After weeks of evasion and deflection, reminiscent of two illicit lovers keen to avoid scandal, the United States and Uzbekistan announced on October 12 that they had made a deal. Tashkent agreed to let the United States use not only its airspace but also its military and civilian infrastructure in the common cause of fighting terrorism. In return, Washington undertook a commitment to discuss any threats to Uzbekistan, implying its willingness to defend the host country if attacked by Afghanistan.
Though remote at present, the prospect of the Taliban regime attacking Uzbekistan cannot be ruled out. Much depends on what happens during the “search and rescue” and “humanitarian” missions by the US special forces operating from Uzbek airbases. In the course of such innocuous-sounding missions, the special forces frequently deploy helicopters and strike aircraft.
“If it means you have to take out half a dozen Taliban positions to ‘rescue’ your colleagues, then that is what you have got to do,” explained an Uzbek military analyst in Tashkent. “Most people might sometimes find it hard to recognize [the difference between] a regular attack and [a] search and rescue [mission].” Equally, he added, “it could be considered ‘humanitarian’ to remove Taliban forces from a valley filled with civilians in need of food and medical supplies.”
Washington has been complicit with the repressive Uzbek government for some time. Rustam Jumaev, chief spokesman for Uzbek President Islam Karimov, recently told the Washington Post that his country and the United States had been conducting covert anti-Taliban operations since mid-2000, and that significant security and military cooperation between Uzbekistan and the Pentagon had existed for “two to three years.” This was a welcome departure from the Uzbek administration’s usual secretiveness. Though the London Guardian had revealed on September 21 that two US Hercules transport planes, carrying surveillance equipment and 200 US military personnel in civilian clothes, had landed three days earlier at a military base near Tashkent on their way to Termez on the Uzbek-Afghan border, Uzbek officials would say only, “Our president is prepared to discuss anything with Washington.”
Weeks later, an Uzbek spokesman revealed that, following telephone conversations between Presidents Karimov and George W. Bush, the former had agreed to let the Pentagon use Uzbek airspace in the fight against terrorism for security and humanitarian aims. And it was only after the visit to Tashkent of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in early October that an announcement was made about the imminent arrival of 1,000 soldiers from the US 10th Mountain Division, deployed to defend an airbase being used for search and rescue and humanitarian missions. Another contingent of 1,000 troops arrived soon after. Why the mountaineers were guarding the perimeter of an airbase remained a mystery until it became clear that the Uzbek government had handed over an airbase completely to the Pentagon.
The airbase remains unnamed to this day. But since a five-miles radius around the airbase at Khanabad near Qarshi–100 miles from the Afghan frontier–has been closed even to local residents, the “secret” is common knowledge. Aside from heavy US transport planes, the locals have noticed strike aircraft and helicopters landing and taking off.