Uzbekistan to be U.S. staging area, official says

Afghanistan neighbor has opposed such use by American troops

War On Terrorism : The World

October 12, 2001|By BOSTON GLOBE

KARSHI, Uzbekistan - A Pentagon official said yesterday that U.S. troops being sent to Uzbekistan are intended for combat use, despite public assurances that they aren't.

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

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

But a Pentagon official, speaking in anonymity, confirmed yesterday that a combat role is in the offing if the campaign to eliminate Osama bin Laden continues.

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

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 U.S. combat troops to use a base on former Soviet 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 to Somalia to Haiti.

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 U.S. military officials characterize as the second stage of the anti-terrorism campaign. Combat is a mission for which the 10th Mountain Division is well-suited.

There is also anxiety over possible retaliation by the Taliban. They have threatened to attack Uzbekistan if U.S. 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.

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 strongly secular regime has staged crackdowns against Muslim movements, urged his countrymen to be vigilant.

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

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