A palpable sense of urgency is evident in the US military buildup in Uzbekistan. But because of Uzbek sensitivities about its role in the anti-terrorism campaign, US officials remain tight-lipped on the nature of military cooperation between Tashkent and Washington.
US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who just completed a quick tour of Central Asian states, became agitated during a November 4 meeting with reporters when pressed for details on US operations in Uzbekistan. He steadfastly insisted that the United States would leave it to Uzbek authorities to elaborate on the nature of military cooperation. So far, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has not provided specifics.
"We solicit it [this cooperation], appreciate it and we value it, and we allow those countries [including Uzbekistan] to characterize the kind of assistance they're providing rather than our trying to characterize it," Rumsfeld told reporters in Tashkent. Explaining the operational reason for the US position, he added: "We need help in lots of ways and on a basis that they [countries participating in the effort against terrorism] feel comfortable with."
Rumsfeld categorically refused to provide details, and appeared to cut the press briefing short when reporters continued to seek information on specific US troop deployments in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian nations.
"Instead of me running around characterizing for them, what they think they ought to do or what they are doing, and then having it being said in a way or printed in the press in a way that is one
degree different from the way that they characterize it and cause a problem -- all that will do is make it more difficult," he said.
Some observers believe Karimov has maintained silence about US-Uzbek military cooperation out of concern that broad public disclosure could exacerbate opposition to his administration among Uzbekistan's Muslims. The Uzbek leadership has cracked down on freedom of expression and religious expression, and has battled an insurgency waged by the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Discontent with Karimov's government is reportedly highest in the Ferghana Valley.
Rumsfeld downplayed the idea that his visit to Uzbekistan reflected a US desire to intensify its military buildup in Uzbekistan. He cautioned against making such assumptions.
Uzbek Minister of Defense Kodir Gulyamov said that the terms of US-Uzbek cooperation agreed upon on October 5th, during Mr. Rumsfeld's previous visit, had not changed. At that time, Uzbekistan agreed to permit the US to conduct humanitarian assistance operations and search and rescue missions from its territory. Tashkent also granted US armed forces access to the Uzbek airbase in Khanabad.
Josh Machleder is the country director for Internews in Uzbekistan.