DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
The Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan was a key base for US forces fighting in Afghanistan. But this past week, the last US military plane left Uzbekistan, and the Uzbek government has informed NATO countries they can no longer use its territory for peacekeeping missions. After 9/11, the former Soviet republic was seen as an important partner for the US. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports Washington analysts are lamenting the fact that the West has lost Uzbekistan.
MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:
NATO officials did their best to downplay Uzbekistan's decision to kick NATO troops out by the end of the year and block overflights. Spokesman James Appathurai said the alliance will find workarounds.
Mr. JAMES APPATHURAI (NATO Spokesman): If adjustments need to be made to the way in which we supply and support the peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, they will be made, they can be made. Our Security AnFistance force in Afghanistan will still get the logistical support it needs to carry out its mission.
KELEMEN: Politically, though, it was a big blow to European nations and the US. The relationship turned sour back in May when Uzbek police cracked down on protesters in the city of Andijan. Western nations called on Uzbekistan's hard-line president, Islam Karimov, to allow an international investigation; the European Union even imposed sanctions. Central Asia expert Martha Brill Olcott believes the decision to push out NATO was Uzbekistan's response.
Ms. MARTHA BRILL OLCOTT (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): It's hard to see this as anything but retaliation to the EU decision to introduce sanctions against Uzbekistan, and specifically to bar 12 individuals from being able to enter Europe. So this is kind of a stepped defense of Uzbekistan away from the West and towards Russia and China.
KELEMEN: Over the summer, Uzbekistan told the Americans to leave the military base they were using for the war in Afghanistan. The US pulled out last Monday after settling a nearly $23 million bill for the services the Uzbeks provided over the past couple of years at the base. Olcott, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thinks the US missed an opportunity to influence Uzbekistan.
Ms. OLCOTT: I personally believe that more economic engagement and more democracy assistance--you know, making Uzbekistan feel like they were really a strategic ally of the US at all levels--might have given reform a greater shot so that we might not have gotten Andijan. But once we got Andijan, we really were in a box, both the US and Europe.
KELEMEN: At a recent panel at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, Matt Bryza, a State Department official whose portfolio includes Uzbekistan, accepted some criticism.
Mr. MATT BRYZA (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia): I'm not sure it was a US policy failure. It's a failed experience perhaps, in part.
KELEMEN: The deputy assistant secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia said the US did a lot with Uzbekistan to improve security in the region, but Uzbekistan turned out to be a disappointment.
Mr. BRYZA: We thought we had channeled Uzbekistan in a more constructive direction. It seemed to be work--moving that way for quite some time. Something changed maybe a year and a half ago. And after what happened in Andijan, we just found we had no choice but to call for a transparent investigation of the indiscriminate--what looked like indiscriminate shooting of hundreds of people in Andijan. But it was Uzbekistan that made the choice to ask us to leave.
KELEMEN: Russia has since signed a military agreement with the Uzbeks, adding to the sense of resignation among many analysts in Washington that the West has lost Uzbekistan. The Heritage Foundation's Ariel Cohen says Central Asia is a vital region, and the US needs to figure out a way to stay engaged.
Dr. ARIEL COHEN (The Heritage Foundation): There is now ongoing battle for ongoing presence in that part of the world between Russia, China, Pakistan, India and non-state actors, like the global radical Islamic movement.
KELEMEN: Cohen says the US must keep in mind these intricate geopolitical games and find a way to balance its democracy agenda with its strategic interests in the region, this at a time when the US has lost leverage along with the military base. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did go to Central Asia last month to try to shore up America's relationship with Uzbekistan's neighbors. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
ELLIOTT: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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