US-Uzbekistan Rift Deepens as Military Base Gets Shutdown Order

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - A senior American diplomat has reportedly put off a planned visit to Uzbekistan after the regime in Tashkent gave the U.S. notice to withdraw from a military base used since late 2001 in support of military operations in Afghanistan.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns was postponing a visit during which he was to have discussed political reforms, as it would not be appropriate for him to go now, the New York Times reported Sunday.

President Islam Karimov's decision took already deteriorating relations between the U.S. and the former Soviet republic to a new low.

Tensions have grown since Washington began calling for an independent probe into a violent crackdown against anti-government protesters in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan last May, in which hundreds of civilians are believed to have been killed.

The eviction order was received by the U.S. embassy in Tashkent just hours after the United Nations evacuated more than 400 Uzbek refugees who had been living in neighboring Kyrgyzstan since fleeing across the border following the May violence.

The refugees were flown to Romania, from where they will be resettled in other countries, reportedly including the U.S. Uzbekistan had been pressuring the Kyrgyzstan authorities to repatriate the refugees, while Washington opposed any such move.

A Pentagon spokesman confirmed over the weekend that the Uzbek government has told the Americans to withdraw from the Karshi-Khanabad, a base also known as K2 or Camp Stronghold Freedom, about 120 miles north of the border with Afghanistan. The authorities reportedly want the base cleared in 180 days' time.

Home to about 800 personnel, K2's activities had already earlier been restricted by Karimov, a move similarly linked to Tashkent's unhappiness with U.S. criticism over the Andijan violence.

Karimov last June prohibited night-time operations from the base and placed limitations on heavy transport aircraft landings.

On July 5, a bloc comprising Russia, China and four Central Asian republics -- Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan -- issued a joint call for U.S. and other coalition forces using facilities in the region to set a deadline for departing.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) suggested the time was ripe for this since, in its view, "the active military phase" of operations in Afghanistan was "nearing completion." Analysts tied the demand to Russian and Chinese attempts to edge the U.S. out of a strategic and oil-rich region both consider their backyard.

Apart from the K2 base, the U.S. campaign against Islamists in Afghanistan, launched following 9/11, has also relied on an airbase at Manas in Kyrgyzstan and overflight and refueling rights in Tajikistan. Tajikistan also hosts French personnel attached to NATO operations in Afghanistan.

Although the campaign toppled the Taliban regime and its al-Qaeda terrorist allies in late 2001, coalition reconstruction and security operations are continuing amid a recent resurgence in terrorist activity as Afghanistan prepares for legislative and provincial elections in September.

Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and won the approval of both for the U.S. to continue using the facilities, notwithstanding the SCO's call.

His regional visit skipped Uzbekistan, however, and Rumsfeld appeared unperturbed about the possibility that the U.S. could lose the K-2 base. "We're always thinking ahead," he said in response to a question on the subject. "We'll be fine."

Relations have altered dramatically since Rumsfeld paid a visit to the region in February 2004. Visiting Uzbekistan, he praised the Karimov government for its "wonderful cooperation" and said Uzbekistan had given "stalwart, steadfast support in our efforts against terrorism."

Human rights groups have accused the U.S. in recent years of ignoring rights abuses so as not to jeopardize security cooperation with Tashkent.

Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Lorne Craner told lawmakers in June 2004 that three years after the U.S. and Uzbekistan embarked on a new path in bilateral relations, the human rights situation remained very poor, but there had been some important gains as a result of U.S. policies.

"Our strategic relationship has meant an increased focus on human rights," he said. "We have shone an even brighter spotlight on the democracy and human rights record of Uzbekistan ... we have addressed any acts of repression by urging the government of Uzbekistan to undertake meaningful reform.

"We have used our new, closer relations to expand not only our agenda, but also the range of government officials with whom we have a dialogue on democracy and human rights," Craner said.

See Earlier Story:
China, Russia Challenge US Military Presence in Central Asia (July 06, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow