US Military’s Black Mountain Facility in Tajikistan

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by Christian Bleuer on 6/10/2010 · 22 comments

I can’t tell you how disappointed I am with the US Department of Defense’s chosen location for a new training facility in Tajikistan. Here’s the contract info:

…National Training Center located in Karatog, Tajikistan. Work includes but is not limited to construction of a garrison compound and training ranges. The garrison compound includes administrative facilities, officer quarters and enlisted barracks, dining facility, and other supporting facilities to provide a secure, fully operational compound. The range facilities include weapons firing and qualification (rifle, pistol, crew-served weapons and explosive/unexploded ordinance), Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) facilities, vehicle operator training range, sniper/observer training and operations, repelling and fast rope towers, and support facilities (for example: control towers, outdoor classrooms, sanitary facilities).

There are so many locations with endless potential for irony, or something like that. If they had located it in my area of interest closer to the Afghan border (Vakhsh valley) we could have put the military training center in places named Sovietabad, Karl Marx, Path of Lenin, First of May, Pravda or even Bolshevik. Think of the possibilities! Plus, you could lounge at a restaurant on one of our fabulous local canals. Pic via me:


But no, the US military will be locating in “Karatog.” That’s a little Russified for me, so I’ll be calling it by its local name: Qoratogh (lit. ‘Black Mountain’ in Turkic languages). There are many locations in Tajikistan with the same name, with Guliston (‘Gulistan,’ the Bloomington of Central Asia) being the worst offender in my experience (counting neighborhoods there must be at least 10,000 Gulistons in the Vakhsh). Qoratogh is a river, a valley, and a town. But, uh… I think this is it:

View Larger Map

I’ll take a wild guess and say the Tajik government picked the spot. Why this location? You don’t want it in a city, because when some drunken foreign soldier runs over a local you have the potential for a protest crowd forming extra-double quick. And you don’t want it in Tavildara or Gharm because “Oh no, grumpy men with beards, etc…” And you don’t want it anywhere near the Russian facilities. And worst of all, if it was placed two valleys over it would have that Evangelical compound as a neighbor. Imagine the connections the locals would make between those two facilities.

There’s not much in Qoratogh, and not much to say about recent history there. It was smack dab in the rear of Popular Front country during the civil war, so no residual worries on any counts. And it’s only about 30-45 minutes from Dushanbe, but quite rural. And it backs up to a nature reserve and a national park (check the map link above). But is it friendly to foreigners? Well, everywhere is friendly to foreigners in Tajikistan. But here’s a sample from the Qoratogh valley, via flickr user bkcoffey:


Yup. Looks dangerous. They are probably about 2 minutes from a paved road. The main dangers would be forced-hospitality by locals (i.e., eat! more! please, eat! you’re skinny, please eat! you like candy? tea? more osh? go ahead, take a nap! relax! have you ever considered marrying a Tajik girl? i have many nieces. more tea? have tea! etc…)

And the facility? I’m sure it will be as advertised, a place for the US military to train local soldiers in marksmanship and whatnot. If it was going to be shady, we would not see the contract on a website. As the Taliban advance north, I’m sure the shady operations will start in earnest in Tajikistan. And then local rumor-mongering may begin to reflect reality. I lived an hour from the Afghan border and I heard all sorts of silly stuff. Nothing malicious, just silly. I’m sure the Black Mountain facility will suffer from its share of bored locals speculating on the sinister activities within.

But a definite thanks for not locating it near my field research. That would make the speculation about me even more difficult to manage. As it stands now, I’m either an American evangelical missionary or an Iranian (“Why else would he speak in a literary Tajiki vernacular, huh?”).

On a final note, could you please put the facility in Kyrgyzstan in Karasu? (Blackwater). Just for the lols.

Fell free to fill me in on what I got horrendously wrong above, such as if the facility is actually going in another ‘Karatog.’ (I spent about 7 minutes researching this). More info on the main project for US military facilities in Central Asia here.

I would love to hear some rational, sane comments…

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Gump June 10, 2010 at 12:25 am

We say Qarabağ in Azerbaijan (Ղարաբաղ in Armenian). I am sure you have heard of Nagorno-Karabakh.

michaelhancock June 10, 2010 at 1:26 am

Uh… Hate to correct you Gump. I really hope you were kidding.
Qarabagh is black garden, and mixes Turkic (Qara) and Persian (Bagh). The mountain there is Gor (from Russian).
*face palm*

michaelhancock June 10, 2010 at 1:28 am

The black garden of the mountains, I guess?

Oldschool boy June 10, 2010 at 2:40 am

Mountain is dag in Turkish and Azeri and Nogai dialects of Turkish.

