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Uzbekistan: US Troops Prepare for Ground War

There are growing signs that the Khanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan is to be used as a launch pad for US military operations in Afghanistan.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

US forces based in Uzbekistan are preparing to deploy in Afghanistan for the ground phase of the military campaign against the Taleban regime and the al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden, according to IWPR sources.

After four weeks of air bombardment, the US and its allies, it seems, are now making preparations for raids by elite allied troops against the Kabul regime and the terror cells it harbours.

It's been estimated that there are between 100 and 200 elite US troops in Afghanistan at the moment, and American officials have indicated that they hope to quickly expand their number.

Local pilots at the Khanabad military airport in the Kashkadaria region, which has been under US military management for more than a month, say hundreds of American special forces have been arriving at the base in recent weeks, as part of intensive preparations to use it as a springboard for special operations in Afghanistan.

They say an aircraft with a British flag landed at Khanabad more than a week ago, bringing 12 officials for talks with American servicemen. The visitors also inspected the airport and runway. Uzbek military staff at the airport say they've overheard their commanders saying the visit was intended to prepare the ground for the arrival of British special forces, including Nepalese Gurkhas, who specialise in military operations in mountainous conditions.

Khanabad has become practically a closed area. A check-point at the entrance to village allows only registered residents to pass through and access to three more villages near the airport has been restricted.

Uzbek pilots note that there has been an increase in US military activity at Khanabad and the inhabitants of neighbouring villages say they have grown accustomed to the sound of planes taking off and landing at night.

One evening last month, several Uzbek pilots say they saw 50 heavily armed members of a Navy Seals special force unit climb into three Chinook Type 47 helicopters and a Hercules transport plane. They say the aircraft returned after about an hour and half. A few days later, they say they witnessed Amercain soldiers unloading two-metre long missiles from incoming aircraft. Uzbek observers say the arrival of US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Uzbekistan last Sunday, his second visit in a month, was intended to pave the way for the use of Khanabad as a launch pad for special operations in Afghanistan.

The leadership of Uzbekistan, it seems, is trying to keep the details of its cooperation with Washington from the public. It has insisted that Khanabad is only being used for humanitarian and search-and-rescue missions.

But well-informed Uzbek analysts say it's increasingly clear that the growing numbers of elite US troops arriving there are to be used for special military operations inside Afghanistan.

Political observer Faizulla Iskhakov says the very presence of American special forces in Uzbekistan is already a departure from the agreement signed by the two countries. During Rumsfeld's visit, Uzbek defence minister Kadir Gulyamov, speaking at a press conference, reiterated Tashkent's official position. "I don't think that there were any negotiations about changing our existing agreement - during the meetings these issues were not raised," he said.

For his part, Rumsfeld refused to discuss the level of cooperation between the US and Uzbekistan. He said America had left it to each of its allies to define the nature of assistance they would provide Washington.

Few details were released about the nature of Rumsfeld's discussions, but Uzbekistan is clearly the most suitable country in the area for the US to use to launch its ground operations in Afghanistan. It has an adequate military infrastructure, and unlike Pakistan it has no pro-Taleban opposition and indeed very little public dissent at all.

The Uzbek leadership is vehemently opposed to the Kabul regime. It accuses it of sheltering members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, which is alleged to have carried out a series of bombings in Tashkent in 1999 and attempted an armed incursion into southern Uzbekistan a year later.

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR regional director in Uzbekistan

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