Crackdown Muddies U.S.-Uzbek Relations

By Ann Scott Tyson and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 4, 2005

The United States is negotiating long-term use of a major military base in Uzbekistan to expand the global reach of American forces, despite a brutal government crackdown on protests there last month, Bush administration officials said.

The talks have gone on behind the scenes for several months but have become more awkward for the administration since last month's unrest, which produced the heaviest bloodshed since the Central Asian country left the Soviet Union in 1991. Human rights advocates argue that a new pact would undermine the administration's goal of spreading democracy in the Islamic world.

The U.S. military has relied heavily on Uzbekistan since 2001 in operations in Afghanistan, but on a temporary basis. U.S. Special Operations Forces, intelligence and reconnaissance missions, and air logistics flights all use the Karshi-Khanabad (K2) airfield in southeastern Uzbekistan, according to an official report on U.S. basing.

Now, as the Pentagon carries out a repositioning of U.S. forces overseas, the Bush administration finds itself pursuing the strategic and geopolitical benefits of the Uzbekistan base even as it expresses deep concern about the country's political repression and worries about the risk of American troops caught in widening civil unrest.

"Access to this airfield is undeniably critical in supporting our combat operations" as well as humanitarian deliveries, said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, who said the United States has paid $15 million to Uzbek authorities for use of the airfield since 2001.

"When you look at the totality of what Uzbekistan has been doing, they've been a very valuable partner and ally in the global war on terror," he said. Asked about the talks on long-range use of the base in Uzbekistan, Whitman said he "wouldn't want to characterize any of our discussions with other governments." But he added: "Clearly, our continued engagement we feel is pretty important."

Yet senior State Department and Pentagon officials said last month's killings of protesters by security forces has led to a high-level review of the military relationship and raised questions about whether, in the long run, "Uzbekistan is the right place for us to be," a senior State Department official said. "No one wants our troops in the middle of someone else's civil conflict or issues," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the negotiations.

U.S. officials are concerned that U.S.-trained military units might have participated in the Uzbekistan government's suppression of unrest in Andijan on May 13. U.S. senators including Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and human rights advocates say they are pressing the administration to investigate that possibility -- and to stop any talks on military basing until Uzbekistan agrees to an international probe of the killings. Uzbek security forces opened fire on crowds in Andijan that included anti-government demonstrators, Islamic militants and prisoners freed in a jail break.

Pentagon and State Department officials said yesterday that they do not know which Uzbek units were involved in the incidents. The U.S. military has trained some Uzbek special forces and border guard units.

An investigation would most likely show that Uzbekistan authorities "used a level of force that was completely unjustified and they killed many innocent civilians," said Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.). Sununu, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsay O. Graham (R-S.C.) visited Uzbekistan this week but were denied meetings with the government. Based on reports of U.S. Embassy officials there who gathered eyewitness accounts, Sununu believes between 500 to 1,000 people were killed in the unrest and that Uzbekistan Special Forces and regular security forces were involved.

The senators said U.S. military and other relations with Uzbekistan -- including the use of the K2 base -- must be reevaluated in light of Andijan, which Graham called a "massacre."

"Efforts to bring about democracy have hit a wall and are going backwards," he said. "We have a military interest in maintaining our base in that country," but also in "restricting our relations with brutal governments," said McCain, saying the Uzbeks "must understand" that the Andijan events "come with real consequences."

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