President Islam Karimov agreed during a meeting of the country's top security officials on Monday to open Uzbekistan's airspace to U.S. military operations. Uzbekistan, he said, wants to "make its own contribution to the liquidation of camps and bases of terrorists in Afghanistan and is ready to make its airspace available for this purpose."
"Uzbekistan supports the decisiveness of the United States and all peace-loving nations to finish this evil and plague of the 21st Century," state television quoted Karimov as saying.
Despite reports to the contrary, the Uzbek government said American forces have not landed in Uzbekistan. They are not on their way. They can fly through Uzbek airspace, but they have not been granted permission to use Uzbek airbases for military actions in neighboring Afghanistan.
Many Uzbeks fear voicing anything that falls outside the government's line. Most simply want the official line to be true. Afraid that a military attack in Afghanistan could spark a war across mostly Muslim Central Asia, Uzbeks do not want to play host to American warplanes.
"Uzbekistan has chosen its way as an independent country," said Saber Turbiyev, a foreign affairs specialist with state television who pores over his every spoken word on the lookout for a remotely critical thought. "There should not be any outside military forces. And no outside politicians should be here either."
Such wishes may not count for much. A nation of 25 million that rarely gets noticed by the world at large, Uzbekistan is potentially a key partner as the United States moves against Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization in Afghanistan.
With Russia having dropped most objections, Uzbekistan and some of its Central Asian neighbors are considering opening to U.S. forces the same airstrips and hangars that accommodated Soviet warplanes only a decade ago.
Covert landings reported
Though neither the United States nor Uzbekistan has confirmed it, civilian and military sources in Uzbekistan have said that at least three U.S. airplanes carrying surveillance equipment and other material have landed since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Other reports, also unconfirmed, said a U.S. transport plane had landed and taken off from Khanabad, the largest and best-maintained of Uzbekistan's military air bases.
If they come, the Americans will find that runways need repair, equipment needs updating and fuel stocks need replenishing.
They also would find a region racked by instability and poverty. Ethnic, religious and ideological conflicts burst into violence. Authoritarian governments rule the day.
Kremlin still an influence
Independence is a fact of life for all five Central Asian states: Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. But Moscow meddles to varying degrees in each country, eager to maintain its strong influence over a part of the world that Russia ruled long before the Soviet Union came into being.
The region's mostly secular governments also face challenges from Islamic extremists. Some of these groups are quite violent. Some are trained in Afghanistan, supported by the Taliban and committed to the Taliban way of life.
The three Central Asian nations least likely to play a direct role in any U.S. military action are Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan and Turkmenistan.
Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan may be willing, but they do not border Afghanistan and are less suitable militarily.
Turkmenistan has 450 miles of border with the Taliban-ruled nation, but it might be too inhospitable a place to send American forces. President Saparmurad Niyazov has adopted the title Turkmenbashi, or Head of the Turkmen, and has constructed one of the most repressive states this side of North Korea.
Even Turkmenbashi, however, is leery of tangling with the Taliban. He has adopted an official policy of neutrality.
Tajikistan could be a particularly useful place for U.S. forces. American officials have visited the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, to discuss how that might work. Dushanbe's civilian airport has been floated as a possibility, but no firm offer, acceptance or rejection has been made public.
Tajikistan has a 650-mile border with Afghanistan, some of which butts up to territory controlled by the Northern Alliance, the motley but determined anti-Taliban opposition. Tajikistan also has several former Soviet air and infantry bases. Russia's 25,000 troops in Tajikistan keep the bases going, even if those bases are not exactly up-to-date.
But Tajikistan is a mess. All that is wrong with the region is found in abundance there.
Tajikistan's 6 million people are the poorest of any of the 15 nations that arose from the breakup of the Soviet Union. Drug trafficking, and the killings and kidnappings that come with it, is either a national scourge or accounts for the whole national economy, depending on how one looks at it. Opium pouring out of Afghanistan fuels the trade.
Much of the mountainous nation is basically lawless. The U.S. Embassy left Tajikistan in 1998, relocating to Kazakstan. Basing American troops and aircraft there would be a significant security risk.
The Tajik government, meanwhile, is both authoritarian and tremendously divided.
A civil war that left about 50,000 people dead was ended only by a 1997 peace agreement sharing power between secular hard-liners from one region and Islamic fundamentalist hard-liners from another.
There are also conflicts between the states. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the other prime would-be host for U.S. forces, do not get along.
Uzbekistan considers Tajikistan a Russian satellite and looks warily upon all those Russian troops. Both nations accuse each other of harboring rebels intent on overthrowing the other's government.
All the region's nations, to varying degrees, share a distrust of Russia. The Taliban scares most of them witless. But they cannot turn this shared antipathy into any kind of regional solidarity.
An Uzbek needs a visa to travel among the various Central Asian nations, for example. A Russian does not.
These are all signs of a regional instability that Uzbekistan insists must be dealt with by using the firmest measures.
Uzbek dissenters disappear
Human-rights groups and Western nations have criticized Karimov for all but outlawing any Islamic religious activity that falls outside the government-approved version. Opposition groups, religious or secular, are lumped in with Islamic extremists. Dissenters disappear, or end up dead, at the hands of state security.
"We are losing some of the myths that a society builds on," said Bakhadyr Musayev, a Tashkent political analyst. "One of those myths is that a better day awaits. People are losing that hope.
"The Uzbek leadership is just going for stability and is sacrificing all other aspects for its sake," Musayev said. "Stability does not necessarily promote economic reform. Uzbekistan needs economic reform."
Even some critics of Karimov's economic and political stewardship, however, support his tough line on Islamic extremism. They say the extremists are ruthless, as shown by a 1999 attempt on Karimov's life. They are exploiting Uzbekistan's poverty, its corruption and its inability to find a place in the global economy.
"Some like the idea of a war," said Marfua Tokhtahadjayeva, who heads a women's rights group that the government hassles but tolerates. "They are hoping that a war would provide them the power to change the government.
"Not me, though. Whatever the present government might be, it is secular," she said. "The only chance for us to live in a secular society is under the present leader."
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