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U.S. cozies up to Uzbekistan for Afghanistan role

- Associated Press - Monday, July 9, 2012

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — The bloodiest massacre of protesters since Tiananmen Square turned Uzbekistan into a pariah state. Now, the United States needs its help with Afghanistan and has launched a flurry of overtures while putting aside concerns over human rights.

Top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, have paid courtesy calls over the past year, while General Motors and other major U.S. companies look determined to deepen their involvement in the Central Asian nation.

Meanwhile, Uzbekistan has withdrawn from a Russian-led military alliance, signaling a downturn in its relations with the former overlords in Moscow.

This has fed speculation that the nation, hoping to benefit from the transit of U.S. troops and hardware, could invite the United States to set up a military base on its soil - a development that would infuriate Russia and raise tensions in the volatile region.

Uzbekistan has been run with unflinching severity by 74-year-old former Soviet party boss Islam Karimov since before the country gained independence in 1991.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Western leaders overcame their scruples in dealing with Mr. Karimov's government and the United States secured a lease for the Karshi-Khanabad air base in Uzbekistan.

That all ended when Uzbekistan government troops indiscriminately gunned down hundreds of protesters in the eastern city of Andijan in 2005.

Uzbek authorities expelled U.S. troops from the country in anger over Washington's criticism and accused Western powers of complicity in the Andijan protests, which they said formed part of efforts to foment revolutions across the former Soviet Union.

Uzbekistan also has been the subject of persistent allegations of torture of political prisoners and other human rights abuses.

With access to the country barred to almost all foreign reporters, verifying claims by some State Department officials that the rights situation has improved marginally is virtually impossible.

When NATO convoys through Pakistan began coming under sustained militant attack in 2009, U.S. military planners looked north and saw the makings of a route snaking thousands of miles through Central Asia and perennial strategic foe Russia.

Trucks carrying NATO goods are rolling across Pakistan's border into Afghanistan again after the U.S. apologized to Pakistan for the deaths of 24 Pakistani troops last fall. But despite the additional expense, the safety of the northern route makes it a more attractive option.

Until now, the traffic through Uzbekistan has mainly gone in the direction of Afghanistan, but the priority in coming years will be shifted to reverse transit along the Northern Distribution Network.

The most reliable route starts on a recently completed railroad that crosses the Amu-Darya River, which marks Uzbekistan's 82-mile border with Afghanistan, and provides the speediest and simplest transportation northward.

In an apparent effort to soothe concerns that the U.S. will abandon Central Asian as soon as its engagements in Afghanistan are wound down, investments enthusiastically backed by Washington are trickling in.

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