Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbek Forces on War Footing

Southern Uzbekistan is on full military alert, as the country's armed forces prepare for war in Afghanistan
By Naima Suleyman

Uzbekistan's southern regions on the border with Afghanistan are gearing up for the start of US military operations against the Taleban regime.

Preparatory measures in Surkhandaria and Kashkadaria, include heightening the level of battle readiness and preparing military bases and airports for possible use by American planes and military servicemen.

Surkhandaria, which has a 192 km border with Afghanistan, is already on a state of full military alert. According to Uzbek troops on the frontier, all units of the armed forces and border guards have been recalled to barracks.

"We have to strengthen the readiness of our armed forces," President Islam Karimov told a public meeting in the capital last week. "We have to make sure that our border troops are always vigilant, and we have to be ready for any situation that may occur."

Only days after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the authorities fortified the border with Afghanistan in Surkhandaria, installing a new barbed wire fence along the entire Uzbek-Afghan frontier from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan.

The new fence is twice as high as the old one, the wire mesh is thicker and tighter and - most importantly - will be electrified to stop any illegal migrants crossing the border, frontier guards say.

"We will not permit people from Afghanistan to illegally cross our border - even if they are refugees, we will not let them in," one of the guards installing the barbed wire said.

Residents of Surkhandaria say the number of military personnel has increased since mid-September, and that security measures have been strengthened at the airport in Termez. The situation otherwise remains calm.

"As you can see, everything is quiet and under control," the commander of the armed forces in Surkhandaria, Nodir Usmonbekov, said.

The headquarters of the armed forces in Termez and the head of the border guards are not giving interviews to journalists and will not answer questions about the level of military cooperation with the US.

However, in the middle of last week, IWPR saw American specialists accompanied by officials from Surkhandaria inspecting the bridge across the Amudaria river at Termez, which links Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Border guard officers suggested these were American counter-intelligence officers.

Last week, US specialists also visited the military airport 50 km from Termez in Kakaidy, which was built in the Soviet era and used during the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

Servicemen at Kakaidy are sceptical about whether this airport could be of much use to the Americans. The commander of the unit guarding the airport, Dilshod Mahkamov, said no money had been invested in the infrastructure since Uzbekistan became independent 10 years ago.

"The airport is in a dismal condition and would need huge investment to be rehabilitated," he said. "Currently, it is not capable of receiving large cargo planes. Two runways have been out of order for ages. You could not land planes there."

Mahkamov added that the Americans would probably not be secure using a base located 50 km from the border as "shells could reach the airport. Afghanistan is very close".

He thought the Americans might be more interested in the military airport at Khanabad, 30 km from Karshi in the Kashkadaria region, in the south-west. This is the largest active military airport in Uzbekistan.

Pilots at Khanabad believe their airport could well become the hub of American air operations and that active preparations for receiving US aircraft are already underway.

The Russian media reported on September 30 that a Hercules US military transport plane had already landed in Khanabad. The Uzbek ministry of defence declined to confirm this for IWPR.

Yet on October 1, the Uzbek security council met and President Karimov confirmed the willingness of the country to allow America to use its airspace.

One pilot said the airport in Khanabad expected to receive about 15 American planes soon and that last week US specialists were examining the runway and the state of the hangars.

People living near the airport said life there had become much busier over the last two weeks. High-ranking military servicemen were seen visiting the airport, vehicles possibly transporting aeroplane fuel regularly arrive and military aircraft fly more often.

The pilots at Khanabad are not happy about the idea of their airport playing a key role in the bombing of Afghanistan. "We fear the Taleban will make good their threats to take action against Uzbekistan if we support the US, and that their first target will be Khanabad," one pilot said.

The pilots said the airport management had warned them that if the US uses chemical weapons, poisonous clouds could reach Termez within 15 minutes, and Karshi in an hour and a half. However, the management had said nothing about any self-defence measures the pilots and their families should use in case of a chemical attack on Afghanistan.

To the pilots, the prospect of Uzbekistan being dragged into a war against Afghanistan is particularly dispiriting given their already low level of financial security.

"Many pilots want to resign from the military, since they reckon the state does not value their work," one pilot said. "Last month my salary was 28,000 soms (24 US dollars) and we are constantly risking our lives and living in abnormal conditions, away from our families."

The airforce is a high risk occupation. There were two deadly accidents in the skies over Khanabad in February and June last year, claiming the lives of a deputy colonel, a captain and two first class pilots.

To the pilots, the threat of war in Afghanistan is just one more problem to be added to all their existing difficulties. This is a war that will be conducted from Uzbek territory by the American military using US military equipment. But as one of the military servicemen said, "We are military people and we will do whatever we are ordered to."

Naima Suleyman and Urakbai Ketbenbaev are pseudonyms of journalists in Uzbekistan