One of the most important military bases operated by the US sits in Uzbekistan, which borders on Afghanistan. It provides strategic access to the northern part of Afghanistan, with good roads to Mazar-i-Sharif, plus long runways for heavy-load military flights. It opened shortly after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington and has been considered essential to our operations.
Unfortunately, that base will no longer remain in our control, as the Uzbeks have delivered an eviction notice to the US:
Uzbekistan formally evicted the United States yesterday from a military base that has served as a hub for combat and humanitarian missions to Afghanistan since shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Pentagon and State Department officials said yesterday.
In a highly unusual move, the notice of eviction from Karshi-Khanabad air base, known as K2, was delivered by a courier from the Uzbek Foreign Ministry to the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, said a senior U.S. administration official involved in Central Asia policy. The message did not give a reason. Uzbekistan will give the United States 180 days to move aircraft, personnel and equipment, U.S. officials said.
If Uzbekistan follows through, as Washington expects, the United States will face several logistical problems for its operations in Afghanistan. Scores of flights have used K2 monthly. It has been a landing base to transfer humanitarian goods that then are taken by road into northern Afghanistan, particularly to Mazar-e Sharif — with no alternative for a region difficult to reach in the winter. K2 is also a refueling base with a runway long enough for large military aircraft. The alternative is much costlier midair refueling.
We have other bases in the Central Asia region supporting our Afghanistan operations, notably Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, but neither country has the same strategic access as Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan doesn’t even border Afghanistan, making land access a moot point, and we only use the Tajik base in emergencies. The loss of this base will create a harsh impact on our efforts in the northern regions of Afghanistan.
So what went wrong?
Uzbekistan remains under the control of Islam Karimov, one of the Central Asian strongmen running former Soviet republics. For a while, his interests coincided with ours. Karimov didn’t want Islamists to foment a bloody revolution and chase him from power, and he didn’t mind the millions of dollars the US paid for use of the base, either. However, with the American push for democratization, the Uzbeks began to start demanding more and more freedoms, which made the Karimov regime start to question his American ties.
All of this came to a head earlier this year, when a massive pro-democracy protest turned bloody. Karimov’s security forces opened fire on unarmed Uzbek demonstrators, killing 500 people in the Andijan province. The US demanded an independent investigation into the massacre, and planned on pressing Karimov for political reforms. So far, Karimov has not agreed to either, and the final straw apparently came when the US asked Kyrgyzstan to block extradition of 439 Uzbek political refugees.
The loss of such a strategic base is undeniably a blow for the US and its effort in Afghanistan. Yet this should be viewed as a triumph for the US. It demonstrates the Bush administration’s commitment to democratization, even among our allies, and shows that we will not tolerate oppression and mass murder as a prop for power, not even among our friends. It shows that his overall strategy for this war is to create democracies as a bulwark against the radicalism that creates terror — and that will, in the end, prove many times more beneficial than the Uzbek base we just lost.
The senior official quoted by the Washington Post noted that Bush could have saved the base simply by remaining silent about the refugees and democracy. Bush and his administration just passed an important test by choosing decency and democracy over the convenience of the moment. We will find other ways to support our efforts in Afghanistan, means that don’t undermine our overall strategic goals of freeing as many people as possible throughout Southwest Asia and the world.