Two Central Asian countries pledged Tuesday to allow the United States to keep flight operations in their countries that are crucial to the ongoing U.S. military effort in Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld held separate meetings with leaders in Kyrgyzstan, who promised continued base facilities in the country, and in Tajikistan, which permits flyover, fueling and emergency operations. The public assurances marked an official turnaround by the countries, both of which on July 5 joined Russia, China, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in recommending a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops. The United States has used the bases and air access rights since the 2001 war in Afghanistan.
Most critical in the region was a commitment by Kyrgyzstan that U.S. forces can continue operations at the strategically important Manas air base. About 1,000 U.S. troops are stationed at the base, also called Ganci, which was established near a civilian airport outside the capital of Bishkek in December 2001 to carry out refueling, airlift and fighter missions to support the war in Afghanistan.
"The deployment of American forces in the Kyrgyz Republic fully depends on the situation in Afghanistan," Ismail Isakov, Kyrgyzstan's defense minister, said during a news conference with Rumsfeld at the presidential palace in Bishkek. "The air base in Manas will stay as long as the situation in Afghanistan requires."
Isakov implied that U.S. forces would leave after security conditions in Afghanistan improve. "Once there is stabilization, there will be no need" for U.S. troops, he said. "But now I agree with Mr. Secretary, who mentioned that the situation in Afghanistan is far from stable."
In the past year, the U.S. military has converted several buildings at the Manas base -- including troop barracks -- from canvas tents set on wooden platforms to semi-permanent metal structures.
In an earlier meeting, Rumsfeld congratulated Kyrgyzstan's president-elect, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, on his landslide victory in a July 10 election -- the first vote in a former Soviet republic that has won "passing grades" for fairness from international observers, Rumsfeld said. "Both you and your country had a victory in that election," he told Bakiyev, who has led the nation of 5 million people since widespread protests forced the former president to flee in March.
During his two-day trip to Central Asia, Rumsfeld stressed that the U.S. military presence here is vital for Afghanistan and for combating regional terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has threatened Kyrgyzstan and other countries in recent years. The U.S. military is also working to strengthen border controls, he said, to curb a narcotics trade fueled by Afghanistan's large-scale opium poppy production.
From Kyrgyzstan, Rumsfeld traveled south to Tajikistan, a mountainous country of 7 million people that shares a border of more than 700 miles with Afghanistan. In Dushanbe, the capital, Rumsfeld met with President Imamali Rakhmonov, who pledged support for the war on terrorism, according to U.S. officials with knowledge of the meeting.
Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov confirmed Tajikistan's position at a joint appearance with Rumsfeld before reporters on the lawn of the presidential dacha. "We intend to continue our active cooperation with the United States and other anti-terrorist coalition in terms of the anti-terrorist struggle," Nazarov said through an interpreter.
He specifically mentioned Tajikistan's continued willingness to grant the United States overflight rights and access to ground facilities. The U.S. military stations no troops in Tajikistan, but it has emergency landing rights and a "gas and go" agreement that permits U.S. planes to refuel at Tajik airfields on their way to Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld and Tajik leaders also discussed bolstering U.S. military and government aid to help Tajikistan secure its rugged frontiers. The U.S. offer comes after Russian forces that guarded Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan completed a withdrawal this month. They had been stationed here since the end of a bloody civil war in 1997.
The United States is concerned that with the phased pullout of Russian border guards and "massive opium poppy cultivation" in Afghanistan, the flow of drugs as well as terrorists will increase along the direct routes into and through Tajikistan, according to a report by the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe. "The volume of drugs along the Tajik-Afghan route is significant and growing," the report says.
Despite progress with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, tensions remain with Uzbekistan over future U.S. military use of the strategically located air base at Karshi-Khanabad. Uzbekistan has curtailed U.S. flights from the base and called for a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal since relations deteriorated in mid-May, when Uzbek forces killed hundreds of civilians in a crackdown on unrest in the city of Andijan. Uzbekistan has rejected calls for an independent investigation of the Andijan killings.
Rumsfeld described relations with Uzbekistan as "good" but said the U.S. military could do "fine" without the base. He said he had no plans to visit Uzbekistan and repeatedly declined to answer questions about the relationship, referring them to the State Department.