U.S. Air Force Must Give Up Uzbek Base

The central Asian nation of Uzbekistan says the United States will no longer be able to use an air base that is a key hub for operations in Afghanistan. American forces have six months to vacate the base. Relief operations are likely to be hurt, too.

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The US has been evicted from an air base that's been a key hub for American military operations in Afghanistan as well as deliveries of humanitarian aid. The government of Uzbekistan didn't give a reason for the eviction, but relations between the two countries have been strained since the US called for an international investigation of alleged human rights violations in central Asian nation. NPR's Nancy Marshall-Genzer reports.

NANCY MARSHALL-GENZER reporting:

The eviction from the Karshi-Khanabad air base came just days after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld returned from a trip to central Asia in which he did not visit Uzbekistan. Asked what would happen if the US were evicted from the Uzbek base, Rumsfeld said, quote, "We're always thinking ahead. We'll be fine." But last May, Pentagon spokesman Brian Whitman said the base was, quote, "undeniably critical in supporting our combat operations." Asked today about the eviction, Whitman said there are alternative bases.

Mr. BRIAN WHITMAN (Spokesman, Pentagon): The United States military is a very capable force and they have been using other facilities in the region, but it's also true that our operations would certainly be more difficult and costly. However, we plan for any number of contingencies and we adjust our operations accordingly.

MARSHALL-GENZER: The Pentagon won't have too much time to adjust its operations. Whitman said the US has six months to vacate the base. Those other facilities he was talking about are air bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The Uzbek base is close to good roads that are open all year, so trucks carrying planeloads of cargo can get through mountain passes. That's not true for the alternate bases. Here's how Martha Brill Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace describes the roads the US military will now have to use.

Ms. MARTHA BRILL OLCOTT (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): You're in the foothills of the Himalayas. You're talking about many mountains that are over 10,000,15,000 feet. You're talking about narrow dirt, two-lane road. It's road that is virtually impenetrable all but just a few months of the year.

MARSHALL-GENZER: Brill Olcott says it's a good thing the US military can keep using the Uzbek base for the next six months so it can stockpile humanitarian supplies. She says the Pentagon may have already planned for that because Uzbekistan's relations with the US have been strained for months. Washington is calling for an international investigation into the Uzbek government's suppression of an uprising just last May in which hundreds of people were killed.

Nancy Marshall-Genzer, NPR News, Washington.

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