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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 March 2005, 11:22 GMT
All quiet on Afghanistan's western front

By Andrew North
BBC News, at Shindand airbase, Western Afghanistan

Abandoned Migs at Shindand airfield
'Mig tipping' 'is a favourite pastime of bored troops

Shattered Soviet war-planes, desert scrub, a battered runway and a cluster of shell-scarred buildings patched up with wooden boards.

When you fly into Shindand airfield you have to look hard to spot any sign of activity, let alone that it is the US military's main base in western Afghanistan.

This huge Soviet-built base has been the focus of speculation over possible US operations against Iran - about 50 miles away to the west.

But it is the debris of past wars, rather than preparations for future ones, that dominate the scene right now.

Nuclear installations

The war junk sometimes serves as entertainment for bored troops. Some while away off-duty hours by what they call "Mig-tipping" - standing on the back end of those Soviet warplanes until they lift up.

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What sparked greater interest in the American presence here was a New Yorker magazine article claiming US special forces teams had been crossing into Iran from Afghanistan for some time, allegedly seeking out nuclear installations and other potential targets.

Shindand - which has been under US control since only August last year - was seen as the most likely starting point.

But the American commander for the region denies Iran is the focus for the US troops he controls.

Rumours fuelled

"The US presence in western Afghanistan is for reconstruction and economic development. We have done no operations along the Iranian border, and I have no knowledge of operations along the Iranian border," says Col Phil Bookert at his headquarters in Herat city, two hours drive to the north.

"That is not why we are here," he continues. "We're here to do reconstruction and economic development activities in Herat and Farah provinces, and they happen to border Iran.

"We do reconstruction activities between here and Iran, but we certainly don't cross the border."

He was careful though when pressed further: "I have no knowledge of coalition operations into Iran looking for anything."

Of course, if such operations were taking place from here, it is unlikely most of the soldiers at Shindand - the bulk of them military police - would be told.

Speculation continues

Comments by the influential Republican Senator John McCain, calling for permanent US bases in Afghanistan have also helped fuel rumours about plans for Shindand - one of the largest airfields in the country.

Soviet wreckage at Shindand airfield
Relics of the previous occupying power are everywhere

Although troops have repaired key parts of the base including holes in the runway - some caused by US bombing in 2001 - there is little sign Shindand is being prepared for a larger role just yet.

There are only a few hundred US troops here. And none of the constant clatter and roar of helicopters that you find at other US bases like Kandahar or Bagram.

And the plan is for the US to hand over the base later this year to an Italian-led contingent serving with the Nato peacekeeping troops.

But this would still allow the US to use the base, defence experts point out. As long as there is tension between Washington and Tehran, speculation will continue as to America's plans for Shindand.


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