Does Tajikistan want a U.S. air base in their country? According to a U.S. diplomatic cable, just released by WikiLeaks, they do, both for security reasons and for money reasons:
The Tajik government presses us for greater benefits in return for support on Afghanistan. The Tajiks think Uzbekistan is keeping all NDN-related business for itself; they want more traffic to transit Tajikistan, more infrastructure to support that traffic, and the United States to purchase Tajik goods for forces in Afghanistan. We currently purchase small amounts of Tajik bottled water for ISAF. They have indicated they would be happy for the U.S. establish an air base in Tajikistan. They see U.S. involvement in the region as a bulwark against Afghan instability, and as a cash cow they want a piece of.
The cable goes on to say that Tajikistan wants further U.S. military training of its troops, crediting such training for helping the Tajik forces tamp down the rebellion that has been festering there:
In May 2009 an armed group led by a former UTO figure, Mullah Abdullo Rahimov, returned to Tajikistan from Afghanistan, reportedly with several foreign fighters. Tajik security forces neutralized this group without outside assistance. They have told us U.S. training enabled their security forces to win, and they are eager for more training.
(This cable was written in February 2010, before the security situation got much worse. I wonder if they would still consider themselves to have "won.")
Anyway, it's too bad the writer of the cable doesn't discuss the U.S.'s thoughts on an air base in Tajikistan. The U.S. embassy there says publicly that there are not even talks with the Tajikistan government about a base, and it looks like Russia is locking up the use of the Ayni base outside Dushanbe, but who knows. If Kyrgyzstan were to kick the U.S. out of Manas, and the U.S. needs another place for the refueling and personnel-handling mission that Manas currently carries out, it's hard to imagine why the U.S. wouldn't seriously consider using Ayni -- especially if the Tajikistan government is eager to have them there.
Of course, the prospect of the U.S. air base in Tajikistan would mightily alarm Russia, and many of the other cables just released from Tajikistan detail how much sway the Russian government has in Dushanbe. For example, this one from November 2005:
[W]e and other Western embassies hear that Russian Embassy officers have unlimited free access at any time to Tajik Government offices, sometimes even barging in without appointments. This is especially telling because all other embassies are required to submit diplomatic notes, to which the responses are often long delayed, for appointments to conduct even the most mundane mid-level daily business.
Most important, the Russian intelligence services thoroughly dominate Tajikistan’s Ministry of Security. Ministry of Security views often take precedence in the Presidential Apparat and key ministries like Justice that is responsible for registering foreign NGOs and Tajik media outlets and political parties.
But Tajikistan's president, Emomali Rahmon (still named Rahmonov in the cables from 2005, before he de-Russified his name), constantly tells American diplomats that he is trying to act independently of Moscow, and in one cable he expounds at length on the nefarious activities the Russian military is up to in Tajikistan:
Rahmonov said, “This constant propaganda in the Russian media about how Tajikistan is failing to control its borders now that the Russians have left - you know where that comes from? From the Russian generals who want to come back here with their mafia buddies. Look what they got here - they put in two-year tours, and then went back to Moscow and bought Mercedes 600s and elite apartments. You think they did that on their salaries? Why do you think the generals lined up in Moscow all the way across Red Square and paid enormous bribes to be assigned here - just so they could do their patriotic duty?”
“And another thing,” Rahmonov continued heatedly, “why do you think I got rid of the 50 Russian generals who used to be advisers in our Ministry of Defense. They never did anything for us. They never helped us build a professional military, never gave us any military-technical assistance, because they wanted to keep us weak so their buddies could play games and make fortunes dealing drugs. I got fed up, said thanks but now it’s time for you to go home. That’s one reason they eventually came up with the plot to overthrow me.”
So, given the power Russia wields in Dushanbe, it's easy to imagine a mighty pushback from Russia were the U.S. to seriously work toward having a military base there. Should the U.S. be kicked out of Manas, this will be an interesting story to watch...