In Tajikistan, Calls for a Jihad Fall on Weary Ears

Students went to class. Shops opened. And at the largest mosque in Dushanbe, capital of the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan, just a few hours' drive to the border with Afghanistan, no one seemed ready to enlist in the jihad declared by Osama bin Laden against America. "I have a very negative attitude towards war," said Nazarov Pirumsho, the mosque's 69-year-old security guard.

Strange as it may sound, it was pretty much business as usual in Tajikistan the day after the U.S. military began its Oct. 7 bombing raids in Afghanistan. Pakistan and other parts of the Islamic world faced upheaval. But not, so far, this particular patch of ground, a possible launching pad for U.S. operations against the Taliban and bin Laden. Still recovering from a civil war in the last decade that claimed 60,000 lives and spawned 500,000 refugees, Tajikistan is suffering from combat fatigue. Prominent Islamic militants and the ex-Soviet communists they fought in that conflict are now part of a coalition government. The factions are not exactly friends, but at least they are no longer sworn enemies. For most people in this desperately poor country--population 6.2 million, average monthly salary $10--that's good enough.

But just as there is little sympathy in Tajikistan for Taliban militants, the arrival of American warriors to the neighborhood wins no great applause, either. For one thing, there is little popular expectation that the Pentagon can achieve its declared goal of expelling the Taliban from Afghanistan. In a computer-parts store on Rudaki Street, the main thoroughfare in Dushanbe, a trio of voices shout "no" when the question is put whether the U.S. military will win this fight. Americans, one member of the group says, have no real idea of what they face in the Taliban--only the latest in a long line of fierce Afghani fighters who defeated the Soviets in the 1980s and the British in the 19th century. Other locals say the American public must brace itself for grisly war crimes, such as a public display of a captured U.S. soldier who has been tortured--or even beheaded.

Russian troops, 17,000 of whom are stationed in Tajikistan to guard the border with Afghanistan, share doubts over U.S. nerve. The first wave of bombing strikes made little impression on the local garrison. That's because of the Russian army's view, formed during the U.S.-led NATO air campaign in Kosovo, that the U.S. military is afraid to risk casualties in ground combat. "They have all kinds of fancy equipment," says a 25-year-old private in the Russian 201st motorized division in Dushanbe, whose officers have participated in exercises with American soldiers elsewhere. "But they don't have the stamina," he adds.

That, of course, remains to be seen. In the meantime, Tajikistan may find itself pulled into the conflict. Thousands of Afghani refugees, now stranded on islands in the Pyandzh River that acts as a buffer zone along the Afghan-Tajik border, may break across to Tajikistan. Already, U.S. military specialists in search and rescue missions are operating in Tajikistan, say Russian defense officials in Dushanbe. The Russian military is backing the Northern Alliance, the Taliban's opponent. "It's possible," a Russian defense source says, the U.S. military will deliver Russian weapons to the Alliance using American helicopters that could be based in Tajikistan.

For that to happen, the U.S. would need to work out a basing agreement with Tajik and Russian officials. So far, Tajik President Imamali Rakhmanov has not gone beyond a public statement in favor of granting airspace to U.S. planes for humanitarian missions. But rumors are rife in Dushanbe that American troops will soon arrive in strength.

Whatever the verdict on bases turns out to be, it will no doubt be made above the heads of the citizens, who are seldom consulted in a country with a long tradition of authoritarian politics. If the Americans do come in numbers, the people can be expected to make the best of it--just as they are doing with the hordes of foreign journalists stationed in Dushanbe, awaiting passage to Afghanistan. For a trip to the border, drivers make up to $300--a phenomenal sum for most Tajiks. "Any kind of foreigner who comes to Tajikistan, including an American soldier, is a possibility to obtain a job," says Svetlana Nazarova, 49, an economist who makes ends meet by housekeeping for international relief workers in Dushanbe. One faint cheer, at least, for the coming of Americans to Central Asia.

By Paul Starobin in Dushanbe

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