More than two years after being forced to evacuate its facility at Karshi-Khanabad (K-2), the U.S. Air Force once again has access to Uzbek air assets, as Tashkent has agreed to allow U.S. military aircraft to use aerial facilities at Termez on a “case by case” basis (Izvestiya, March 6). On March 6 Interfax mistakenly reported that the Americans had, in fact, been granted access once again to Karshi-Khanabad. The reality is more nuanced. Since 2002 a German Bundeswehr aviation unit attached to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has used the facility. Under the new arrangement, U.S. NATO staff members can use the German air-bridge from Termez into Afghanistan.
During a March 5 press conference in Moscow, NATO’s Caucasus and Central Asia envoy Robert Simmons cautiously observed, “Recently, given certain events, including the access of the European Union to discussion about human rights in Uzbekistan, relations between NATO members and Uzbekistan have improved” (Gazeta.ru, March 5).
Termez, in southern Uzbekistan’s Sukhandariya province, is on the Amu Darya River, 37 miles north of Mazar-e Sharif in Afghanistan. Observers with a sense of historical irony might note that the Termez Friendship bridge was one of the launch points for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979; eventually Termez would become the supply point for 75% of the Red Army’s logistics during the campaign.
On October 7, 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Tashkent and Washington reached an agreement that allowed U.S. military forces to use K-2. The arrangement remained workable until the tragic May 12-13, 2005, events in Andijan, Uzbekistan, which many governments and NGOs in the West rushed to label a “massacre.”
The U.S. administration’s mishandling of Andijan led Tashkent to inform Washington on July 29, 2005, that it was abrogating the agreement permitting the U.S. military to use K-2 under terms of the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), giving the Pentagon 180 days to end its activities there. Washington finished evacuating the base on November 21, 2005, one month ahead of schedule. While the Pentagon put a brave face on the loss, the fact that the K-2 base, just 60 miles from Afghanistan in Uzbekistan’s Qashqadaryo province, was in reality a significant blow, as the U.S. 416th Air Expeditionary Group based there averaged 200 passengers and 100 tons of cargo per day on C-130H missions supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. air assets would subsequently be shifted to Afghan air bases in Bagram, Kandahar, as well as Manas in Kyrgyzstan, which is 400 miles from Afghanistan.
The groundwork for the thaw apparently came on January 24, when Admiral William J. Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, visited Uzbekistan. He met with the president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, and senior Uzbek and U.S. government officials. His discussions addressed a broad range of issues, including regional security, democratic reforms, human rights, and reconstruction in Afghanistan (www.usembassy.uz, January 25.)
As to why Uzbekistan might again be warming to Washington, the country has had more than 20 years of experience with turmoil emanating across its 85 mile-long border with Afghanistan and greatly desires a cessation of the fighting there.
Ironically the turmoil began with U.S. assistance to the mujahideen, which took off when President Ronald Reagan issued National Security Directive 166 to escalate U.S. involvement with the mujahideen. When CIA Director of Central Intelligence William Casey flew into Chaklala airbase near Islamabad in October 1984 the stage was set for a widening of U.S. aid to the mujahideen, which would eventually spill over into Uzbekistan. Casey suggested that the mujahideen conduct cross-border raids into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, According to Pakistani general Mohammed Yousaf, Casey observed, “We can do a lot of damage to the Soviet Union” (Yousaf, The Bear Went over the Mountain). The raids reached their peak in 1986, ceasing only when the Soviet ambassador threatened retaliatory raids into Pakistan.
While the Termez agreement does not represent a full renewal of U.S. access to Uzbek facilities on the level of the K-2 agreements, it does represent the camel’s nose under the tent and indicates that the passions ignited by the 2005 Andijan tragedy have begun to cool, allowing U.S.-Uzbek joint interests in combating terrorism emanating from Afghanistan to reemerge. While such a development will raise optimism in Tashkent and Washington, Uzbekistan’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization partners, particularly Russia and China, will regard the situation much more darkly. If Washington is to improve and consolidate its position, its most prudent policy would be to continue to tone down the rhetoric and concentrate on the reality of shared interests, most notably, the fight against terrorism.