- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2002

The United States will remain engaged in Central Asia but is not seeking permanent military bases there, a senior State Department official said yesterday.
Extensive new American military outposts in the front-line states north of Afghanistan have unsettled both Russia and China, but Assistant Secretary of State Beth Jones, just back from a two-week tour of the region, said recent speculation about U.S. intentions is misplaced.
"The fact is, we're not looking for and we don't want permanent U.S. bases in Central Asia, but we do want access to the bases for as long as we need them," Mrs. Jones said at a State Department briefing on her trip.
She said no one in the administration, including President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, could say now how long the bases, including sites in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, would be needed.
In addition to supporting the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, the bases also are playing a critical role in the humanitarian mission there and also helping coordinate the international security force now being assembled.
Russia has long considered the region its strategic back yard and senior defense officials in Moscow have openly questioned U.S. intentions. Central Asian states have mostly welcomed the massive new U.S. presence as an economic and military bonanza and as a counterweight to both Russian and Chinese influence.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an interview published yesterday with the Wall Street Journal, said he had no problems with the U.S. buildup in the region, saying the warming of ties between Washington and Moscow made such concerns outdated.
"If we view the U.S. as an enemy, even within the anti-terrorist coalition, we would have to behave differently," Mr. Putin told the paper. "But if we believe that we can be partners then our behavior should not be doubted or obstructed."
Mrs. Jones said the Afghan war had dealt a blow to the Islamic Movement for Uzbekistan (IMU), a Central Asian militant group with links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and to other militant movements in the region.
She said she had been told during her visit that many IMU fighters had been killed or captured in fighting around the Afghan city of Kunduz.
The guerrilla group, which is on the State Department's list of international terrorist organizations, still operates but in "much reduced form," Mrs. Jones said. "It is not the dangerous organization it was."
The assistant secretary insisted the United States would press the region's authoritarian leaders to improve their human rights records and reform their struggling economies. She said she warned leaders such as Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Turkmenian President Saparmurat Niyazov that continued repression and lack of economic opportunity would only swell the ranks of the violent opposition.
She denied that the U.S. need for access to military bases would mean that issues such as democracy and human rights would take a back seat.
The close engagement between the United States and the Central Asian states since September 11 means "we are in their office, in their face, all the time," she said.

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