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With attacks on Afghan supply lines in Pakistan, US turns to Uzbekistan

US rebuilds ties with Central Asian nation to secure new military supply routes.

By C. CollinsContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 4, 2009

Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Desperate for a new military supply route into Afghanistan, the US is quietly rebuilding ties with leaders of this Central Asian nation, despite its grim human rights record.

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The need for a more reliable land link was underscored Tuesday after Taliban militants cut the existing major coalition supply route by blowing up a bridge in northwest Pakistan's Khyber Pass region.

Coalition forces are not in danger of running out of supplies, a NATO spokesman in Afghanistan said. But with 80 percent of all supplies flowing through this largely lawless region of Pakistan and with attacks on convoys increasing, Washington has been moving fast to repair relations with Afghanistan's neighbors.

Uzbekistan evicted the US military in 2005 after Washington and other Western governments called for an inquiry into the reported massacre of hundreds of civilians during a protest in the city of Andijan.

But stalled relations have served neither Uzbekistan nor the West, says US Ambassador Richard Norland. He insists, though, that the US is not turning a blind-eye to human rights abuses.

"Engagement is getting us further both on Afghanistan and on human rights than efforts to sanction and isolate" Uzbekistan, says Mr. Norland.

Further, Norland stressed that the US has no intention of reestablishing a military presence in Uzbekistan.

"I want to be very clear, there are no US bases in Uzbekistan, there are no requests for US bases, there is no offer of US bases, and there are no US [military] personnel" in Uzbekistan, other than a small staff at the embassy's defense attaché office.

Moscow has been anxious over the US presence in Central Asia, but perhaps more fearful of the expansion of Islamic militancy out of Afghanistan into its backyard.

On a recent visit here, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told reporters, "We are ready for full-fledged and equal cooperation on security in Afghanistan, including with the United States."

Uzbekistan's strategic location and its energy resources are important factors in drawing the attention of foreign powers, but so too are the skills of President Islam Karimov, says Alexei Malashenko, of the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "Karimov is a good player."

After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the US stepped forcefully into the region, developing a strong working relationship with Mr. Karimov, the Communist Party chief who became president upon the republic's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.