BRUSSELS - Tajikistan became the last former Soviet republic to sign up for NATO's Partnership for Peace program Wednesday, underscoring the Central Asian nation's role supporting the U.S.-led anti-terrorist campaign.
"Tajikistan has played a significant part in the recent fight against terrorism, for which the NATO allies are profoundly grateful," said alliance Secretary General Lord Robertson.
Tajikistan joined 25 other non-NATO nations in the program, which offers military cooperation and regular political contacts with the 19-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Robertson said Tajikistan was a "key component" in efforts to bring stability to Central Asia following the defeat of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan.
Like other former Soviet states in Central Asia, Tajikistan offered support for the U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, providing air base facilities to the U.S. and French military. Britain is also considering sending military specialists to the country.
Tajik Ambassador Sharif Rahimov, who signed the partnership agreement, said his country hoped to use contacts with NATO to modernize its own armed forces.
"This is a very important day for Tajikistan," Rahimov told reporters.
"We hope our cooperation will benefit our country and help stability and security in the whole region."
As well as fighting terrorism, western nations are hoping to increase cooperation with Central Asian states to tackle drugs and arms smuggling across the region's porous borders.
However, aware of Russian sensitivities about increased western military presence in the region, U.S. officials have said there are no plans to establish permanent bases.
Tajikistan's signing of the partnership agreement comes more than seven years after the other ex-Soviet republics joined NATO's outreach program.
Rahimov blamed the delay on the civil war that broke out after Tajikistan gained independence in 1991 and pitted the Russian-backed government against mostly Islamic opposition groups.
The five-year conflict left the mountainous nation with a ruined economy and serious security problems. Russia maintains 25,000 troops in Tajikistan to guard its borders.