Uzbekistan kicks US out of military base

The Pentagon has been given six months to quit as Washington’s relations with hardline dictator sour in wake of civilian massacre

By Nick Paton Walsh writing in The Guardian

Uzbekistan has given the US six months to close its military base there, in its first move to sever relations with its former sponsor.

The air base near the southern town of Khanabad, known as K2, was opened weeks after the September 11 attacks to provide vital logistical support for Operation Enduring Freedom in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Analysts have said that Uzbekistan agreed to the base, the first Pentagon presence in what is a former Soviet stronghold of central Asia, because of a large US aid package and Washington’s silence about the country’s appalling human rights record.

A US defence department spokesman said at the weekend: “We got a note at the US embassy in Tashkent on Friday; the gist of it was that we have 180 days to cease operations at the K2 airfield.”

He added that the defence and state departments were evaluating “the exact nature” of the request. “K2 has been an important asset for the war in Afghanistan,” he said. “We will have to evaluate what to do next.”

The US presence in Uzbekistan has been under intense moral scrutiny after the massacre by Uzbek troops of hundreds of civilians in the southern city of Andijan in May.

The White House was at first muted in its criticism of the massacre, but the state department has grown increasingly vocal in condemning the attack and calling for an independent investigation.

The Pentagon has sought to renew the leasing agreement for the base, for which it has paid $15m to the regime of President Islam Karimov since 2001.

Critics have accused the US of propping up one of the world’s most brutal regimes in exchange for the base’s short-term benefits. The Uzbek authorities are accused of killing and jailing ordinary Muslims under the guise of fighting religious extremism and terrorism, and the state department says torture is used by police in Uzbekistan as a “routine investigation technique”.

A former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, who was sacked after criticising western support for the Uzbek regime, said: “The US has managed to hand the dictator Karimov the propaganda coup of kicking out the world’s greatest power. Western policy towards Uzbekistan has been unsustainable for a long time.”

He said the Uzbek decision to curtail relations with Washington was “due to a change-around in economic policy. There has been no significant investment from the west for a while; it’s all Russian and Chinese state-owned companies.”

“Karimov took the decision years ago not to have democracy and capitalism, it just took the US a lot longer to work that out.

“If they had any dignity they would have jumped before they were pushed.”

He said the move would put pressure on other central Asian states to turn away from the west, towards China and Russia, because of their reliance on Uzbekistan’s resources.

Uzbekistan’s demand for the Americans to leave the base prompted a senior state department official to cancel a planned visit to the capital, Tashkent, according to the New York Times.

R Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, was due to hold negotiations about the future of the base with the Karimov regime, and was to echo demands for an international investigation into the Andijan massacre.

The Uzbek government continues to maintain that 187 people in Andijan, mostly criminals, were killed when troops suppressed a prison breakout. Human rights groups say unarmed protesters were fired on, the injured were killed, and that up to 800 people may have died.

The New York Times also quoted a senior state department official as saying that the Uzbek demand was connected to US support for neighbouring Kyrgyzstan’s refusal to send home those who had fled Uzbekistan after the Andijan massacre.

The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has phoned the Kyrgyz government about 29 of those who fled, now being held in the southern city of Osh, and asked that they be ferried out by the UN to a neutral third country.

Her intervention sparked the Uzbek demand for the base to be closed, the official said.