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

Uzbekistan: The Yanks are Coming

The arrival of US personnel in southern Uzbekistan has turned the lives of local people and Uzbek servicemen upside down.
By Urakbai Ketbenbaev

Checkpoints have sprung up all around Khanabad, a remote community in southwest Uzbekistan, as US troops move in for a long stay, building a base for their military operation against the ruling Taleban in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Giant C-17 US military transports fly in and out of the air base, the biggest in Uzbekistan, offloading crates and containers. US servicemen are digging latrines and building a mess hall. A tent city has mushroomed at the base, where local pilots say some 1,500 US personnel are now stationed.

The entire western part of the airfield, effectively 70 per cent of the base, has been allotted to the Americans, who have installed their own checkpoint to prevent unauthorised entry. Uzbek pilots and support staff are forbidden to cross over to the US-controlled area. "Can't even get to my own workplace," grumbled Obijon, an Uzbek pilot.

Uzbekistan has agreed to let the US use the airfield on the sprawling plains of the Kashkadaria region, 400 km southwest of Tashkent and 150 km from the Uzbek-Afghan border, for humanitarian, reconnaissance and rescue operations in Afghanistan.

The arrival of the 1,500 US personnel has turned the life of Khanabad and the surrounding farming community upside down.

New Uzbek police and national security service checkpoints were thrown up around Khanabad on October 7, right after the first US planes and personnel arrived. Police combed the community for illegal migrants and foreigners.

Residents were told to carry their IDs at all times outside their homes. They have to produce the documents at the checkpoints and bus drivers will not let people on board without them.

In the last few days, five or six US C-17s have flown in from a US airbase in Turkey, unloading containers, boxes and crates before flying off again. Local pilots say there are also at least six tandem-rotor cargo helicopters and one helicopter gunship at Khanabad. They say that apart from technical personnel, regular US soldiers, possibly from the 10th Mountain Division, are also there.

Local pilots say that, judging by the scope of construction work going on, the Americans are here to stay. They believe the US may have plans to maintain its presence at Khanabad for about five years.

Local military servicemen are unhappy about the American deployments. The stark contrast between the conspicuous affluence of the foreign servicemen and their local counterparts offends. An Uzbek air force officer earns just 30 US dollars a month (at black market rates). "It's like the army of the 22nd century is here," said Obijon enviously.

He complained that the American soldiers seem so carefree and uninhibited. They fly Jolly Roger pirate flags from their motorbikes and cars.

In the mornings, they occasionally go jogging with their gas masks, prompting fears of a chemical attack among local servicemen who have no training in the relevant avoidance procedures.

The arrival of the US personnel and their mission has aroused mixed feelings amongst local people.

"This measure is much needed and very well timed. We must support our government's decision. It's the only way we can defeat international terrorism," Asiljon, a civil servant, said.

But other locals fear the deployment of American forces in the local airfield will make them a prime target should the Taleban attack.

The Kabul regime has reportedly threatened Uzbekistan with a jihad (holy war) if any American strikes are launched from its territory.

"I've got basic supplies and documents ready, so I can leave within a matter of seconds if the Taleban hit. I've sent my children away to stay with relatives in the Fergana valley," said Khalida, a Khanabad resident.

Temirjon, a local truck driver, echoed her fears. "The Afghans are going to get us when the Americans are out of here," he said.

Urakbai Ketbenbaev is a pseudonym for an Uzbek journalist