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Russia opens way for US attack

PAUL LEWIS / WASHINGTON DC

A number of former Soviet states will allow Washington to use their military facilities, though co-operation levels differ

Russia has given the USA a green light to make use of military facilities in Tajikistan with which to strike at neighbouring Afghanistan. This follows similar offers by independent neighbouring states of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to open up access to their former Soviet bases. Observers warn, however, that Washington faces some potential military and political pitfalls in Central Asia.

The level of co-operation each country is prepared to offer the US military varies. Uzbekistan appears the most willing and best equipped to assist in any US-led air strike, possessing an extensive number of bases previously used to support the Soviet Union's ill-fated Afghan campaign during the 1980s. These include several large air bases such as Tuzel and Chirchik near Tashkent and a major land crossing into Afghanistan at Termiz.

"Uzbekistan maintains very close relations with the USA and has engaged in multiple exercises,"says Fiona Hill, a Carnegie Central Asian specialist. Tashkent is a participant in NATO's Partnership for Peace programme, has received $10 million in military assistance and trains regularly with Western forces. This has included the deployment of the 82nd airborne division and Boeing C-17 transports to Chirchik in 1997.

Uzbekistan's fleet of RSK MiG-29s, Sukhoi Su-17s and Su-24s was reported last year to be flying air strikes against the ruling Afghan Taliban regime in support of the Northern Alliance - the Taliban shot down an Su-24 during the operations. The country suffers from its own Islamic rebellion and has an "appalling human rights record", criticism of which it will want toned down in return for supporting the US military, says Hill.

Turkmenistan has adopted a neutral stance since the break-up of the Soviet Union and has gone as far as only offering access to its airspace for search and rescue flights and other humanitarian missions. Russia still maintains forces in Tajikistan and its blessing was needed if air bases such as Kulyab close to the Afghan border are to be used. The country has been racked by civil war which could present US military with another challenge.

"In Albania, during the Kosovo conflict, sizeable force protection was needed, which is why the Apache force ballooned in the amount of hardware deployed. I think force protection concerns are going to be even greater in Central Asia and the USA is going to have to look at each airfield to decide a safe perimeter against mortar or MANPAD missile attacks," says John Pike, Global Security analyst.

US deployments to Central Asia would appear to be politically and militarily less risker than Pakistan, but this does place operational limits. Osama bin Laden's camps are believed to be located mainly to the south around Kabul and Jalalabad, close to Peshawar across the border. Pike notes that targets are likely to be moving as intelligence is gathered, and success will require a quick reaction from US airborne strike units.

To the south and west, the US Navy has the aircraft carriers USS Carl Vinson and USS Enterprise in the Gulf and Arabian Sea while the USS Theodore Roosevelt is in transit to the area.

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