MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Pyotr Goncharov) - The United States is losing its best base for continuing the anti-terror operation in Afghanistan - Karshi-Khanabad - situated in south-eastern Uzbekistan in direct proximity to the area of fighting.
American troops are to leave Uzbekistan without any chance of return. Late last Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Fried told a news conference in Tashkent that his talks with President Islam Karimov failed to produce the desired result. Karimov was adamant in his demands and American troops are forced to leave without any further talks. Karshi-Khanabad will revert to Uzbek control by the end of the year.
Uzbekistan was the first among Central Asian republics to provide its territory for an American military base in September 2001 as part of a U.S. anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan, later joined by other coalition forces. But in May Tashkent demanded an immediate closure of the base.
Tashkent's official explanation is that the active phase of the operation in Afghanistan for which the base was furnished, supposedly by agreement of the sides, is now over and it is time to withdraw. Tashkent was seconded by other Shanghai Cooperation Organization members, which made similar proposals to the U.S. - so far.
Understandably, Karimov's decision was made in response to Washington's attitude to developments in Andizhan. Tashkent sensed the U.S. was insincere in its request for an international probe. Tashkent intimated it had information that certain staff members of the American embassy had a finger in Andizhan events where Uzbek authorities had to use firearms.
There is also a lot of other, trustworthy, information that the rebellion in Andizhan does not fit in with the description of "a civilian revolt against a repressive regime." Certainly Washington made a mistake in being overcategorical in its assertions. And paid for it.
But, putting aside the Andizhan developments, there is one thing worth mentioning -- how well did the active phase of the operation in Afghanistan neutralize the Taliban, Hekmatyar and Al-Qaeda militants, and will the U.S. and the coalition it leads find an equivalent replacement for Khanabad?
It is highly doubtful. To begin with, the only American base now remaining in Central Asia and deployed in Kyrgyzstan, near its international airport Manas, will clearly be unable to act as a "staging airfield", or a halfway house alone. The Manas aerodrome, as it happens, is overstretched. Residents from the nearby villages of Razdolnoye, Mramornoye, Vasilyevka and others say they cannot sleep because of the continuing din of aircraft. The Greens have already taken note of the base - which they claim is out of tune with the environment.
Afghanistan is also unlikely to provide a worthwhile replacement. In the opinion of representatives of the local military and political establishment, whom I met during my recent trip to Kabul, the only base in Afghanistan which could substitute for Khanabad is the aerodrome in Shindand. But it is located in the zone of "military instability" and the U.S., although it has inspected it carefully, is cautious about using it.
The airport in Kandahar is not suitable for the same considerations. The two remaining airports in Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat draw skeptical comments from the Americans themselves for a variety of factors. Herat is close to Iran and has pro-Iranian sections of the population. In Mazar-i-Sharif the airfield has a limited capacity. Then again one cannot dismiss traditionally friendly relations between this northern province of Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
In regards to the Taliban, Hekmatyar and Al-Qaeda, recent Afghan parliamentary elections have shown they have stepped up their operations in the south-eastern, southern and south-western provinces. Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai was forced to admit that in the first eight months of this year Afghan losses from the Taliban and their likes totaled more than a thousand people. There were no such losses in previous years. The Karzai administration has long been suggesting the coalition's forces and the international security assistance force be increased and given broader responsibilities. With Central Asian bases lost, the U.S. will be facing a lot of problems.