Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 227

On December 8 in Tashkent, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell conferred with President Islam Karimov, Foreign Affairs Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov and Defense Minister Kadyr Ghulamov on Uzbekistan’s contribution to U.S.-led antiterrorist operations. That contribution stems from the agreements sealed in Tashkent in early October by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who achieved the diplomatic breakthrough for the United States in Central Asia, while Powell was terming the region “Russia’s neighborhood.”

On the eve of Powell’s visit, Karimov used a special parliamentary session to offer an interim assessment of the new Uzbek-U.S. relationship. Karimov disclosed that 1,500 American troops–not 1,000 as had until now been officially reported–are currently stationed at the Hanabad air base and insisted that they have only been conducting humanitarian and search-and-rescue missions, “never crossing the border into Afghanistan.” Local observers regard Karimov’s version as cautiously understated on both counts. According to Uzbek officials speaking on background, the number of U.S. troops in the country approximates 2,000 and small numbers of them have crossed into northern Afghanistan on various types of missions during the hostilities there.

During the parliamentary session, Karimov recalled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that started the cycle of wars in that country, and that Uzbekistan had been dragged in without being asked. He contrasted that situation with the present one, in which Uzbekistan has made the air base available to the United States in return for security guarantees and economic aid, which in turn may bring in investment. At the same time, Karimov justified the lag on internal reforms by remarking that “no nation in the world has ever managed within ten years on its own to build democracy, go over to a market economy, give up the old systems, and develop trade to meet international standards. We need help in this regard.”

Powell’s visit brought one immediate result. Karimov agreed to open the Termez bridge over the Amu-Daria (Oxus) River, which connects Uzbekistan to Afghanistan, and which has been closed since 1996 after the Taliban had taken control of the Afghan side of the border. Opening the bridge would greatly increase the tonnage of humanitarian and military supplies–both international and American–to Afghan territory. Those supplies had been moving piecemeal by air and by barge until now. Karimov had been reluctant to open the bridge as long as the situation in northern Afghanistan remained unsettled. The Afghan area opposite Uzbekistan is currently controlled by the local Uzbek warlord Abdurashid Dostum, who has long-standing links with Tashkent.

Politically, Powell won from Karimov a quasi-endorsement of Powell’s own opposition to a U.S. antiterrorism operation in Iraq or elsewhere. Karimov stated that such an operation would only become politically feasible after the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is settled. Such a precondition amounts to a recipe for postponing action against other rogue states.

Powell delivered a letter from President George W. Bush, praising Karimov’s contribution to the antiterrorism campaign and inviting him to pay an official visit to Washington. The date of the visit remains to be set.

Meanwhile, on December 6, the Uzbek parliament approved a bill on holding a referendum on constitutional changes to increase the parliament’s powers, but also extend the presidential term of office from five to seven years. Presented by Parliament Chairman Erkin Khalilov, the bill would institute a bicameral parliament as a standing body, replacing the present unicameral parliament, which–in the Soviet tradition–meets only at intervals, and consists of deputies who hold regular jobs elsewhere. Along with this, however, Karimov would have his term of office prolonged for the second time since he became president. First elected in 1991, prolonged to 2000, reelected in that year to a five-year term, he would serve until 2007 under the proposed constitutional amendments.

With four years to go in his current term, there seemed to be no need for urgency to prolong it at this time. However, Karimov apparently seeks to capitalize on this favorable moment, when the value of his contribution to the antiterrorism campaign may dampen criticism in Washington of his move. (AFP, Uzbek Television, Tashkent Radio, Zhahon, UzReport, December 6-9; see The Monitor, October 2-3, 8, November 16, 21, December 5; the Fortnight in Review, September 28, October 12, 30, November 30).