Saturday, August 13, 2005

Uzbekistan has unceremoniously invited America to leave the military base on its soil, and has been simultaneously strengthening ties with Russia and China. The moves point to a possible shift in alliances in Central Asia — at a loss for America. It is too soon, though, to draw that conclusion.

Uzbekistan, after all, may be simply flexing its geo-political muscle to get Washington to back off demands for democratic reforms. It may also be trying to temporarily appease Moscow and Beijing. While an Uzbek flag will surely fly instead of Old Glory, Uzbekistan may allow U.S. planes to have some use of the base, and will probably cooperate with Washington in other areas of interest, such as global counter-terror and drug efforts.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization — which groups Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgystan, Kazakhstan, Russia and China — said the United States should set a timeline for leaving its bases in Central Asia. Uzbek President Islam Karimov asked America to leave on July 29, giving Washington 180 days to do so. Since then, Kyrgyzstan, which hosts both a U.S. and a Russian base, has told Washington it can stay.

The United States has used its base in Uzbekistan as a logistical hub for operations in Afghanistan since 2002. Almost 1,000 U.S. troops have been stationed on the base. While the base has provided a useful foothold for the U.S. military, it is not essential to the mission in Afghanistan.

Washington has handled Uzbekistan’s snub with level-headed adroitness, demonstrating America has other options in the region (such as Kyrgyzstan) and making it clear that we will leave if it is not wanted — in contrast to, for example, the Russian military presence in Georgia. America’s exit from Uzbekistan will also help create some distance between Washington and the repressive and autocratic Uzbek regime.

Indeed, the loss of the base may be America’s first casualty in Central Asia of the administration’s policy of backing democratic reforms around the world. The administration had become increasingly critical of Mr. Karimov’s abuses and had cut foreign aid to Uzbekistan — although those cuts were countered with increases in military aid.

U.S.-Uzbek relations came to a head after the regime brutally repressed an uprising in Andijan on May 13 and the United States pushed for an independent international investigation. Mr. Karimov was then further aggravated by the U.N.-airlift of 439 Uzbeks who participated in the rebellion to Kyrgyzstan. America’s ouster from Uzbekistan came shortly afterward.

Signs that the U.S. base would not protect Mr. Karimov from a popular overthrow was also a likely a factor in the president’s calculations. The U.S. presence in neighboring Kyrgyzstan did not guard President Askar Akayev from a popular uprising in March. Furthermore, Beijing and Moscow had been making clear their discomfort with the U.S. base.

Still, Mr. Karimov has probably not forfeited his ability to play the great powers off each other. Central Asian leaders in the shadows of China and Russia are pressed to mitigate their towering neighbors’ influence by maintaining good relations with Washington. If Mr. Karimov cuts off the United States, Moscow in particular will be free to control, rather than court, Uzbekistan.

The Bush administration will also have to decide to what degree it wants to subordinate its counter-terror cooperation with Uzbekistan to its pro-democracy goals. Washington should continue pushing for reform in Uzbekistan, but should proceed with some caution. It should also generously support democratic and economic progress in Kyrgyzstan — sending a curt message to the people of Uzbekistan.

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