A report that U.S. defense officials helped block a NATO demand for an international
probe into last month's killing of protesters in Uzbekistan is proving an air
base there to be one of the more diplomatically costly "lilly pads"
in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's new lean, mean restructuring of the U.S.
global military presence.
Located in southeastern Uzbekistan near the border with Afghanistan, the Khanabad
base is seen as key to the U.S. war on terror, as a Q&A on the website of
the Council of Foriegn Relations, a prominent Washington-based think-tank, explains.
Officially, the role of the troops in Uzbekistan is limited to humanitarian
relief and search-and-rescue missions inside Afghanistan, but a joint U.S. Special
Forces command center at Khanabad reportedly played a key role in directing
the activities of US Special Forces personnel during the early phase of the
fall 2001 U.S. attacks on the Taliban [in Afghanistan]. Information about current
day-to-day activities of U.S. forces remains shrouded in secrecy.
But continued access to the base means the U.S. must tread carefully in its
criticism of Uzbekistan's leader Islam Karimov, who has routinely been accused
of brutally stifling dissent, including allegedly covering up the government's
shooting of hundreds of protesters last month.
The Uzbek government has admitted that 173 people were killed on May 13 in
Andijan but independent witnesses and human rights organizations put the number
of victims at between 500 and 1,000. Human Rights Watch, for instance, has called
the incident a "massacre." Karimov has portrayed the killings as a
necessary response to a revolt by Islamic extremists.
Many countries and organizations, including the U.S., have called for an independent
investigation. But The Washington Post reports that US defense officials –
together with their Russian counterparts – "helped block a new demand
for an international probe" last week. British and other European officials
had pushed to include language calling for an independent investigation in a
communique issued by defense ministers of NATO countries and Russia after a
daylong meeting in Brussels on Thursday. But the joint communique merely stated
that "issues of security and stability in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan,"
had been discussed.
The Post report suggests that the risk of provoking Uzbekistan to cut off U.S.
access to the base was behind the U.S. resistance to pressure the Karimov government,
but also hints at a rift between the State and Defense departments on the issue.
The communique's wording was worked out after what several knowledgeable sources
called a vigorous debate in Brussels between U.S. defense officials, who emphasized
the importance of the base, and others, including State Department representatives
at NATO headquarters, who favored language calling for a transparent, independent
and international probe into the killings of Uzbekistan civilians by police
But the State Department is not the only part of the U.S. government that is
questioning the status quo on U.S. policy toward Uzbekistan. A bipartisan group
of U.S. senators last Wednesday "asked the Bush administration to consider
whether the U.S. could take action via the United Nations if Uzbekistan does
not allow an independent investigation," reports The Financial Times.
Four Republican senators - John McCain, Lindsey Graham, John Sununu and Mike
DeWine - and two Democrats - Patrick Leahy and Joseph Biden - sent a letter
to the administration saying the U.S. should reconsider its relationship with
Uzbekistan. "Particularly after freedom's advances in Ukraine, Georgia
and Kyrgyzstan, we believe that the United States must be careful about being
too closely associated with a government that has killed hundreds of demonstrators
and refused international calls for a transparent investigation," the senators
Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers "indicated that they could consider imposing
sanctions on Uzbekistan if it continues to refuse an international inquiry,"
reports AFX News.
Foreign minister of Luxembourg and current EU president Jean Asselborn said
that most of the 25 member states want to go further and suspend the cooperation
and partnership agreements between the EU and Uzbekistan, reports AFX.
The Los Angeles Times reports that "Karimov's regime has emerged as one
of the toughest tests of the Bush administration's campaign to promote democracy,
especially in the Muslim world."
"Making matters more awkward are continuing Pentagon negotiations with
Uzbekistan for long-term access to the bases," writes the Times.
A June 4 report from the Post also described the negotiations for long-term
access as "awkward." “The talks have gone on behind the scenes
for several months but have become more awkward for the administration since
last month's unrest .... Human rights advocates argue that a new pact would
undermine the administration's goal of spreading democracy in the Islamic world.”
An editorial in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram thanks the U.S. senators for pushing
the Bush administration to reevaluate the U.S policy toward Uzbekistan and compares
it to U.S. support for dictators during the cold war. “Such relationships
with unsavory governments -- in which the ideals enshrined in our founding documents
sometimes became subservient to strategic or economic interests -- is reminiscent
of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, when America propped up ugly dictatorships
in Africa and other parts of the world because their leaders professed to be