The top U.S. general accused Russia and China yesterday of "trying to bully" Central Asian nations into pressing for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from their countries and said the Pentagon seeks to maintain military ties with Uzbekistan despite hundreds of civilian deaths in unrest there in May.
"It looks to me like two very large countries were trying to bully some smaller countries," said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a news briefing. He was referring to this month's call by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- an alliance of Russia, China and four Central Asian states -- for the United States to set a troop pullout deadline as operations in Afghanistan wound down.
Myers stressed that ties with Central Asia and Uzbekistan are important to the United States for reasons beyond military operations in Afghanistan. "We are concerned with the 300 or so folks that were killed . . . during the rioting that went on there not so long ago. But we still value and think it's important that we have some contact, military-to-military contact" with Uzbekistan, he said.
Russia and China should not view the U.S. military presence in Central Asia as expansionist, Myers and other senior U.S. officials said. "We have no territorial designs," Myers said. "We're not threatening them," Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith said in an interview Monday. Feith rejected any timetable for a withdrawal, saying that unless there is a legal requirement to do so, the U.S. military operates based on "circumstances" and not "dates."
The strain in U.S.-Uzbek military ties was underscored yesterday by Uzbekistan's absence from a regional cooperation exercise begun by U.S. Central Command with several other Central Asian states.
Uzbekistan will not participate in the July 14-27 exercise focused on counterterrorism and border security at Suffolk, Va., although Kyrgyzstan -- whose leader this week also questioned the ongoing presence of U.S. forces -- will join the event. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan are also taking part, and Turkmenistan will send observers, said a release from U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East, Horn of Africa and Central Asia.
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials said yesterday that U.S. military operations could continue unhindered even without the use of bases such as Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan and Manas in Kyrgyzstan.