August 01, 2005

Karimov Kicks US Out of K-2

The Karshi-Khanabad airbase (otherwise known as K-2) in Uzbekistan, near the Afghan border, is a very strategically important center for US operations in central Asia. It's a good spot for refueling, for assisting military operations and for moving humanitarian relief into Afghanistan. It's relatively close to China (with Tajikistan in between) and it's part of the Russian near-abroad, being just south of Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, the Uzbek regime has told the US it has six months to leave K-2.

Although both China and Russia were uncomfortable with US presence there and Putin likely put pressure on Karimov to expel the American soldiers, it seems as though recent squabbles over the authoritarian Uzbek leader Islam Karimov caused the ejection. In May a government crackdown on an opposition protest in Andijan sparked international controversy over the firmly anti-democratic position of Karimov. Coming off of successful post-Soviet democratic protest movements in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, the Uzbek crackdowns were especially disheartening.

The US is scheduled to hold diplomatic talks with the Uzbek government within the next few days about Andijan, political liberties and democratic reforms. Additionally, several hundred refugees from the Andijan crackdown were airlifted from Kyrgyzstan to Romania under UN auspices. The various pressures on human rights issues likely contributed to the pullout order, in addition to Moscow's urging. Of course, Tashkent was (and still is, to some degree) pursuing closer relations to Washington as a counter-balance to Moscow in the first place, so Putin's requests for emptying K-2 were very likely not a primary motivation here.

This is actually good news. Before Rumsfeld and others in the Administration were trying to hold back criticism of the Uzbeks over Andijan because K-2 was such a valuable strategic resource. Now that the Uzbeks have pushed the US out, the decision is moot and there's no more K-2 to lose; we can push the Uzbeks on what is an atrocious record of stomping on liberties and they have no base to hold over us.

My suggestion would be to locate democrats and reformers in Uzbekistan that would be qualified to run a transitional or successor government without resorting to authoritarianism themselves. These democrats could then be supported through demonstrations and rallies, as happened in the Ukraine and elsewhere.

Karimov made our decision for us. We have no pragmatic reasons to get in the way of doing what we ought to do: oppose this authoritarian's abuse of power.

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