Prague, 18 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle reiterated today that the United States sees its presence in Central Asia as a long-term commitment that will continue even after full stability returns to Afghanistan.
Daschle spoke at a news conference in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent: "Our presence and our relationship with the people of Uzbekistan and countries of the region is one that we look upon in long terms, not simply in immediate terms. And a recognition of the importance of our relationship in the long term is critical to our success in this region. We have created an environment of cooperation, of partnership and of trust. And it is important now that we build on that level of cooperation and our success as we look at the present and the relationship in the long term."
The U.S. Senate leader is visiting Central Asia along with a bipartisan six-member Congressional delegation to express American appreciation for the region's assistance with Washington's military and humanitarian campaign in Afghanistan. The group also visited Kabul and Islamabad earlier this week. Over the past two weeks, a total of three U.S. Congressional delegations have made trips through the region -- an indication of the importance Washington attaches to its newly revived ties with Central Asia.
Daschle said the United States should learn from its mistakes and not abandon Afghanistan and the region once it achieves its military goals, as it did after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.
"I would say that we ought to view our military success as the beginning, not the end, of our effort. Second, we must be very wary of leaving a void in Afghanistan in particular but in the region, as well. It is very important to recognize that should that void ever be created, we could be right back to where we were six months ago."
Opposition and democracy advocates are worried that in its eagerness to rekindle ties with the Central Asian states and ensure good logistics for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Washington is overlooking these governments' less-than-admirable records on democracy and human rights. A report issued by the group Human Rights Watch earlier this week expressed concern about what it described as the "apparently unconditional" U.S. support for the Uzbek leadership.
Daschle acknowledged those concerns in his news conference today but said that, in his opinion, Uzbek authorities have made some progress: "I think we would all agree that we have not seen as much progress as we would have hoped. But we also recognize that the independence of Uzbekistan has now been nearly one decade. And we recognize that in that period of time, there has been some progress. We hope that this country and its government will continue to find ways to assure the world community that they will build upon the progress made thus far."
Daschle's delegation arrived in Uzbekistan from Kyrgyzstan, where members toured Manas airport, near the capital, Bishkek. U.S. fighter and cargo planes will use the Manas base for missions in Afghanistan. Soldiers from the 86th Rapid Deployment Unit are currently upgrading the facilities there to house up to 3,000 U.S. troops.
Earlier, in Uzbekistan, the Congressional leaders toured the Khanabad air base, where more than 1,000 U.S. troops have been based since October. They also flew over an island in the Aral Sea where Soviet-era stockpiles of biological weapons are being stored. The United States has indicated it wants to help Uzbekistan safely liquidate those stockpiles to avoid the potential danger of proliferation.
The U.S. politicians are due to stop in Turkmenistan on their return to Washington. But their visit will be limited to a 45-minute stop at Ashgabat airport -- perhaps an indication of United States disapproval at Turkmenistan's refusal to allow U.S. forces to operate from its territory.
Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov has invoked his country's neutrality and thus far only permitted the country to be used for the land-based delivery of humanitarian assistance.
(RFE/RL's Uzbek and Turkmen services contributed to this report.)