US Creates New Afghan Springboard: Turkmenistan

While world attention is fixed on the continuous US bombardment of Taliban frontlines and alleged Northern Alliance advances towards Mazar-e-Sharif, debkafile‘s sources point to a forthcoming switch in US war strategy and its next focal point of departure: Turkmenistan.
The switch became necessary after Uzbek president Islam Karimov turned down two US requests for permission to expand military operations from the Uzbek base of Khanabad. The first came from the commander of the US Central Front, Army General Tommy Franks, in the last week of October. The second, according to debkafile‘s Washington sources, was delivered by US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfield who, earlier this month, asked to supplement US troop strength at the Khanabad base.
In the face of the diminishing value of the Uzbek base, Washington turned elsewhere. Ten days ago, Turkmenistan President S.A. Niyazov agreed to the US, Russia and Turkey establishing air and forward bases in his country for strikes against Afghanistan. According to debkafile‘s sources in Ashgabat, advance air force and Special Forces units of all three armies are already there.
This former Soviet republic has some key strategic advances going for it in Washington – and not merely as a forward base for the Afghanistan war effort: It is largely unpopulated – 80pc empty desert – and therefore eminently suited to a large-scale military forward presence; three-quarters of its 4.25 million inhabitants are of Turkic origin (the rest are Russian and Uzbeks) and Turkish influence there is strong. Turkmenistan is moreover situated on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, in whose multinational oil dispute the US anyway wants a say.
Our sources have learned that the Americans propose to expand Ashgabat international airport, which is located on the edge of the Kara-KumDesert, converting it into its main Central Asian air base. The US will also set up new air and land bases at the southwestern town of Kalai Mor, opposite the Afghan town of Herat, and at the southeastern town of Kerki, which is opposite Mazar-e-Sharif and connected by rail link to the capital. Washington expects to have all three new bases built and operational by the end of winter, ready for a combined US-Turkish-Russian Spring 2002 offensive against northern Afghanistan. The plan is to seize a broad swathe of territory from Herat to Mazar-e-Sharif and Kholm in the northeast, from which an assault on Kabul would be a lot more credible than it would be today.
The new Turkmenistan-based strategy shows how little the US-led coalition counts on the Northern Alliance for tangible tactical war gains.
Advance bases in Turkmenistan would also be Washington’s rejoinder to the demand by British generals to massively expand the US military ground presence and firepower in Northern Alliance-controlled areas, with air force, ground, tank, artillery and missile units. The British demand for this springboard for descending on the rest of the country is believed to be on the agenda of the British prime minister, Tony Blair’s talks with US President George W. Bush in Washington Wednesday, November 7. Thus far, US bombardments from remote bases in the US, the Persian Gulf and US air carriers are of very limited effectiveness because of the distance from base to target.
Bush strategists have been in no hurry to take British advice on this. Now, they may have come up with a viable alternative in Turkmenistan, a land contiguous to Northern Alliance-held territory and therefore a good substitute as a large-scale forward base.

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