Uzbekistan formally evicted the United States yesterday from a military base that has served as a hub for combat and humanitarian missions to Afghanistan since shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Pentagon and State Department officials said yesterday.
In a highly unusual move, the notice of eviction from Karshi-Khanabad air base, known as K2, was delivered by a courier from the Uzbek Foreign Ministry to the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, said a senior U.S. administration official involved in Central Asia policy. The message did not give a reason. Uzbekistan will give the United States 180 days to move aircraft, personnel and equipment, U.S. officials said.
If Uzbekistan follows through, as Washington expects, the United States will face several logistical problems for its operations in Afghanistan. Scores of flights have used K2 monthly. It has been a landing base to transfer humanitarian goods that then are taken by road into northern Afghanistan, particularly to Mazar-e Sharif -- with no alternative for a region difficult to reach in the winter. K2 is also a refueling base with a runway long enough for large military aircraft. The alternative is much costlier midair refueling.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld returned this week from Central Asia, where he won assurances from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that the United States can use their bases for operations in Afghanistan. U.S. forces use Tajikistan for emergency landings and occasional refueling, but it lacks good roads into Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan does not border Afghanistan.
"We always think ahead. We'll be fine," Rumsfeld said Sunday when asked how the United States would cope with losing the base in Uzbekistan.
In May, however, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman called access to the airfield "undeniably critical in supporting our combat operations" and humanitarian deliveries. The United States has paid $15 million to Uzbek authorities for use of the airfield since 2001, he said.
Yesterday, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence T. Di Rita said that the U.S. military does not depend on one base in any part of the world. "We'll be able to conduct our operations as we need to, regardless of how this turns out. It's a diplomatic issue at the moment," Di Rita said.
The eviction notice came four days before a senior State Department official was to arrive in Tashkent for talks with the government of President Islam Karimov. The relationship has been increasingly tense since bloody protests in the province of Andijan in May, the worst unrest since Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union.
Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns was going to pressure Tashkent to allow an international investigation into the Andijan protests, which human rights groups and three U.S. senators who met with eyewitnesses said killed about 500 people. Burns was also going to warn the government, one of the most authoritarian in the Islamic world, to open up politically -- or risk the kind of upheavals witnessed recently in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, U.S. officials said.
Karimov has balked at an international probe. As U.S. pressure mounted, he cut off U.S. night flights and some cargo flights, forcing Washington to move search-and-rescue operations and some cargo flights to Bagram air base in Afghanistan and Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. As relations soured, the Bush administration was preparing for a further cutoff, U.S. officials said.
The United States was given the notice just hours after 439 Uzbek political refugees were flown out of neighboring Kyrgyzstan -- over Uzbek objections -- by the United Nations. The refugees fled after the May unrest, which Uzbek officials charged was the work of terrorists. The Bush administration had been pressuring Kyrgyzstan not to force the refugees to return to Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan has been widely viewed as an important test for the Bush administration -- and whether the anti-terrorism efforts or promotion of democracy takes priority. "We all knew basically that if we really wanted to keep access to the base, the way to do it was to shut up about democracy and turn a blind eye to the refugees," said the senior official, on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy. "We could have saved the base if we had wanted."
After the latest setback in relations, the Bush administration is going to "wait for a cooling-off period," the administration official said. "We are assuming they mean it and want us out. We are now not sending someone to Uzbekistan."
The next test will be whether to withhold as much as $22 million in aid to Uzbekistan if it does not comply with provisions on political and economic reforms it committed to undertake in a 2002 strategic partnership agreement with Washington. Last year, the administration withheld almost $11 million. U.S. officials expect the Uzbek government will again be ineligible for funds.