By R. Jeffrey Smith and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
Defense officials from Russia and the United States last week helped block a new demand for an international probe into the Uzbekistan government's shooting of hundreds of protesters last month, according to U.S. and diplomatic officials.
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 outcome obscured an internal U.S. dispute over whether NATO ministers should raise the May 13 shootings in Andijan at the risk of provoking Uzbekistan to cut off U.S. access to a military air base on its territory.
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 and soldiers.
State and Defense department spokesmen, asked to comment about the debate, said that Washington has one policy and that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- at the ministerial meeting -- verbally endorsed previous statements about the incident by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bush.
Other officials said the disagreements between Defense and State officials reflect a continuing rift in the administration over how to handle a breach of human rights that has come under sharp criticism by the State Department, the European Union and some U.S. lawmakers.
Rice has said publicly that international involvement in an inquiry into the killings in Andijan is essential, and she has declined an Uzbek invitation for Washington to send observers to a commission of inquiry controlled by the parliament. Three U.S. officials said Uzbek President Islam Karimov has retaliated against her criticism by recently curtailing certain U.S. military flights into the air base at Karshi-Khanabad, in the country's southeast. The U.S. military considers the base a vital logistics hub in its anti-terrorism efforts.
Four sources familiar with a private discussion among the ministers on Thursday said that the Defense Department's stance on the Brussels communique's language placed it in roughly the same camp as the Russians -- but for different reasons. The Russian position, as spelled out by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in statements before and after the ministerial meeting, is that the incident, although alarming, was "inspired" by Afghanistan.
Ivanov said it is NATO's responsibility to control terrorism there more aggressively, but added: "We do not want to . . . put any extraordinary pressure on anybody" about the shootings.
The Defense Department position, articulated before the meeting began by Mira Ricardel, the acting assistant secretary for international security policy, was that "the NATO-Russia communique may not be the most appropriate place" to demand an international inquiry into the massacre, she confirmed in a telephone interview. "It was not a question of the policy, which was clear, but whether the venue for that was best" because of what she described as a routine focus at NATO-Russian meetings on strictly military issues. Another official privy to the deliberations described her opposition to mentioning the word "investigation" as unequivocal.
The British view was that the communique was an ideal venue for making the demand, since Uzbekistan prizes its existing military links to NATO and a call by defense ministers would carry substantial weight. One U.S. official said Britain was prepared for a time to hold up the communique if the language was not included.
Lawrence T. Di Rita, a Pentagon spokesman and Rumsfeld special assistant, said Rumsfeld was not told of the proposed communique language until he began consultations with aides and other ministers Thursday morning. By then, according to accounts from two other officials, Russia had indicated its position on the communique might be flexible enough to include the British language calling for an independent international probe.
Accounts of the ensuing debate among U.S. officials are not perfectly consistent. One official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the matter, said Rumsfeld caused great surprise by saying -- after being told in this discussion that the British language was consistent with stated U.S. policy and should be embraced -- that he was unaware of the policy, had not participated in meetings about it and did not want to press for its inclusion in the communique.
According to Di Rita's account, Rumsfeld was merely questioning how this policy had previously been expressed because he had not attended any meeting of senior policymakers in which it was approved. Later, Di Rita said, Rumsfeld "grew to understand" that the State Department had already publicly articulated this position. But "this is not something that he had been involved in," Di Rita said of Rumsfeld.
"At no point did the secretary challenge U.S. policy. He was only trying to understand it" by asking questions that others may have misinterpreted as an expression of disagreement, Di Rita said. If there was tension, a senior defense official said, it was between supporting "democracy in Uzbekistan" and "democracy in Afghanistan."
At the private general meeting later that day of all NATO alliance ministers, plus Ivanov, Rumsfeld's remarks on the issue emphasized the risks of provoking Uzbekistan, according to four sources familiar with his statements. Rumsfeld said the ministers needed to know that the Uzbekistan situation had direct implications on NATO operations in the region. He mentioned the tons of humanitarian aid that pass through the Karshi-Khanabad air base and warned that alternatives to the base would be more difficult and expensive.
It was, Di Rita said, "a simple assertion that a further curtailment of operations would have an impact on the alliance's activities."
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on Thursday pinned responsibility for the failure to call for an international inquiry on Russia. "I cannot say we agree on all elements because we do not agree," he said at a news conference in Brussels. "On . . . the point of NATO joining the international chorus for an independent international inquiry . . . that is not the Russian position."
But a senior diplomat in Washington said that "there's clearly inter-agency tension over Uzbekistan. . . . The State Department certainly seems to be extremely cool on Karimov," while the Pentagon wants to avoid upsetting the Uzbekistan government.
A senior State Department official, who called The Washington Post at the Defense Department's request, denied any "split of views." But other government officials depicted this week's spat over the communique as a continuation of frictions that erupted last summer, when then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell would not certify that Uzbekistan had met its human rights obligations. The decision led to a cutoff of $18 million for U.S. training for Uzbekistan's military forces.
Weeks later, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, and criticized that decision as "very shortsighted"; he also announced that the United States would give $21 million for another purpose -- bioterrorism defense.
More recently, the senior State Department official confirmed, State and Defense officials disagreed about a cable addressing Uzbekistan's continued participation in the military's Partnership for Peace program. After the Andijan massacre, the State Department had proposed a blanket suspension of cooperation. But the Defense Department recommended a case-by-case review of cooperative programs -- the position that prevailed.
"It's like the dilemma we have in the democracy agenda in many places. We have to both press the democracy agenda and still, for example, cooperate when we need to on the war on terror," another senior U.S. official said. "To start pulling away in that . . . [Partnership for Peace] forum from Uzbekistan would not have been smart. . . . We came up with a middle ground."
Already, flights are being diverted from Karshi-Khanabad to other bases in the region, a military official said. The government took the same step after the cutoff of U.S. training funds last year. That is Karimov's method of operation, a senior U.S. official said. "This is how he plays the game. . . . We want to get back the ability to use that base fully."
There are stirrings of dissent on Capitol Hill about placing access to the air base at the center of U.S. policy, however. Six senators warned Rumsfeld and Rice in a letter last week that "in the aftermath of the Andijan massacre, America's relationship with Uzbekistan cannot remain unchanged."
The senators -- Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), John McCain (R-Ariz.), John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) -- added that "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." They suggested that the administration explore alternative basing arrangements "in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and elsewhere in the region" to give Washington more flexibility.
The European parliament, in a statement Thursday, went further, calling on Washington to halt negotiations with Uzbekistan over long-term access to the base and urging Uzbek authorities "to bring those responsible for the massacre in Andijan to trial."
Last week, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "We are calling for a credible, transparent and independent investigation into the Andijan tragedy." Different language has been used by Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. "The United States has repeatedly urged Uzbekistan to undertake a full and transparent inquiry into the Andijan incident," he said, but did not specifically mention an international role.
Staff writers Ann Scott Tyson and Robin Wright contributed to this report.