Petraeus knocks on Uzbekistan's door as Kyrgyz base gets the boot

With spring fighting season just around the corner in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan increasingly dangerous, the US is moving fast to find a more stable military supply route to the battlefield.

The top US commander in Central Asia and the Middle East, Gen. David Petraeus, met with Uzbekistan's president Wednesday, according to the Financial Times. The sole northern rail link into Afghanistan crosses Uzbekistan's border.

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, US Ambassador Richard Norland told the Monitor recently (see story here). 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.

Petraeus's visit to Uzbekistan comes as the US military faces eviction from nearby Kyrgyzstan. On Thursday the Kyrgyz Parliament overwhelmingly approved a proposal by their president to close a large US air base. In a story earlier this month, Pentagon officials told the Monitor that the base is important, but not critical to the war effort.

"While we value the relationship and the arrangements, the United States would certainly be able to continue operations in Afghanistan if we did not have that facility," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

Nonetheless, the move comes as the Obama administration announced Wednesday that 17,000 additional US troops would be deployed to Afghanistan, according to a Monitor story published Wednesday. About 55,000 NATO troops serve in Afghanistan now, about half of whom are Americans.

Currently, about 15,000 people and 500 tons of cargo pass through the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan each month, Mr. Whitman said. About 1,000 troops, most of them American, but some from France and Spain, are assigned to the base. The base was also used to transport relief supplies to Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake there.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the US stepped forcefully into the region, setting up air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to support operations in Afghanistan. Strains in the relationship developed after Uzbekistan grew weary of US demands for political and economic reforms.

Earlier this month, when Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced closure of the Manas base, he indicated that he did not agree with US aims in Afghanistan. The country's prime minister said, however, that the closure of the base would not preclude nonmilitary cargo from being shipped into Afghanistan, which is landlocked.

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