Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Boston Globe
October 12, 2001
Uzbek air base gets ready for war, and 1,200 US troops
By David Filipov, Globe Staff

KARSHI, Uzbekistan - At the Khanabad air base here, the preparations for war have begun. A backhoe and several large trucks bearing sand, gravel, and concrete are evidence of how the Soviet-era barracks are being upgraded, the runways repaired, and air defense systems installed to accommodate US troops.

But little more is known publicly about what is in store for this military base in southern Uzbekistan, where Soviet forces once launched strikes against US-trained Afghan fighters.

More than 1,200 American soldiers were sent to this dusty town 200 miles north of the Afghan border after Uzbekistan became the first, and so far only, former Soviet republic to allow US combat troops to use a base on former USSR territory. The bulk of the troops are from the Army's 10th Mountain Division, a light infantry unit designed for rapid deployment over rough terrain - a division that has seen action from the Persian Gulf War to Somalia to Haiti.

But on the question of what kind of action it might see in Afghanistan, there is a public answer and a not-so-public one.

Uzbekistan has declared that it will allow on its soil only those troops whose missions are humanitarian or search-and-rescue. Neither US nor Uzbek officials will say whether that limitation is being lifted - either publicly or perhaps tacitly - to allow the troops here to engage in the direct combat expected to start soon.

Yet, Pentagon officials, who decline to be quoted by name, confirmed for the Globe last night that they intend to use the troops stationed there for combat purposes.

There is no question that Khanabad, with its proximity to the Afghan border, is a desirable staging point for the deployment of helicopters carrying elite special forces into Afghanistan for ground operations against suspected terrorist bases - operations that US military officials characterize as the second stage of the antiterrorism campaign. Combat is certainly a mission that the 10th Mountain Division is well-suited for.

But if that is its mission, no one is saying so openly, at least not in Karshi.

At a makeshift roadblock outside the base, Uzbek military and police officers turn away all unauthorized visitors.

''Yes, we're allies,'' said an Uzbek lieutenant colonel to two American visitors. ''Now, go away.''

The US Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital, refuses to discuss specifics of the US military mission here. So does the Pentagon - other than to say the US soldiers are to provide security for other US forces in the region.

Uzbekistan's authoritarian government, after announcing last week its agreement to let American forces operate here, has since refused to acknowledge the presence of the troops.

Yet, there is no doubt they are here. Residents have seen the US military jets and cargo planes land here. And yesterday, Associated Press Television News crews in the region filmed a US troop carrier aircraft flying toward the air base here. It was not clear what the C-17 had on board, but there have been reports that US Air Force technicians have traveled to the base to install navigation equipment for servicing American cargo planes.

The possibility that the US troops might conduct raids into Afghanistan does not sit well with Muslim residents of Karshi.

''If there are troops conducting military operations from Khanabad, I don't think that will be very good,'' said a man outside Karshi's mosque, who gave only his first name, Makhmud. ''There will be discontent among the people.''

There is also anxiety over possible retaliation by the Taliban. They have threatened to attack Uzbekistan if US forces use its territory for airstrikes. To lend credence to this threat, Taliban leaders said they have dispatched 8,000 troops to Afghanistan's border with Uzbekistan. This claim, difficult to verify, has caused apprehension about reprisals among the mainly Muslim residents of Uzbekistan.

''We've got nothing good from the Americans,'' said a woman who runs a small cafe in Karshi, who gave only her first name, Gulya. ''It would only take the Taliban a half-hour to come and bomb us. Because [the Americans] are here, they'll come and bomb Karshi.''

The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, dismissed in comments published Wednesday the suggestion that cooperation with the United States was likely to increase the threat of attacks by Muslim militants. But Karimov, whose fiercely secular regime has staged crackdowns against Muslim movements, urged his countrymen to be vigilant.

Still, some observers question whether Uzbekistan's poorly equipped military is ready to face a potential attack from the south, even as they question the Taliban's ability to back up threats.

''The Taliban cannot launch an offensive against Uzbekistan,'' said Mohammed Hashem Saad, the ambassador to Tashkent of the Afghan government that was ousted by the Taliban in 1996, but is still recognized by most countries. ''But they can stay on their side and fire rockets.''

Some Uzbeks say they are glad to have the Americans arrive to help combat the Afghanistan-based Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is allegedly responsible for a 1999 bombing in Tashkent that killed 16 people.

Back to the Top