TASHKENT, Uzbekistan – Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld paid a quick visit to Tajikistan on Saturday but said he reached no deals on military cooperation with the country, which shares a long border with Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld then went on to Uzbekistan, where he was greeted at the airport in the capital, Tashkent, by Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov.
While Tajikistan has shown reluctance to play host to U.S. troops, Uzbekistan has provided a base for an estimated 1,000 U.S. soldiers. It was Rumsfeld's second visit to Uzbekistan in just a month, coming amid media reports that Washington wants to persuade Uzbekistan to provide more bases for the U.S.-led military campaign in neighoring Afghanistan.
In the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, Rumsfeld said after an hourlong meeting with President Emomali Rakhmonov and several top officials that the sides would form an "assessment team" to look into ways in which Tajikistan could assist in the U.S.-led campaign.
When asked by reporters whether there was a deal on military cooperation with Tajikistan, Rumsfeld said "No."
Tajikistan backs the U.S. operation, initiated after Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia refused to give up suspected terrorist mastermind Usama bin Laden. But the impoverished republic has stopped short of offering bases and has permitted the use of its air space only for planes carrying U.S. aid.
Rumsfeld said Tajikistan had been used in the military operation only for overflights. He also said the country had assisted in intelligence-gathering.
Tajik Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov said assistance could be expanded to allow overflights of military planes or the use of Tajikistan's air fields.
"The experts should look at what Tajikistan can offer America and what it cannot," said Nazarov. He indicated that Washington could make use of the southern Tajik airport in Kulyab, about 60 miles from the Afghan border.
"First we have to look at the state of the Kulyab airport," Nazarov said.
Tajikistan and Afghanistan share a 750-mile border, which is jointly guarded by Tajik and Russian guards. Russia also has a motorized rifle division stationed in Tajikistan, long a key corridor for smuggled weapons and drugs from Afghanistan.
Nazarov suggested that Tajikistan's vulnerability was a key reason it did not offer bases earlier, as neighboring Uzbekistan did.
"For a long time, we could not decide whether to participate in the military operation because we were worried about Tajikistan's security," he told reporters. "But it is dependent on the outcome of the military anti-terrorist operation."
Rumsfeld came to Tajikistan from Moscow, where he conferred with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on possible cuts in strategic arms and U.S. plans to build a new missile shield.
The backing of ex-Soviet Central Asian countries is seen as vital for the success of the U.S. operation in Afghanistan. These nations are also important for sending humanitarian aid to refugees in Afghanistan.
The five former Soviet republics in Central Asia, which also include Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, are all mainly Muslim and have been worried that the influence of the Taliban in nearby Afghanistan could reach their countries.
Government troops in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have clashed sporadically with Islamic militants.