Oldschool boy June 10, 2010 at 2:38 am

There are Karatau in Kazakhstan, Karadag in Crimea, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, Karatoo in Kyrgyzstan, and Montenegro in Montenegro. All mean the same: Black Mountain.

Metin June 10, 2010 at 3:18 am

‘kara’ (black) in old Turkish aside from color definition has the meaning of ‘strong’ or ‘brave’ when applied to people, and ‘great’ otherwise.
So, ‘Qoratog’ = great mountain.

Christian Bleuer June 10, 2010 at 3:24 am

That would make sense here, as I sure never saw any mountains that could be mistaken for the color black.

Michael Hancock June 10, 2010 at 10:47 am

I’ve read that before – but any ideas what the other colors represent? Ak (white) seems to symbolize goodness, purity, plenty, etc. for Kazakhs, but I could be wrong. I’m just thinking that for every Karasu, there’s usually an Aksu and a Kyzylsu. And yet the water is always blue. 🙂

Metin June 10, 2010 at 1:09 pm

have no idea about what other colors in old Turkish symbolize.
Water is not alway blue: if muddy it might be whitish (Ak-su) or reddish (Kizil-su).

Michael Hancock June 10, 2010 at 2:47 pm

I recall the colors also being associated with cardinal compass directions – that might be part of the reason for nomenclature.

Robert June 10, 2010 at 3:34 am

Those are very nice canals. Wonderful water color — goes very well with the lime green Soviet public buildings. Our canals… not so lime green:

DT June 10, 2010 at 4:01 am

The bigger picture about “training facilities” across the region:

Pentagon Looks to Plant New Facilities in Central Asia

Christian June 10, 2010 at 7:12 am

Yup, already linked in the post…. Just in case you think I spend my days on

DT June 11, 2010 at 2:06 am

I do, goddamnit.

Another reader June 10, 2010 at 10:09 am

Cute article, but I’ve several questions,

Why? Why in Tajikistan? For what purpose? And how much $ to secure this essential space?

Another reader June 10, 2010 at 10:12 am

I saw the linked article above, anti-terrorism, blah, blah….. What is the real deal? And, who is going to be working these gigs? Is this going to be another government-private enterprise (Dyncorp, Xe et al) partnership?

Reader June 10, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Looks like that project is a market survey. Not a solicitation.

Samantha June 10, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Gump is not wrong on the dissection of Qarabağ. Nogorno is from the Russian word “Нагорный” which translates to highland “или гор” if you will. Quarabağ means “black garden.” Highland+black garden = black garden highland.

Nogorno-Karabakh has tall mountain ridges. So Gump is right in comparing Nogorno Karabakh to Koratag or Qoratagh. They also share the same vegetation and landscape.

Michael Hancock June 10, 2010 at 7:14 pm

I was correcting his assumption that bagh = tagh. If that wasn’t the assumption he was making, I misread his comment.

little reader June 11, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Separating Persian words out from Uzbek or other Turkic languages at this point makes about as much sense as describing words like garden or beef as “French”. Of course AtaTurk did try to purge the language and ended up with innane constructions like bashkent. Joke’s on him, though, Kent is a Soghdian word, same as when the French tried to get rid of “email.”

Metin June 11, 2010 at 3:42 pm

The very first attempt of avoiding foreign loan words in Turkish was proposed by Mehmud Qashgeri in 11th century. He advised to use foreign loan words only if no Turkish equivalents are available. This makes sense even today, for Uzbek language as well.

Turks under Ataturk did a great job in preserving uniqueness and beauty of the language. For me Bashkent sounds more pleasant than Poytaht, though I would not mind of usage of them both.

Yet Another Reader June 13, 2010 at 10:10 pm

I have had the pleasure of taking several trips up the Karatog River valley outside of Dushanbe. I have walked up the valley all the way to some of the top passes and lakes. I don’t know how much space is required for such a base, but there is already a reasonably sized Tajik base up the valley a bit past the village of Hakimi. Perhaps they are renovating the existing base to make friendly with the Tajik government and seem less suspicious than creating a whole new base. Then again, it would be a serious logistical effort to do that(paving a hideous mountain road or helicoptering stuff in), maybe they’ll stay down in the lower sections. Soldiers at the top base always say they are there to protect against an Uzbek invasion coming over the mountains. This is just silly(and geograpically impossible as the mountains are not a border with Uzbekistan), but it does make me wonder if having a base located there(as opposed to the south) isn’t in some way related to those pesky Uzbeks who are always trying to invade. This is all assuming we have the right Karatog.

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