Uzbek president calls Afghanistan destabilizing factor

U.S. is welcome to keep using air bases, he says

March 14, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Uzbekistan's president warned yesterday of future instability in neighboring Afghanistan, describing a country where warlords are resurgent, weapons are widespread and hidden al-Qaida and Taliban fighters could re-emerge to cause trouble.

"I personally do not have much optimism about future prospects for Afghanistan," said President Islam A. Karimov, who was in Washington on an official visit that marked a major improvement in his country's relations with the United States.

His former Soviet republic has been a key supporter of the American-led war to topple the Taliban regime and wipe out Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network in Afghanistan, providing an airfield used by U.S. forces to launch operations.

Karimov credited the war with having "saved" his country from Afghan-based extremists and said the "first phase" of the U.S.-led military campaign had been undeniably successful.

But the current effort to bring stability to the country, rebuild it and launch the process of choosing a future government is "much more difficult," he said.

Afghanistan is led by an interim government headed by Hamid Karzai and plans to form a permanent government through a traditional tribal process.

Karimov said his country was "preoccupied" with the question of who would come to power and whether Afghanistan would become a source of future threats to Uzbekistan.

He said warlords, not any central authority, hold the true power in Afghanistan and a "great number of weapons" had been accumulated in the country.

He asked rhetorically where the Taliban and "bandits" tied to al-Qaida had fled and "where will they surface tomorrow."

The United States, he said, "shouldn't lose control" of what it had achieved so far in disrupting al-Qaida.

He said he would not urge the United States to participate in an international peacekeeping force, now operating in the Afghan capital, Kabul, but instead conduct "special operations" when needed.

He said American forces were welcome to continue using bases in Uzbekistan for as long as necessary to conduct the war on terrorism and said his country would consider cooperation that went beyond a military agreement reached with the Pentagon.

But he added that Uzbekistan, unlike the former Soviet republic of Georgia, does not need any U.S. help quelling insurgencies inside the country.

Karimov's crackdowns on opponents have drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups and from the United States.

The State Department's latest human-rights report describes Uzbekistan as an "authoritarian state" with a "very poor" record on rights.

It described deaths in police custody as well as torture, beatings and harassment. Karimov's election and re-election were neither free nor fair, the report said.

Karimov acknowledged that "we do have problems with human rights" and said, "I feel obliged to respect" the State Department report. An agreement reached with the United States commits Uzbekistan to improve its human rights, he said.

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