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Future of U.S. Central Asia Bases in Question

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

There have been demands for an international inquiry into May's deadly crackdown against dissidents in Uzbekistan. That situation represents a delicate balancing act for the Bush administration, because over the past few years Uzbekistan has become a strategic ally. Its air bases are used as a launching pad for the war in Afghanistan. Now there are signs that Uzbekistan wants to rethink that arrangement. NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

When military strategists began drawing up plans to go into Afghanistan shortly after 9/11, they were faced with some tricky logistics regarding where to base US forces to launch operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Three of Afghan's closest neighbors, China, Iran and Pakistan, were not options. The US began negotiating with two former Soviet states in Central Asia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, for the use of small air bases from which the US military could shuttle troops, weapons and aid into Afghanistan. This worked for nearly four years and was expected to continue until a statement was suddenly released last week by a group called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which incorporates Russia, China and five Central Asian states, including Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Marvin Ott, a former CIA analyst and a professor at National War College, says the statement by the SCO was very clear.

Mr. MARVIN OTT (National War College): Now that the Taliban had been removed and the situation in Afghanistan was now quite different, that it was time for the US to present a timetable for an end to its presence in these two countries.

NORTHAM: The Bush administration responded, saying that any negotiations about withdrawal had to take place with the host country, not with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Two days later, Uzbekistan issued its own statement, echoing the SCO. A couple of days after that, Kyrgyzstan followed suit.

Andy Hoehn is with the Rand Corporation and is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy from 1998 to 2004. Hoehn says that Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were likely under pressure from Russia and China to push the US military out of the region.

Mr. ANDREW HOEHN (Rand Corporation): Russia and China are--while supportive of US goals on opposing terrorism, have certainly never been comfortable with the presence of US forces in Central Asia. There is a recognition that for a period of time that a temporary US presence is, although not desirable, it's something that they have would have to live with. What they don't want to see is that any arrangements be made permanent.

NORTHAM: Hoehn says the relationship between the US and Uzbekistan has become strained recently after Uzbek forces opened fired on unarmed demonstrators, leaving hundreds of people dead. National War College professor Ott says the Uzbeks were surprised by the harsh criticism leveled by the US, but he says the recent statements may just be posturing.

Mr. OTT: The message from the Uzbeks was, `We are deeply irritated by the sort of a political role you're playing. We think it's time for you to think about packing your bags. But, oh, by the way, if you're willing to write a bigger check, maybe we'll reconsider.'

NORTHAM: The arrangement with the bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were held up as good examples of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's vision for the US military. Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, says that vision involves creating a more agile military with the help of scattered overseas bases that Pentagon officials call lily pads.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (The Brookings Institution): In short, it means a small base. And lily pads, of course, you can't put a lot on them because they'll sink if you do. And so the metaphor here is that you want a base that's politically nimble, that doesn't require a lot of effort to ask a host government for help that it's not comfortable providing.

NORTHAM: And, O'Hanlon, says a base that doesn't require enormous resources.

Mr. O'HANLON: Part of Rumsfeld's thinking--I think he was right on this--is that if you're not sure who's going to kick you out and you're not sure who's going to say yes to allow you access in a future crisis, you want to diversify and you want to minimize your investment in a given place.

NORTHAM: Pentagon officials say that operations would be more difficult and costly if the military lost the Uzbekistan base, but spokesman Lawrence Di Rita indicated that the Pentagon could overcome that problem.

Mr. LAWRENCE Di RITA (Pentagon Spokesman): It happens to be a facility where there's been a great deal of assistance to important operations, but we always have a range of options and there's no one facility that's so critical that we couldn't manage without it.

NORTHAM: Rand Corporation's Hoehn says the Pentagon should view a possible break with Uzbekistan as part of the learning curve in developing its new military posture.

Mr. HOEHN: To a greater or a lesser extent, we're going to have to expect this in the future. These arrangements are--always been seen as something that could be somewhat episodic.

NORTHAM: And, Hoehn says, subject to change depending on the circumstances.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.