Confronted by new restrictions on the use of a critical air base in Uzbekistan, the U.S. military has shifted key operations out of the Central Asian republic, repositioning search-and-rescue planes in Afghanistan and routing heavy cargo flights through neighboring Kyrgyzstan, U.S. officials said yesterday.
The moves amount to little more than an inconvenience so far, the officials said, but could become more problematic if Uzbek authorities refuse to restore freer access to the airfield later this year.
U.S. commanders have considered the large Karshi-Khanabad air base -- dubbed K2 and located in southeastern Uzbekistan -- as a vital logistics hub. Flights in and out of there have supported combat operations against Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and funneled humanitarian assistance to areas in northern Afghanistan.
But Uzbek President Islam Karimov recently curtailed U.S. military operations at the base after U.S. criticism of his government's shooting of hundreds of protesters in Andijan last month. The restrictions prohibit nighttime operations and also limit flights by C-17 and other heavy cargo aircraft.
The nighttime ban constitutes an unacceptable condition for HC-130 aircraft, which are used for search-and-rescue as well as tanker operations and therefore must be available to fly at all hours, the officials said. Consequently, the aircraft have been relocated to Afghanistan's Bagram air base, near Kabul.
But ramp space and especially fuel at Bagram are limited, one senior officer said. Fuel must be trucked to the base across narrow mountain passes that can become blocked during winter, he noted. Further, although the HC-130s have been moved, their maintenance facilities remain in Uzbekistan, complicating service.
Heavy cargo planes, meanwhile, which had been disgorging tons of military supplies and humanitarian assistance at the Uzbek air base for shipment into Afghanistan, are being diverted to Manas in Kyrgyzstan. Because Manas, which is outside the capital of Bishkek, is hundreds of miles farther from Afghanistan, the change has meant longer and costlier trips for trucks that pick up the goods, officials said.
Smaller cargo planes such as C-130s are still allowed to land at the Uzbek base. But U.S. commanders are considering shifting some of them to other locations as well, the officials said.
The ban on nighttime operations surprised U.S. authorities, but the restriction on heavy cargo planes had been foreshadowed, the senior officer said. Uzbek officials had complained for months that the big aircraft were damaging the airfield's old, Soviet-built runway.
"The Uzbek government has been somewhat frustrated with us for being unable to repair the runway and make a firm, longer-term commitment," said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the political sensitivity of the matter.
Money to improve the runway is contained in the emergency supplemental spending bill approved by Congress last month. But the future of U.S.-Uzbek relations remains clouded by differences within the Bush administration over how to respond to the May 13 crackdown on protesters in Andijan.
State Department officials have emphasized the need to prod Karimov to allow an international investigation of the bloodshed. Pentagon authorities fret about the risk of provoking Karimov into further limits on U.S. military access.
Uzbekistan was the focus yesterday of a senior-level discussion among representatives of the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House and other government agencies, officials said. Several denied a serious internal rift.
"We have, despite all the screaming about the alleged differences, been very consistent," said a senior official involved in the discussions. "We have not allowed our legitimate interest in K2 for operations in Afghanistan to be used as leverage against us to soften our democracy message. We're not going to pull the plug on K2 deliberately, but we've sent pretty good messages that the Uzbeks need to do the right thing."