- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 29, 2002

KHANABAD, Uzbekistan Clouds of dust rose from construction at this remote Uzbek air base yesterday as U.S. forces restored Soviet-built runways and expanded a post office to deliver tons of mail to soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.
A rare glimpse inside one of the most secret forward U.S. bases in the anti-terror campaign during a congressional visit revealed that although activity at Khanabad has slowed, American troops show no signs of getting ready to leave.
Uzbekistan was the first former Soviet republic in Central Asia to offer a base for American use, and the first 1,000 troops from the 10th Mountain Division arrived in Khanabad in October.
Russia, which has long considered Central Asia its strategic back yard, has agreed to the U.S. presence here for operations in Afghanistan.
The U.S. troops are officially only engaged in humanitarian and search-and-rescue missions, and Uzbek President Islam Karimov has insisted their numbers haven't gone over an agreed limit of 1,500 soldiers.
However, during a visit yesterday, Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican, said the number of troops at Khanabad has at times risen to as much as 5,000, depending on operations in Afghanistan.
There are now about 1,800 U.S. troops at the base: 900 ground forces, 600 Air Force personnel, 200 Marines and other support personnel, including special forces, said base commander Col. Albert Love.
During their tour, Mr. Weldon's group was shown four AC-130 gunships, slow-flying aircraft that have been used across Afghanistan.
Mr. Weldon brought the troops more than 5,000 cards from American children and boxes of homemade cookies.
"The legacy that you are leaving here by being here is significant not just for America but for all of mankind," he told troops at the base, 125 miles north of the Afghan border.
The busiest time here was in January, when C-17 transport aircraft made nearly 20 sorties a day from Khanabad to Afghanistan; now the number is down to between three and four, Col. Love said.
Despite the reduced intensity of operations in Afghanistan, it doesn't look like the troops are preparing to pack up. Digging, leveling and building is going on, raising clouds of dust.
The troops have built a headquarters and a special forces' joint operations center, and are working on restoring runways that have not been repaired for over a decade. The base last saw heavy use by the Soviets in their failed Afghan campaign that ended in 1989, and fell into disuse after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
The soldiers were also building a bigger post office. Every day the base processes up to 20,000 pounds of mail addressed to the troops deployed here and in Afghanistan, Col. Love said.
Khanabad, more than 300 miles away from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, is tightly sealed compared with the other U.S. base in Central Asia, located at a civilian airport just outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
A three-mile security belt around the Khanabad base maintained jointly with Uzbek security forces ensures no outsider can get near, and only residents or people with relatives there are allowed into the adjoining town.
U.S. officers at Khanabad declined to answer questions on base security or their mission. But some military police said they had dealt with al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan.

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