American officers scouting locations to deploy U.S. troops in Uzbekistan are focusing on the former Soviet air base at Khanabad, Uzbek military sources said Tuesday.
A U.S. advance team of several officers began studying Khanabad on Sept. 20, the sources said. They found the airstrips and hangars in need of repair and updating. Nonetheless, the sources said, the officers were satisfied that the base is able to accommodate American aircraft and personnel.
The review of Khanabad is part of a growing but still quiet operation to determine where, when and how many U.S. forces can be deployed in Uzbekistan as the United States prepares for an assault on Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization in Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan's government says it has offered only the use of its airspace to U.S. forces. But already, hundreds of American servicemen are reported to be on the ground.
The Washington Post said the Army's 10th Mountain Division sent more than 1,000 troops Tuesday night on an unprecedented combat deployment to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the first time a regular Army infantry unit has been sent on a mission to a former Soviet republic.
The Post said the reinforced battalion of light infantry, based at Ft. Drum, N.Y., also represents the first major deployment of a regular Army unit--as opposed to the small, elite Special Forces units--in the campaign against terrorism.
Uzbek sources say Americans have delivered monitoring and reconnaissance equipment to the Tuzel air base on the edge of Tashkent, the Uzbek capital.
Some of that equipment, analysts believe, already has been moved to the Termez region on the Uzbek-Afghan border.
As part of a program begun months ago but stepped up since the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. experts are training Uzbek forces how better to guard their 125-mile border with Afghanistan.
Some of the training involves basic monitoring practices. Some is expected to involve sophisticated equipment provided by the U.S. government.
Uzbekistan fears that if U.S. forces attack Afghanistan from Uzbek bases, the Taliban will retaliate against Uzbekistan.
Though Uzbekistan's border with Afghanistan is short, it is vulnerable. The Uzbek army cannot match the Taliban in experience or ability, and Uzbek air defenses are weak.
Khanabad was the main rear base for the Soviet army and home of its MiG fighter squadrons during the failed occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. It is deemed the largest and best-maintained of Uzbekistan's air bases and still has a few dozen MiG-29 fighters and a few SU-24s.
Khanabad is just outside the city of Karshi in southern Uzbekistan, close to the border with Turkmenistan and about 125 miles from Afghanistan.
The American specialists, according to Uzbek military sources, rated Khanabad as a better option than bases in neighboring Tajikistan or Turkmenistan.
They also prefer it over Kakydi and Tuzel, sources said. The Kakydi air base near Termez is expected to be used only in emergency cases or perhaps as a base for search and rescue teams.
On Sunday an American C-130 Hercules military transport landed at Khanabad and delivered cargo believed to be either reconnaissance systems or support equipment for U.S. warplanes, the sources said.
None of this is being reported in the Uzbek media. President Islam Karimov told the nation Monday night that he had approved the use of Uzbek airspace for the U.S.-led effort against bin Laden but he said nothing about the bases.
Analysts believe the U.S.-Uzbek deal is already made. Karimov has promised the Americans use of his bases but is hesitant to tell that to an Uzbek people who fear getting caught up in a wider war in Central Asia.
"This is already decided," said Alisher Taksanov, a former researcher with Uzbekistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs who is now an independent analyst and journalist in Tashkent. "Karimov is bringing the people along slowly.
"There might be some legislation introduced to allow foreign military forces into Uzbekistan and have the parliament vote on it," Taksanov said.
"But it will come from the president. You see how our parliament makes decisions. They just raise their hands."