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Uzbekistan: Departure From Base Underlines U.S.-Uzbek Tensions

  • Bruce Pannier --> A top U.S. official has confirmed that U.S. forces will leave their military base in Uzbekistan. The move at Tashkent’s request underlines tensions in U.S.-Uzbek relations, which have soured over U.S. criticism of Tashkent’s May crackdown in Andijon.

Prague, 28 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried was in Tashkent on 27 September to formalize what was already known for two months -- the U.S. military is leaving Uzbekistan by the end of this year.

After Fried’s meeting with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Uzbek presidential spokesman Beruniy Olimov tried to put a good face on the results.

"During the talks between Islam Karimov and Daniel Fried, the issues of the current state of and prospects for Uzbek -- U.S relations were discussed. Also, the fate of cooperation in regional security was discussed during the meeting," Olimov said.

But Fried plainly said that “we intend to leave the base without further discussion.” He could have added that the state of U.S.-Uzbek relations was the worst it has been since the Soviet Union collapsed.

When the United States deployed troops in Uzbekistan after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, it represented a high point in ties between the two countries. President Karimov had long worried about the Taliban government in neighboring Afghanistan. By granting the United States use of the air base at Khanabad in southern Uzbekistan he quickly improved his country’s ties to the United States and welcomed the U.S.-led coalition’s chasing the Taliban from power.

In 2002, Karimov met U.S. President George Bush in Washington, who expressed his appreciation of Tashkent’s support in the war on terror. Later, back in Uzbekistan, Karimov told reporters the United States had done for Uzbekistan what no CIS partner could have. Karimov said after five years of living with the threat of the Taliban, "the decisive role in removing this threat on Uzbekistan southern borders was played by the U.S., exclusively."

But the tone of U.S.-Uzbek relations changed beginning in May this year.

That was when protests against the trials of local businessmen in eastern Uzbekistan turned violent. Armed men attacked a police station, stormed a high-security jail break to free inmates, and briefly seized part of the city of Andijon. The Uzbek government responded by pouring in troops. Human rights groups say hundreds of civilians died when troops fired on protestors. The Uzbek government said less than 200 died, and claimed most of those were “terrorists” and the soldiers, police, and local officials who resisted them.

The United States condemned the Uzbek government’s crackdown in Andijon. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher gave Washington’s view this way just days after the violence.

"We are deeply disturbed by the reports that the Uzbek authorities fired on demonstrators last Friday. We certainly condemn the indiscriminate use of force against unarmed civilians and deeply regret any loss of life. We have urged -- had urged and continue to urge -- the Uzbek government to exercise restraint, stressing that violence cannot lead to long-term stability. And we've made that point with senior Uzbek authorities in Washington and Tashkent," Boucher said.

The United States was among many insisting upon an independent investigation into the Andijon events. But Uzbekistan sought shelter from international criticism and found it in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which groups Uzbekistan with Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. At the SCO summit in July, the group approved a call for the United States to name a date for its departure from bases in Central Asia.

At the time, U.S. officials blamed China and Russia for pressuring the Central Asian states into demanding the U.S. name a date for leaving.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Lawrence Di Rita pointed to the importance of the Uzbek base and said it was Uzbekistan and not the SCO who should decide how long the United States could use Khanabad.

"I hadn't seen the declaration or whatever it was that the group put out. It's a facility that is -- that the United States government and, in fact, the coalition have found to be an important -- providing an important capability in the global war on terror. It's one that we have operated from with the consent and the cooperation of the Uzbek government. It's a decision the Uzbek government has to make as to whether or not we would continue to operate from that. It's a -- it has provided for -- in particular in Afghanistan -- some very important support capabilities. But it's a determination ultimately that the Uzbek government will have to make," Di Rita said.

In the following weeks, Tashkent made it clear that it wanted U.S. forces out of the country. Uzbek media started reporting about the detrimental effect the Khanabad base was having on the local population. Then in late July, the Uzbek government told the United States it should vacate Khanabad by year’s end.

The Deputy Chairwoman of the Uzbek Senate, Farruh Muhitdinova, presented the Uzbek government’s concerns about the U.S. presence this way.

"The current presence of U.S. military contingent in Khanabad air base threatens internal and external security of Uzbekistan. The internal security issue consists of serious damage to the health, economic interests, and ecology of the local population, as well as a number of inconveniences created for them. As to the external threat, as the president [Karimov] says, if a military base is established in any region, forces against it and aimed at destroying it will inevitably appear. Therefore, the fewer the number of military bases in Central Asia, or if their presence in this region is eliminated, the greater are the chances to establish peace and stability in this very region," Muhitdinova said.

As the United States prepares to leave Khanabad there are other signs of strains in Washington’s relations with Uzbekistan.

This month, an Uzbek court suspended the activities of IREX, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization specializing in education, independent media, Internet development, and civil society programs.

Another court decision this month closed the U.S.-based media charity Internews.

And this week, a suspect in the Andijon violence testified in court that the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent provided funds for what the Uzbek government calls “Islamic terrorists” to stage their revolt in May.