Uzbekistan: Yanks Welcome Here

In a historic shift, the first U.S. troops are on ex-Soviet soil

Visitors to the dry and dusty town of Karshi in rural south Uzbekistan are greeted by a grandiose concrete monument, built during Soviet times, of a pair of muscled field workers triumphantly holding aloft their cotton pickings. With the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago, this symbol of proletarian toil no longer inspires locals. But a remarkable shift in history's gears has taken place. The military might of America, the distant victor of the cold war, has suddenly come to this remote patch of land 200 kilometers from the border with Afghanistan. Things may never be the same again.

In the first-ever stationing of U.S. troops on former Soviet territory, at least 1,500 soldiers, including regiments of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Div., recently arrived at Khanabad Air Force Base on the outskirts of Karshi. They are preparing for ground operations in Afghanistan, including possible search-and-rescue missions and deliveries of weapons to the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance forces waging battle against the Taliban. Even if the military phase of the Afghanistan conflict ends quickly, American forces will likely stay around to ensure the peace. In a pact announced on Oct. 12, the U.S. pledged to protect Uzbekistan's security, now threatened by a Taliban vow to attack any country that helps the U.S. Uzbek military officials in Karshi told BusinessWeek that American defense officials have signaled an intention to keep troops at Khanabad for some three to five years.

So it looks as if this is just the beginning of a relationship between the folks in Karshi, population 250,000, and their unexpected foreign guests. So far, the locals have barely caught a glimpse of the Americans. Housed in tents deep inside a perimeter of checkpoints manned by Uzbek soldiers, the U.S. troops are in contact only with a few local people, mainly the wives of Uzbek military officers, hired for such tasks as housekeeping. Still, with unemployment in Karshi running at 40%, the U.S. presence is widely viewed as a heaven-sent economic-aid program. Local companies are battling to win a contract to construct a bathhouse at the base. And prostitutes dream of relieving male soldiers of their dollars, says a Karshi woman who hopes to profit.

So far, it seems, there has not been much activity at Khanabad other than the air delivery of humanitarian supplies to Afghanistan. Possibly because it is trying to settle on a strategy for organizing a post-Taliban government, weapons apparently have not been delivered yet to Northern Alliance forces. "We're still waiting," says Mohammad Hasham Saad, chargé d'affaires of the North Afghanistan consulate in Tashkent, which represents the Northern Alliance.

Other than saying that the U.S. troops are doing just fine, an Uzbek army sentry had no other comment for BusinessWeek on a spot visit to a Khanabad checkpoint on Oct. 15. But at least some in the Uzbek military are suggesting they can be more cooperative in return for cash. One local officer with access to Khanabad claimed to have photographs--for the right price--of U.S. soldiers performing drills. The Uzbek military, whose junior officers are paid $30 a month, are envious of the generous provisions afforded U.S. troops.

POPULAR. But if the Americans are largely out of Karshi's sight, they are certainly not out of its collective mind. Karshi residents have been saturated with state-controlled TV and radio broadcasts that brook no debate on the U.S. troops based at Khanabad. Strongman President Islam A. Karimov says America must be in Uzbekistan to fight terrorism, including Afganistan-based militants known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), that aims to topple him. The IMU has ties to Osama bin Laden and has been singled out by the U.S. as a targeted terrorist group.

Some in Karshi worry that the U.S. may accidentally kill many Afghanistan civilians. Anvar Choriev, 61, the chief of the philosophy department at Karshi State University, makes this plea to America's military commanders: "Please take all means so that no innocent people die." Still, the arrival of American troops appears to be genuinely popular, even in a nation that is 88% Muslim and potentially vulnerable to bin Laden's call for a holy war between Muslims and "the infidel." At the 400-year-old Blue Dome mosque in Karshi, night guard Nomozboi Nurkulov, 65, says "my personal opinion is that America needs to fight terrorism. If they can eliminate bad people, I will say: `Thank you."'

Should the U.S. troops ever be permitted outside the military base, they will discover not just the timeless features of a rural community, such as the goats that wander through the streets, but also some recent creations, such as the Las Vegas nightclub. Launched four years ago, the club features fluorescent- lit murals of the Las Vegas strip and Manhattan skyline, the once-mighty World Trade Center included. American soldiers would be welcome. "They can have beer, vodka, whiskey, whatever they want," says bartender Jamshid Rakhimov, 20. "We will show them Las Vegas, Uzbekistan style."

But it will probably be a long time before the soldiers get a night out. Even within their fortress at Khanabad, they are potential targets of an IMU attack. "The Uzbek government cannot 100% guarantee the safety of the American troops because, after all, even mighty America could not protect itself on September 11," says philosophy professor Choriev. So for now, with the troops mostly invisible, local imaginations--and hopes--can flourish.

By Paul Starobin in Karshi

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