US troops ready to fly to Afghan border
By Lutz Kleveman in Tashkent
THE United States is planning to send 1,000 highly trained infantrymen
to the border of Afghanistan in the most significant military
deployment since the September 11 attacks.
The despatch of a reinforced battalion from the 10th Mountain
Division to Uzbekistan will mark the first time an American infantry
unit has been based in part of the former Soviet Union and signals
the beginning of a still larger military build-up.
United States defence sources said the troops would leave their
camp in New York once a final deal on the use of bases was reached
with the Uzbeks. They will provide security for American air force
combat aircraft using Uzbek bases to bombard Taliban positions.
The battalion will also be used as back-up to help United States
special forces teams that get into difficulties inside Afghanistan,
the Washington Post reported yesterday.
The American aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, expected to be used
as a forward base for special operations troops and larger units
of ground forces, is not due to arrive in the Arabian Sea for
a further four or five days.
It is seen as an alternative to the use of Pakistani bases, a
move that Washington fears could fatally weaken the Musharraf
Last week, Indian military intelligence officials said that 1,000
American commandos and a detachment of British SAS troops had
begun operations in the region.
The infantry deployment in Uzbekistan is said to be long-term,
with the 10th Mountain instructed to have another battalion ready
to head to the region in six months' time.
The growing importance of Uzbekistan to America's war on terrorism
was underlined by the news that Donald Rumsfeld, the United States
defence secretary, is due in the capital, Tashkent, tomorrow.
The former Soviet states are particularly appealing to Washington
because a large American presence would face less popular opposition
than in more strongly Islamic states such as Pakistan and Saudi
Arabia. Uzbekistan became independent in 1991 and has, since then,
fostered a pro-Western image.
For days, Tashkent has been a cauldron of rumours that American
aircraft were already carrying special troops and reconnaissance
material to airbases near the capital. The Uzbek government persistently
denied such reports, while sealing off the airfields.
However, a pilot of a large Western commercial airline that has
almost daily flights to Tashkent's civilian airport confirmed
evidence of a huge military build-up.
"Every time we fly in or out there are several US Air Force
planes and helicopters on the tarmac," he said yesterday.
"Today, one C-141 Starlifter [a long-range, heavy lift transport
plane] landed right in front of us."
Ground troops are most likely to be stationed near the air and
ground base at Termez, on the tightly sealed, 100-mile Uzbek-Afghan
border. The facilities, the main launch-pad for the Soviet invasion
of Afghanistan in 1979, have been turned over to civilian control
but military installations are said to be still in place.
While most Uzbeks are Muslims, popular protests by Islamic extremists
against an American military presence are not expected. The police
apparatus of President Islam Karimov, a former Soviet apparatchik
under whose harsh authoritarian rule independent media and opposition
parties have been banned, suppresses any Islamic challenge to
the secular state.
Most Soviet institutions that control the population, such as
the KGB, have survived under a different name. For years they
have waged a struggle against the Islamic Movement for Uzbekistan
(IMU), which wants to carve out a theocratic state.
The IMU, whose members are believed to be trained in Afghanistan,
has been singled out by President Bush for its alleged links with
Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'eda group. It is accused of exploding
several car bombs in Tashkent in early 1999.
After the attacks, the Uzbek regime imposed strict anti-Islam
legislation and had between 5,000 and 10,000 people arrested.
Human rights groups have since accused police forces of routinely
torturing and killing prisoners.