As the US looks to send more troops into Afghanistan to scout out targets and train opposition fighters, Washington is turning its attention to Uzbekistan, which already hosts some 1,000 US soldiers.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Defense Minister Qobir Ghulomov in the Uzbek presidential palace yesterday on his second visit to this Central Asian nation in a month, highlighting its importance in the fight against terror. Rumsfeld and Ghulomov were also expected to meet separately later.
Rumsfeld came to Uzbekistan late Saturday after conferring in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials on strategic arms cuts and US plans for a new missile shield.
He then paid a quick visit to neighboring Tajikistan, but said he reached no deals on military cooperation with the country, which shares a long and volatile border with Afghanistan.
He said, however, that the sides would form an "assessment team" to look into ways in which Tajikistan -- currently allowing flights carrying US aid across its airspace -- could assist in the military campaign in Afghanistan.
Tajik Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov said assistance could be expanded to allow overflights of military planes or the use of Tajikistan's air fields.
Rumsfeld and Uzbek officials were certain to discuss the stationing of US soldiers in Khanabad, a former Soviet air base just about 145km from the Afghan border, and UN aid shipments from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan that could begin as early as next week.
Experts say Rumsfeld is also interested in looking at using Uzbekistan as a forward base for supplying US soldiers in Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld said Friday that he hoped to quickly expand the number of US special forces in Afghanistan. There are currently some 100 to 200 troops in the country.
"Uzbekistan might be the key now," said Charles Heyman, editor of the London-based Jane's World Armies. "This is the entry point for logistics."
Uzbekistan served as a major supply base during the Soviet Union's 10-year involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Although Uzbekistan has balked at allowing the US to carry out strikes from its bases, it has agreed that soldiers for search-and-rescue and humanitarian missions can be based on its territory.
While there have been protests in many Muslim countries against the US bombings of Afghanistan, where the Taliban militia is sheltering suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, there is little outward opposition in tightly controlled Uzbekistan.
Many Uzbeks strongly oppose Afghanistan's ruling Taliban and believe that fundamentalist Afghans are harboring anti-Uzbek militants who carried out a series of bombings in Tashkent in 1999. The Uzbek government is also very quick to crack down against any dissent.
"Afghanistan should be wiped off the earth," said Nodir Maksumov, a 38-year-old government employee who fought in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
"People have to fight terrorism and there is no sense in fighting there if the place continues to exist."
Omon Zakirov, a 31-year-old government worker, said he hopes Uzbekistan will benefit from the fighting.
"America will give us money or maybe they are already giving it to us,'' he said. Uzbek officials have recently denied reports that their nation would get billions of dollars in US aid in exchange for its support.
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