US blocked NATO call for probe of Uzbek 'massacre'?

Calls for investigation highlight 'awkward' US ties with authoritarian government.

By Matthew Clark |

A report that US defense officials helped block a NATO demand for an international probe into last month's killing of protesters in Uzbekistan is proving an air base there to be one of the more diplomatically costly "lily pads" in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's new lean, mean restructuring of the US global military presence.

Located in southeastern Uzbekistan near the border with Afghanistan, the Khanabad base is seen as key to the US war on terror, as a Q&A on the website of the Council of Foriegn Relations, a prominent Washington-based think-tank, explains.

Officially, the role of the troops in Uzbekistan is limited to humanitarian relief and search-and-rescue missions inside Afghanistan, but a joint US Special Forces command center at Khanabad reportedly played a key role in directing the activities of US Special Forces personnel during the early phase of the fall 2001 US attacks on the Taliban [in Afghanistan]. Information about current day-to-day activities of US forces remains shrouded in secrecy.

But continued access to the base means the US must tread carefully in its criticism of Uzbekistan's leader Islam Karimov, who has routinely been accused of brutally stifling dissent, including allegedly covering up the government's shooting of hundreds of protesters last month.

The Uzbek government has admitted that 173 people were killed on May 13 in Andijan but independent witnesses and human rights organizations put the number of victims at between 500 and 1,000. Human Rights Watch, for instance, has called the incident a "massacre." Karimov has portrayed the killings as a necessary response to a revolt by Islamic extremists.

Many countries and organizations, including the US, have called for an independent investigation. But The Washington Post reports that US defense officials - together with their Russian counterparts - "helped block a new demand for an international probe" last week.

British and other European officials had pushed to include language calling for an independent investigation in a communique issued by defense ministers of NATO countries and Russia after a daylong meeting in Brussels on Thursday. But the joint communique merely stated that "issues of security and stability in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan," had been discussed.

The Post report suggests that the risk of provoking Uzbekistan to cut off US access to the base was behind the US resistance to pressure the Karimov government, but also hints at a rift between the State and Defense departments on the issue.

The communique's wording was worked out after what several knowledgeable sources called a vigorous debate in Brussels between US defense officials, who emphasized the importance of the base, and others, including State Department representatives at NATO headquarters, who favored language calling for a transparent, independent and international probe into the killings of Uzbekistan civilians by police and soldiers.

But the State Department is not the only part of the US government that is questioning the status quo on US policy toward Uzbekistan. A bipartisan group of US senators last Wednesday "asked the Bush administration to consider whether the US could take action via the United Nations if Uzbekistan does not allow an independent investigation," reports The Financial Times.

Four Republican senators - John McCain, Lindsey Graham, John Sununu and Mike DeWine - and two Democrats - Patrick Leahy and Joseph Biden - sent a letter to the administration saying the US should reconsider its relationship with Uzbekistan.

"Particularly after freedom's advances in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, we believe that the United States must be careful about being too closely associated with a government that has killed hundreds of demonstrators and refused international calls for a transparent investigation," the senators wrote.

Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers "indicated that they could consider imposing sanctions on Uzbekistan if it continues to refuse an international inquiry," reports AFX News.

Foreign minister of Luxembourg and current EU president Jean Asselborn said that most of the 25 member states want to go further and suspend the cooperation and partnership agreements between the EU and Uzbekistan, reports AFX.

The Los Angeles Times reports that "Karimov's regime has emerged as one of the toughest tests of the Bush administration's campaign to promote democracy, especially in the Muslim world."

"Making matters more awkward are continuing Pentagon negotiations with Uzbekistan for long-term access to the bases," writes the Times.

A June 4 report from the Post also described the negotiations for long-term access as "awkward."

The talks have gone on behind the scenes for several months but have become more awkward for the administration since last month's unrest .... Human rights advocates argue that a new pact would undermine the administration's goal of spreading democracy in the Islamic world.

An editorial in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram thanks the US senators for pushing the Bush administration to reevaluate the US policy toward Uzbekistan and compares it to US support for dictators during the cold war.

Such relationships with unsavory governments - in which the ideals enshrined in our founding documents sometimes became subservient to strategic or economic interests - is reminiscent of US foreign policy during the Cold War, when America propped up ugly dictatorships in Africa and other parts of the world because their leaders professed to be anti-communist.