TASHKENT, Uzbekistan—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.
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.