Uzbekistan's senate voted unanimously yesterday to expel the U.S. military from a base that it has used to support missions in Afghanistan, a strong public statement that backs a recent government decision to oust U.S. troops.
Although U.S. officials have been planning to vacate the Karshi-Khanabad air base, known as K2, since the Uzbek government formally evicted the military on July 29, yesterday's vote made it nearly a certainty. Pentagon and State Department officials said yesterday that the vote was essentially meaningless and that the base is in the process of being emptied.
The eviction poses logistical problems for U.S. operations in Afghanistan because the United States has used K2 for scores of flights and as a refueling base. Humanitarian aid destined for northern Afghanistan also is frequently dropped at the base before it is sent by road over difficult terrain.
The U.S. Central Command has already begun shifting operations away from the base in response to the government's demand that U.S. troops leave. A spokesman for the command said yesterday that those plans are being carried out.
"We have been making preparations for some time to vacate K2 at the host nation's request," said Maj. Matt McLaughlin, a Central Command spokesman. "Operations previously conducted at K2 are being distributed throughout air bases" in the region.
The authoritarian Uzbek government has been an important U.S. ally in the fight against extremism and has allowed U.S. troops on its soil since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. But concerns about the government's response to protests in the province of Andijan in May -- human rights groups estimated that hundreds of people were killed -- prompted U.S. officials to encourage Tashkent to allow an international investigation of the incident.
President Islam Karimov then limited U.S. military operations and ultimately notified the U.S. Embassy that the 800 U.S. troops at K2 were no longer welcome.
"We are unwilling to sacrifice democracy and human rights, especially in light of the Andijan events last May in order to preserve U.S. access to K2," said Julie Reside, a State Department spokeswoman. "We are working within the bilateral agreement, which allows 180 days to leave K2, though we believe Uzbekistan's decision was ill-advised."
Uzbek officials yesterday criticized the U.S. presence.
"Wherever American bases crop up, so does a fundamentalist mood and so do enemies of America, and we don't want to be caught between the two," Nuriddin Zayniyev, governor of Kashkadarya region where the base is located, told parliament, according to the Associated Press. Officials at the Embassy of Uzbekistan in Washington did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.
Senior defense officials said the United States plans to be out of the base by the end of the year, and officials have received assurances that bases in nearby Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can be used for operations in Afghanistan.
Gen. John P. Abizaid, who heads Central Command, this week visited Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to speak with those nations' leaders. Officials would not discuss Abizaid's discussions other than to say he addressed "broad security issues of regional consequence." Turkmenistan, which borders Afghanistan and Iran, is the most authoritarian of the 15 former Soviet republics.
Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.