U.S. Considers Options after Uzbek Base Closing
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
US military officials are considering their options after Uzbekistan ordered the United States out of an important air base. The base is used as a hub for military and humanitarian operations across the border in Afghanistan. No official reason has been given for Uzbekistan's move. It comes after the United States supported a United National airlift last week. That airlift rescued hundreds of Uzbek refugees fleeing violence in the central Asian country.
Joining us now to talk about what the loss of the base means for the US military is retired Army General Robert Scales.
Good morning, General.
General ROBERT SCALES (Retired; US Army): Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: How important is that base to the overall US strategy in the region?
Gen. SCALES: Oh, it's extremely important. The base in question is called K2, and it sits right on the border of Uzbekistan. It's the only really good airfield that has a long enough airstrip and good roads connecting it into northern Afghanistan that allows the transshipment of humanitarian aid, as well as a waypoint for short-range aircraft like the C-130 aircraft and attack helicopters and so forth that support the war on the insurgency in Afghanistan.
INSKEEP: When you say it's got good roads, you mean supplies are being flown in and then driven across the border?
Gen. SCALES: That's right. And if that base is lost, then there are, you know, other bases that can be used in the region, like in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but neither one of those countries have either good air bases within their territory or good roads that connect them into northern Afghanistan.
INSKEEP: Well, if this base is really lost to them, there is a six-month time frame here in which Americans, I'm sure, can try to get it back. If the base is really lost, what does the United States do?
Gen. SCALES: Well, they're going to have to--they're going to have to take some pretty tough alternatives. Unfortunately, the base is going to be closed in the wintertime, which is the time when it's most important, because many of those roads in northern Afghanistan get shut down, as you know, by the horrific winter there. So there are only a couple of alternatives. One is the very, very tough road from Tajikistan into northern Afghanistan, the other is to use air-to-air refueling from bases in Kyrgyzstan to fly--actually, to fly supplies directly into Afghanistan, which, as you know, is extremely expensive. Another alternative, of course, is to come from the sea, and the Indian Ocean, and to fly in that way, or perhaps try to get some basing rights in Pakistan. But, as you know, that's a very politically sensitive deal right now. So there are no easy alternatives to this rather significant logistical dilemma that the administration faces now.
INSKEEP: Aren't there former Soviet military bases inside Afghanistan itself, Bagram air base, for example?
Gen. SCALES: Well, there are, but the problem with that, Steve, is you have to defend them. And there's always the danger of aircraft being shot down, or terrorist attacks on the air base, and it's extremely difficult to use these air bases now because they're getting very crowded. So you need a sort of intermediate staging base or forward operating base outside the combat zone that can be used for these humanitarian transshipment missions.
INSKEEP: Now it can't be a surprise to the US military that there's tension between the US and Uzbekistan. The US has criticized Uzbekistan's human rights record...
Gen. SCALES: Right.
INSKEEP: ...and then there was this UN airlift. Is it your sense that the military was prepared for this order to depart?
Gen. SCALES: Well, you know, that's an excellent question, and it really is sort of the first of probably many Faustian dilemmas that the administration's gonna face in the future. Do you support the emergence of democracy in these bordering states or do you take advantage of the opportunities to use their military facilities to, you know, conduct the war on terror? In this case, the administration made the right decision in my mind. There are always alternatives in the region. It's going to be extremely difficult and probably more expensive and inconvenient to use these other bases, but in the sense of what happened after the so-called Andijan incident in May, it's most appropriate that the United States hold a hard line when it deals with Uzbekistan.
INSKEEP: General, thanks very much.
Gen. SCALES: You bet; thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's retired US Army Major General Robert Scales.