For seven years, passengers arriving at the Dushanbe Airport may have noticed several western military planes and temporary hangers at the far end of the tarmac. On occasion, they could see twin-prop C-160 transport aircraft; at other times sleek Mirage fighter jets.
Tajikistan has hosted a French Air Force contingent -- numbering between 170 and 230 -- since early 2002. Their mission is to provide support for NATO operations in Afghanistan. The airport serves as a key logistics and supply hub for French and other coalition troops in Afghanistan, much the way the soon-to-be-shuttered American base at Manas supplies and hosts transiting American troops. Most French troops, as well as soldiers from some other European Union states, transit through Dushanbe en route to Afghanistan.
The French facilities at the airport are contained in a relatively small space -- about 250 meters by 50 meters in dimension. Unlike American airmen in Kyrgyzstan, the French live in houses in Dushanbe and are generally warmly received. Though the French are helping Tajikistan with the reconstruction of the airport and resurfacing of runways there, they pay nothing for use of the space.
EurasiaNet: I understand your mission here is primarily to support French service members in Afghanistan. How has that changed since the first French soldier was deployed here in 2002?
Samaran: The mission has not changed a lot. . . . The main mission is support to all French military assets in Afghanistan: land forces and air forces. We have one battalion in Kabul. We participate in the regional command in the capital, Kabul, along with the Italians and the Turks. We have a second battalion in the area of Kapisa, east of Kabul, in an area controlled by our American partners.
EurasiaNet: How has the Tajik government responded to the continuing presence of your troops here?
Samaran: The Tajik authorities are still giving diplomatic clearance through their airspace for all kinds of French military aircraft. We have here very strong diplomatic and political support from the government of the Republic of Tajikistan, something that is important to say just at the moment when up north in the Kyrgyz Republic our American partners and our small detachment there are planning to leave.
When we had fighter jets here, we had the very important involvement of the Tajik government. There is a strong difference between hosting transport aircraft, because it is support -- from a humanitarian point of view -- so it was not so difficult for the Tajik authorities to give us the authorization to deploy transport here.
But for the fighter jets, it was very important that the Tajik authorities gave us this authorization [in 2004]. And they didn't remove the authorization; we decided to relocate our fighters to Kandahar [in September 2007].
EurasiaNet: It sounds as though the Manas closure will affect your French colleagues there as well. Do you know if there are any plans to relocate that refueling mission here? With the new American focus on Afghanistan, do you see any plan to expand the NATO or French presence here in Tajikistan? Could Dushanbe Airport serve as a refueling base the way Manas currently does?
Samaran: No, for lots of reasons. The first one is that in Dushanbe we only have one sector on the territory of the international airport. We cannot expand this sector because it will affect the basic mission of this airport, which is to provide civil flights. There is no space. We do not intend to expand our detachment here. We have no plans in that direction.
There are also some physical and geographic characteristics that also have to be taken into consideration. The altitude of the airport is 800 meters. At that altitude, you cannot take off with a full tanker because there are mountains everywhere around the airport. Myself, I am not a pilot, but I know for sure that the maneuvering capabilities of these aircraft do not allow them to take off with tanks full of fuel. If you cannot take off with full refuelers, they are not so useful.
EurasiaNet: Have the French in Tajikistan had any trouble with their public image the way the Americans have had in Kyrgyzstan?
Samaran: No, we haven't had any problems with the local population. First of all, we are not so numerous and we are not isolated from the population; we do not live in a camp. All regular troops working here -- on four months terms -- live in houses just like this one. Each house can host maybe 40 or 50 people and these houses are in areas of the city just like this.
We also have civic action programs. Every year we spend about 30,000 euros refurbishing schools, especially kindergartens. For the time being we have a project of refurbishing a hospital for children in the center of Dushanbe. I think it is very good for our young men and women (we have about 10 percent female personnel). It makes them feel useful not only in the mission they are accomplishing here, but also to be useful to poor people and children.
EurasiaNet: Are you engaged in the reconstruction of the airport?
Samaran: Yes, we have two separate projects. On the one hand, every year our Army engineers work on [renovating surfaces at the] airport.
From the very beginning we wanted to offer good compensation to our free presence here. We do no pay. Not only do we have the authorization by the Tajik authorities -- [negotiations in 2001-2002 were] very open and very quick -- but it was free. It is very important to remind everybody of the deep sense of hospitality of the Tajik people. So when you are a guest, when you are invited, if you do not have to pay, you have to bring something, in order to help. It's normal.
[We are also helping finance the construction of a new terminal.] Our deadline will be for the 20th anniversary of independence of Tajikistan, September 9, 2011.