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Afghanistan: US Casualties Spiral

Scores of US soldiers wounded in Afghanistan have been arriving at the Khanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan - far more than official reports suggest
By Andrei Sukhozhilov

Its approach announced by the repeated thud of its blade slicing the air, the twin-rotor US helicopter landed at the American military support base at Khanabad airport, in southern Uzbekistan.


A staging post for special forces' and humanitarian missions into Afghanistan, the base has become busy with another task - receiving increasing numbers of Americans wounded in the fighting.


Uzbek sources at Khanabad suggest that the real figures of US casualties are far higher than the Pentagon's official totals. This IWPR reporter, who smuggled himself onto the facility on December 2, witnessed soldiers scrambling to meet an incoming US helicopter. They lifted out five wounded men on stretchers and loaded them into waiting vehicles.


Uzbek army personnel working at the air base said scores of US casualties have been arriving there. From November 25 to Decemeber 2, an Uzbek orderly working with American medical staff said he had witnessed the arrival of four to five US helicopters - carrying between them 10-15 American casualties - each day.


The orderly said the US staff he was helping confirmed the casualties coming off the aircraft were Americans.


Over the same period of time, the Pentagon has reported just five injured American servicemen, wounded in a friendly-fire incident during an operation to quell a prison riot near Mazar-e-Sharif. All were evacuated to Khanabad and then on to Germany.


The Pentagon's official total US casualty toll for the Afghan conflict is eight dead and 41 injured.


Asked about IWPR's findings, Pentagon spokesperson Lt Col. Catherine Abbott said, "I cannot comment on what your reporter may have seen or something an orderly may have told him. As we verify reports, we make the information known. . . . . The numbers that I gave you are the latest that I have."


The IWPR findings come amid US news media criticism of the Pentagon for allegedly restricting press coverage of American casualties. Both the Washington Post and the AP news agency protested Thursday at the military's apparent decision to prevent reporters based inside Afghanistan witnessing the transfer of troops injured when a B-52 bomb went astray in an air-strike on Kandahar. Three US special forces soldiers were killed and 19 wounded in the friendly-fire incident.


This reporter managed to get into the heavily guarded Khanabad facility with a group of parents visiting children serving in an Uzbek military unit based at the airport.


Uzbek military staff at the base told IWPR that it is increasingly being used as a springboard for humanitarian missions and special forces' raids into Afghanistan. They say the former take place during the day and the latter at night.


At the same time, the airport has been receiving growing numbers of casualties. The Uzbek sources say the hospital there - comprising one floor of a building and four large canvas tents - was full of wounded US soldiers. They said more tents were going to be erected to cope with the influx of casualties.


The Uzbek orderly working with American troops transferring wounded comrades from helicopters said the casualties suffered shrapnel and bullet wounds to the arms, leg and head.


The airport sources could not confirm how many incoming casualties had died. One Uzbek soldier said that since October 15 he had helped US servicemen load 20 body bags onto American transport planes. But he could not confirm whether they were dead US soldiers.


But there is other evidence of American fatalities. One Uzbek officer said US soldiers had told him that four of their comrades had died of their wounds on December 1 while being airlifted to Khanabad.


An Uzbek pilot spoke of the death last week of an American soldier who he had become friendly with while he was on the base. The US serviceman, he said, had died in the attempt to end the prison riot on the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif two weeks ago. "A lot of American troops died there - it was a real battle, " the pilot said.


Uzbek army personnel say the atmosphere on the base has changed distinctly in the last week or so.


They say that in October when the Americans began deploying at the airport, they were gung-ho, telling their Uzbek counterparts that it would take no more than a month and a half to defeat the Taleban and al-Qaeda.


While the Taleban appear to be on their last legs, al-Qaeda fighters continue to resist in mountain redoubts, with some US servicemen at Khanabad now resigned to a long haul.


Uzbek military staff say frustration at this is noticeable. They say they have witnessed growing tensions among American troops, often overhearing arguments and shouting matches.


Andrei Sukhozhilov is the pseudonym for journalist based in Uzbekistan.


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