Over congressional objections, the Pentagon intends to pay Uzbekistan almost $23 million for past use of its military base from which U.S. forces were recently told to leave, according to congressional and administration officials.
"It's our practice to pay our bills," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, saying the payment is for "goods and services previously rendered."
U.S. military operations are ongoing from the Karshi-Khanabad air base, referred to as K-2, he said, suggesting further payments may be required.
The issue has been intensely debated within the administration in recent weeks, but the Pentagon overrode State Department and congressional concerns about providing the funds to one of the world's most autocratic regimes, the officials said. In May, the Uzbek government put down protests in Andijan province, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths, according to human rights groups.
In a strongly worded bipartisan protest, six senators sent a letter yesterday to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld saying the Pentagon had notified Congress of the payment and reinforcing their objections to it.
"The current Uzbek regime is one that has expelled our forces from its country, massacred hundreds of demonstrators at Andijan and is disregarding U.S. concerns on a host of issues," the letter said. "To turn over millions of taxpayer dollars to such a government at this time risks undermining the clarity of America's message in the region and would be seen as a sign of weakness."
Pentagon officials stressed that they had not yet seen the letter and spoke positively of cooperation with Uzbekistan. "Obviously, we will respond to the concerns of any member of Congress," Whitman said. "The government of Uzbekistan has been a good partner in the war on terrorism," for example, by supporting U.S. troops as they overthrew Afghanistan's Taliban regime and supplied humanitarian assistance to northern Afghanistan, he said.
The money would cover costs associated with K-2, the use of which became controversial after the Andijan incidents. The Bush administration called for an independent international investigation of the violence, which the regime of President Islam Karimov rejected. Tashkent first cut back on U.S. use of K-2, then in July informed the United States that its forces must leave within six months.
Although the Pentagon has decided to pay Tashkent, the State Department is refusing to authorize funding delayed since last year for military training and exchange programs for Uzbekistan. "The processes are separate from each other," a State Department spokesman said yesterday. "We can pay to use the base, but they may have practices that disqualify them from getting [other] funding because of human rights practices."
Human rights officials criticized the payments. "It's pathetic that they're still shuttling cash to this dictatorship after it has violated every commitment it made to the United States," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.
The letter from Capitol Hill -- organized by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and signed by four Republicans and two Democrats -- proposes a compromise that would put the money in escrow for payment "only when Uzbekistan shows that it is again willing to work in partnership with the United States." The other signatories include Republicans Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), John E. Sununu (N.H.) and Mike DeWine (Ohio), and Democrats Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), and Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.).