agreement, we think it is better to do that only when something new has been created as a replacement."
Russia and even some of America's staunchest allies say the missile-defense system would renew the arms race that raged during the Cold War. U.S. President George W. Bush says the ABM treaty is no longer valid because it is based on the premise that the U.S. and Russia are enemies. Bush says that premise is now invalid.
Since the 11 September terrorist attacks that prompted the war in Afghanistan, relations between Russia and the United States have improved dramatically. An agreement on the ABM treaty and missile defense would be only the latest evidence of good feelings. Some reports say an announcement on these topics may be made during Putin's upcoming visit to Bush's Texas ranch on 13-15 November.