Former Soviet states to be used as staging posts by American forces

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The Independent Online

The former Soviet central Asian republics to the north of Afghanistan have emerged as vital allies and military staging posts for America as it tightens the strategic noose around Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime that protects him.

Despite disclaimers from local governments, who are wary about Islamic opposition movements of their own that are backed by Mr bin Laden and the Taliban, American warplanes and C-130 supply planes are reported to have landed in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The borders of both countries with Afghanistan are not far from areas where the Afghan opposition Northern Alliance is operating, whose strengthening is seen as a key to breaking the Taliban's grip on the country.

Neither Uzbekistan nor Tajikistan are likely to offer forces of their own but they have the advantage of offering an alternative to Pakistan, whose destabilisation or even "loss" to radical Islam is a nightmare which haunts Washington's strategic planners.

Both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan represent valuable intelligence gathering centres and could be precious jumping-off points for covert troops that are expected to feature strongly in any campaign in which US or British forces are covertly filtered into Afghanistan.

The Pentagon, however, is saying nothing about the destination of the elite units or material that has left the US, despite speculation such advance forces may well be in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan already. It was also unclear whether facilities (in desperately poor Tajikistan particularly) were adequate to handle the sophisticated equipment the Pentagon would like to send.

In the complicated diplomatic preparations being co-ordinated by the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, Russia is playing a pivotal part. Moscow, which burnt its hands so painfully in its vain 10-year attempt to occupy Afghanistan, is more than happy America plans a blitz against the regime.

But it must balance its conflicting considerations: its common interest with Washington in seeing the downfall of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, both of who who have backed the Chechen rebellion that Moscow has been vainly fighting for the past seven years, and the fear of seeing the US gain a strong – perhaps lasting – foothold in its own back yard.

Since the crisis began, Mr Bush has talked several times with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, including an hour's conversation on Saturday. There has been speculation about concessions on the US national missile defence plan, which Moscow strongly dislikes, and possible agreement by Washington to tone down its human rights criticism of Russian behaviour in Chechnya.

Yesterday, Mr Putin ruled out sending troops to help any US-led offensive but did pledge support by way of access corridors to the region, and a promise to help the Northern Alliance (whose leaders met the Russian chief of staff Anatoly Kvashnin in Tajikistan at the weekend).

Mr Putin has also talked directly and frequently with the leaders of all five former Soviet Central Asian republics. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are in the very front line but flanking them to the west, with an even longer border, is Turkmenistan, which has the advantage that it has no domestic fundamentalist opposition threat to worry about.

All three regimes have close military links with Moscow, The other important element in the equation is Kazakhstan, the most powerful of the five (and currently hosting a visit by the Pope) whose leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, proclaimed himself ready to help the American effort yesterday. "We are ready to support an action against terrorism with all the means at our disposal," he said, indicating that these "means" would include airfields, airspace and Kazakhstan's own military bases.

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