Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 150

On July 29, Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs delivered a note to the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, asking the United States to vacate the Karshi-Khanabad air base, withdraw the troops and materiel from Uzbekistan, and terminate the 2001 bilateral agreement within 180 days. The document did not state the reasons for this demand.

The six-month deadline is broadly consistent with the timeframe suggested by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top foreign policy adviser, Sergei Prikhodko, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) July 5 summit, which orchestrated this anti-U.S. move. Prikhodko declared, “Several months, up to a year and a half” would be an adequate deadline for the U.S.-led coalition to close its bases in Central Asian countries (see EDM, July 6).

Some Russian officials were quick to gloat. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov urged the United States sarcastically “to make up its mind: how many years will the war in Afghanistan go on: 20, 30, or 250 years?” Professing to link the American military presence in Central Asia solely to the operations in Afghanistan (“There is no other reason, and none would be acceptable”), Ivanov portrayed that presence as both unnecessary and ineffective: “There are no active combat operations in Afghanistan, while the Taliban control a large part of the country. Terrorist threats continue to emanate from Afghanistan, but the Taliban don’t even bother to hide because no one pursues them. The narcotics business keeps growing because no one lifts a finger to deal with it.” Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Foreign Policy and Defense Council, echoed Ivanov’s sarcasm by predicting, “It is probably a matter of several centuries yet before Afghanistan fully recovers. But the situation is much better there now, so the bases have served their purpose, the Americans can do without the bases.” Federation Council chairman Sergei Mironov, praising Tashkent, also distorted the U.S. position: “The Uzbek authorities took an absolutely right and logical step. The United States has said several times that the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan has ended, thus it is time for U.S. forces to leave Uzbekistan” (Interfax, July 28, 29; Russian Television Channel One, July 30; RIA-Novosti, August 1).

The Uzbek “eviction notice,” as some commentators describe it perhaps somewhat prematurely, was not, however, a foregone conclusion, and might not necessarily be the final word. Even as the Uzbek-U.S. political miscommunication had deepened through the Kyrgyz upheaval and the Andijan violence, and Tashkent placed restrictions on the use of the Karshi-Khanabad base, Uzbek authorities did not seem intent on asking the U.S. military to leave the country. After the July 5 SCO summit, state-controlled Uzbek media carried over-dramatized commentaries on alleged economic and ecological costs to Uzbekistan, and inconvenience to local inhabitants, caused by the American air base. But the commentaries stopped short of calling for closure of the base. Rather, they seemed intended, however clumsily, to set the stage for complete fulfillment, or perhaps re-negotiation, of some of the terms of the 2001 and 2002 bilateral agreements.

The July 29 note came the day after the United States, working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Bishkek and the Kyrgyz government, arranged the airlift from Kyrgyzstan to Romania of some 439 Uzbek refugees from Andijan. The group included some who were wanted for questioning by Uzbek authorities as part of the investigation into the Andijan violence. Thus, Tashkent’s note looked like an instant reaction to that move.

At this juncture, however, President Islam Karimov may still be keeping the options open for both sides. As of August 1, Tashkent had not announced this move in the Uzbek media. The note was delivered to the U.S. Embassy by an Uzbek courier, not by the usual mode of delivery through government officials, and thus decreasing the document’s weight. Such hints seem calculated to suggest that Karimov prefers to avoid a rupture in the security relationship at the moment.

(Uzbek radio and television, Khalk Sozy, July 29-August 1; see EDM, July 6, 8, 21, 29)