Uzbekistan: Locals in Karshi Remember the American Base Fondly
At the Atlanta discotheque in Karshi, the dance floor is full of single women dancing to Russian pop and hip-hop. Only a handful of shady-looking older men are in the club women get in free, but men have to pay a cover charge. It's 1,500 som, a little more than $1, enough to deter most men in Karshi, one of the poorest cities in Uzbekistan. I'm with Farhad, a twenty-something local, who bargains with the bouncer to let the two of us in for 2,000 som, which goes directly into the bouncer's pocket. "This is how it works in Uzbekistan," Farhad explains once we're inside.
Farhad used to work at Karshi-Khanabad (K2), the airbase that the United Stares used as a logistics hub for its operations in Afghanistan, until it closed in December 2005. His time with the Americans has clearly rubbed off on him he speaks with the mild drawl that many American soldiers, no matter where they're from, seem to adopt once they're in the military. And he sports a goatee and a pukka-shell necklace, both a lot more common in Kansas than in Karshi.
Atlanta was the favored hangout of the American troops when they were here. "Saturday nights, probably a third of the guys in here were Americans, and girls came here because they wanted to meet Americans," Farhad said. "I know at least 10 girls from here who are now in the States, married to US soldiers."
One of the DJs, who goes by "Dan," and who wears a camouflage baseball cap, says that the club has suffered since the Americans left. "Business is down a lot. There used to be all the Americans here, and 600 local people were making good salaries at the base, and they were spending it here."
There is only one bartender, and a forlorn display of bottles of local Azia beer behind the bar. "When the Americans were here, there was Heineken and Miller, and Jack Daniels and other liquor," Farhad said.
Both Dan and Farhad, though, say they don't know why the Americans left. "I really don't know, but I think it's because of Russia, Russia forced [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov to kick the Americans out," said Dan.
Farhad – and other former K2 employees I speak to in Karshi – says that neither the US base authorities nor Uzbek officials ever explained to workers why the base was closing. There were rumors going around that Washington had backed the protesters in Andijan in May of 2005. Some believe that Russia had pressured Uzbekistan into forcing the Americans to leave.
Farhad personally buys into the idea that Russian President Vladimir Putin somehow turned the screws on Karimov, coercing the Uzbek leader into giving the Americans the heave-ho. "Russia's big daddy told our big daddy that they wanted to use the base," Farhad said. Many residents assume Russian forces are currently using the base, he says.
The generally accepted explanation outside Uzbekistan was that the Americans left the base because the US government criticized Uzbekistan for the massacre of hundreds of protesters in Andijan, after which the Uzbek government told the US it needed to leave within 180 days.
“Yeah, maybe you’re right, that makes sense” says Farhad, after being presented with that explanation. But he adds that people don’t know much about what happened at Andijan, which is on the opposite end of Uzbekistan, over 400 miles away. He says a lot of people in Karshi – as in the rest of Uzbekistan – believe that the US was behind the protests. He says for a time he did, too, and even asked his boss, an American officer, about it. “He said ‘Dude, we had nothing to do with it,’” he says.
“I know that Russian TV, Russian independent journalists were talking about Andijan,” he says. But the Uzbekistan government cut the broadcast of Russian television into Uzbekistan immediately after Andijan, and so only the few people here with satellite dishes could get news from outside Uzbekistan. “Uzbekistan TV wasn’t showing anything at all, just music, happy stuff” he says.
Only one person I meet in Karshi connects the closing of the base with the Andijan events, and he lives in the US and is just visiting his family in Karshi.
Most people I talk to refuse to talk about the base or Andijan. Even though I’m telling most people I’m a tourist, not one of the people I meet casually, like taxi drivers and waiters, ever mentions the base even when they find out I’m an American. Farhad says he is willing to help me out only because he is about to leave for a job in Iraq (which he pronounces “eye-rack”) and so he is not worried about repercussions from associating with a foreigner. But he still doesn’t use the word “police” with me; instead he says “the system.”
“The system is everywhere, listening everywhere,” he says.
Over dinner at Arzanda, a favorite restaurant of the Americans while they were here, I ask if he thinks it’s safe for me to take notes on our conversation. “Sure, no problem,” he says, looking around the restaurant. But when I discover that my only pen has run dry, he’s relieved. “It’s probably better, actually.”
And my first translator, an excitable young man who wrote a 100-page thesis on Karshi’s history as part of his application to Harvard (he didn’t get in) got afraid after a couple of hours and said he didn’t want to work with me any more.
After the base closed, Farhad, as well as many of his colleagues, got jobs with the US military or contractors elsewhere in the world. He got a job in Afghanistan – and was upset to find that soldiers there who were in Uzbekistan had turned against his country.
“The security guy at the base in Afghanistan was telling people ‘Don’t go to Uzbekistan, you might encounter some bad guys there,’ like Uzbekistan had become a freakin’ terrorist country, which is totally 180 degrees from the truth,” he says.
People were happy that the Americans were in Karshi and were sad to see them leave, he says. “Some people didn’t like them, guys were jealous because they had money and the girls liked them. But a lot of other people liked them, they thought with Americans here the economic situation was going to get better."
Some people in Karshi did prosper as a result of the American presence, like small construction contractors who worked on the base. But Karshi today doesn’t get much benefit from that – people who made money here have now moved to Tashkent to try to start bigger businesses, Farhad says.
Joshua Kucera is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. He traveled through the Caucasus and Central Asia to write a serial travelogue.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter. Support Eurasianet: Help keep our journalism open to all, and influenced by none.