Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 152

On August 3, Uzbek state media announced that the government had asked the United States to vacate the Karshi-Khanabad air base and withdraw its military units from Uzbekistan. The government had delivered that request to the U.S. Embassy on July 29, but did not immediately announce it to the public.

Accompanying the August 3 announcement, a petulant government commentary claims that Uzbekistan had, since 2002, asked the United States six times to consider terminating the basing agreement, but Washington demurred “under various pretexts.” Moreover, the document asserts that the U.S. base has outlived its mission, because it was “strictly linked to the completion of the military campaign in Afghanistan,” where “active operations ended already in 2002, according to U.S. official statements.” Emphatically denying any link between the withdrawal request and U.S.-Uzbek political differences over the violent events in Andijan, the document insists that the reasons behind Tashkent’s withdrawal request predate those events.

While U.S.-Uzbek political miscommunication and a sense of unfulfilled expectations was indeed developing on both sides well before the May 2005 violence in Andijan, it was the differences over that event and their exploitation by Moscow that dealt the heaviest blow to the U.S.-Uzbek relationship. But even at that point, Tashkent stopped short of asking the United States to vacate the base.

Ultimately, the trigger to Tashkent’s request was the U.S.-arranged airlift from Kyrgyzstan of two groups of Uzbeks who had fled from Andijan, including some escaped criminals and some suspected rebels who were wanted for questioning by Uzbek authorities as part of the investigation. U.S. officials strongly pressured Kyrgyzstan to allow the evacuation of both groups in their entirety, while publicly rebuffing Tashkent’s protests. The July 28 airlift of the first group from Bishkek triggered Tashkent’s July 29 “eviction notice” regarding the U.S. air base in Uzbekistan. The August 2 decision at U.S. insistence to evacuate the second group as well became the trigger to Tashkent’s August 3 public announcement of its base-closure demand.

The basing arrangement seemed, nevertheless, retrievable even after July 29: Uzbekistan refrained from making its demarche public, delivered it informally by courier so as to avoid a diplomatic showdown, and stopped short of identifying the United States by name in Tashkent’s August 1 protest statement against the U.S.-organized airlift of Andijan fugitives. These precautions seemed to hint at President Islam Karimov’s interest in further discussion on the basing arrangement and avoiding a rupture in the security relationship with the United States. Then a U.S. State Department statement on August 2, immediately distributed by the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, underscored the U.S. demand for release of the second group of Uzbek suspects from Kyrgyzstan and threatened to withhold a prescheduled $22 million tranche of U.S. aid to Uzbekistan. Finally, the tit-for-tat moves on August 2-August 3 may have brought this dynamic to the point of no return, or close to that point.

The public announcement of the “eviction notice,” and its strict linkage to the end of war in Afghanistan, will make it difficult for Karimov to climb down and reconsider the issue anytime soon. For its part, Washington finds itself hard pressed to resort to some counterproductive rationalizations of its own. Portraying the loss of Karshi-Khanabad as a U.S. choice to put democratic values above military considerations is an easy rationalization. Publicly discounting the strategic importance of Karshi-Khanabad by citing fallback basing options elsewhere (even if they are clearly poorer) seems an almost mandatory rationalization in these circumstances.

Those interpretations dictated by short-term politics should not obscure the strategic setback to both the United States and Uzbekistan, and indeed to regional security, if the base is indeed closed and if the bilateral security relationship continues to unravel. Tashkent has not yet burned its bridges with Washington, although Tashkent seems to have lit the match to that end, with some Russian prodding. A cooling-off period seems necessary in order to reconsider the issue during the remaining six months of operation of the U.S. strategic asset Karshi-Khanabad.

(Pravda vostoka, August 3; Uzbek radio and television, August 1, 2; Interfax, August 2, 3; see EDM, July 6, 8, 21, 29, August 2)