Uzbekistan formally evicted the United States yesterday 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 yesterday.
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 H. Rumsfeld returned this week from Central Asia, where he won assurances from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that the United States can use their 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.
The eviction notice came four days before a senior State Department official was to arrive in Tashkent for talks with the government of President Islam Karimov. The relationship has been increasingly tense since bloody protests in the province of Andijan in May, the worst unrest since Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union.
Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns was going to pressure Tashkent to allow an international investigation into the Andijan protests, which human rights groups and three U.S. senators who met with eyewitnesses said killed about 500 people. Burns was also going to warn the government, one of the most authoritarian in the Islamic world, to open up politically — or risk the kind of upheavals witnessed recently in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, U.S. officials said.
Although the Uzbek authorities said that 187 people had been killed, human rights organizations believe the figure could be closer to 750. The US, along with other western nations, has called for an independent investigation.
Karimov has balked at an international probe. As U.S. pressure mounted, he cut off U.S. night flights and some cargo flights, forcing Washington to move search-and-rescue operations and some cargo flights to Bagram air base in Afghanistan and Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. As relations soured, the Bush administration was preparing for a further cutoff, U.S. officials said.
The United States was given the notice just hours after 439 Uzbek political refugees were flown out of neighboring Kyrgyzstan — over Uzbek objections — by the United Nations. The refugees fled after the May unrest, which Uzbek officials charged was the work of terrorists. The Bush administration had been pressuring Kyrgyzstan not to force the refugees to return to Uzbekistan.
“We all knew basically that if we really wanted to keep access to the base, the way to do it was to shut up about democracy and turn a blind eye to the refugees,” said the senior official, on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy. “We could have saved the base if we had wanted.”
Analysts believe that as relations have cooled with the US, Uzbekistan has been cementing ties with Russia and China with both countries expressing strong support for the Uzbek government’s response to the May rebellion.
China and Russia are thought to be nervous about the US military’s presence in the resource-rich area. Earlier this summer China announced a deal to invest heavily in Uzbekistan’s oil industry.
The next test will be whether to withhold as much as $22 million in aid to Uzbekistan if it does not comply with provisions on political and economic reforms it committed to undertake in a 2002 strategic partnership agreement with Washington. Last year, the administration withheld almost $11 million. U.S. officials expect the Uzbek government will again be ineligible for funds.
On a side note do you remember the SCO? Well they are starting to flex their muscles.
China, Russia and four former Soviet republics are calling for the United States to set a date for withdrawing from military bases in Central Asia. That call is the closest that an increasingly powerful security grouping has come to taking a clear anti-American stance, a regional expert said Wednesday.
The declaration by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a boost for Moscow and Beijing, both of whom have bristled at the growing influence of the U.S. in the region, said Dr. Kirill Nourzhanov, a specialist in Central Asia at the Australian National University.
The U.S. has maintained bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan since late 2001, in support of the anti-terror operation launched in nearby Afghanistan after 9/11. France has several hundred soldiers at an airport in Tajikistan.
A summit Tuesday brought together the leaders of those three Central Asian countries as well as their partners in the SCO – China, Russia and Kazakhstan.
The SCO summit can be seen as a victory for Moscow, which regards the region as part of its sphere of influence.
Russia also has bases in Central Asia – in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – but the SCO leaders made no mention of the Russians setting deadlines to withdraw.
In other former Soviet republics further to the west, Russia is under pressure from the West to shut down bases in Georgia and Moldova.
Nourzhanov said the SCO summit provided President Vladimir Putin with the opportunity to even the score.
“Moscow believes it is being snubbed by the United States in the trans-Caucasus because the Americans are experiencing a honeymoon with Georgia and overseeing the withdrawal of Russian troops from there.
“The Russians do not like it a single bit and retaliate on a different front, this time in Central Asia: ‘If our troops are not welcome in the trans-Caucasus then your troops are not welcome in Central Asia.’ ”
The SCO has become increasingly significant, holding joint military exercises, setting up a rapid reaction strike force, and last month opening a regional anti-terror center in Uzbekistan.
Speaking ahead of the summit, Kazakhstan’s foreign minister said he was convinced the SCO was becoming more influential regionally and internationally.
Putin hailed the “immense potential of the SCO” while Chinese President Hu Jintao said: “We are reaching a new stage of cooperation.”
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