Uzbekistan boots U.S. from crucial air base
WASHINGTON – Uzbekistan formally evicted the United States on Friday from a military base that has served as a hub for combat and humanitarian missions to Afghanistan since shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Pentagon and State Department officials said Friday.
In a highly unusual move, the notice of eviction from Karshi-Khanabad air base, known as K2, was delivered by a courier from the Uzbek Foreign Ministry to the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, said a senior U.S. administration official involved in Central Asia policy. The message did not give a reason. Uzbekistan will give the United States 180 days to move aircraft, personnel and equipment, U.S. officials said.
If Uzbekistan follows through, as Washington expects, the United States will face several logistical problems for its operations in Afghanistan. Scores of flights have used K2 monthly. It has been a landing base to transfer humanitarian goods that then are taken by road into northern Afghanistan, particularly to Mazar-e-Sharif – with no alternative for a region difficult to reach in the winter. K2 is also a refueling base with a runway long enough for large military aircraft. The alternative is much costlier midair refueling.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld returned this week from Central Asia, where he won assurances from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that the United States can use its bases for operations in Afghanistan. U.S. forces use Tajikistan for emergency landings and occasional refueling, but it lacks good roads into Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan does not border Afghanistan.
“We always think ahead. We’ll be fine,” Rumsfeld said Sunday when asked how the United States would cope with losing the base in Uzbekistan.
In May, however, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman called access to the airfield “undeniably critical in supporting our combat operations” and humanitarian deliveries. The United States has paid $15 million to Uzbek authorities for use of the airfield since 2001, he said.
On Friday, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said that the U.S. military does not depend on one base in any part of the world. “We’ll be able to conduct our operations as we need to, regardless of how this turns out. It’s a diplomatic issue at the moment,” Di Rita said.