BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan—In a small apartment on Erkinbek Street in downtown Bishkek, the mood was downbeat.
Earlier that day, Kudrat Babadjanov and Tulkin Karaev, two Uzbek journalists, had received word that they might be granted political asylum in Sweden. Back in July, the two men fled to Kyrgyzstan from Uzbekistan. At home, they had faced threats and intimidation—and, in the case of Karaev, arrest—for reporting on events in Andijan, where Uzbek government forces killed hundreds of unarmed protesters on May 13.
"Living in Sweden would be like going into retirement," Babadjanov sighed. "We can't work as reporters there."
"You're the third person to congratulate me today, but I don't feel particularly happy," Karaev added gloomily.
Babadjanov and Karaev had hoped to wait things out in Kyrgyzstan. Confident the regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov is not long for the world, they want to be in the region when it topples, even though there had been warnings it was not safe for them to stay in Bishkek.
But the men's greatest source of frustration was not Uzbekistan's dismal human rights record or even their uncertain future in exile. Why, they asked, did the United States insist on paying Karimov for the use of an Uzbek military base?
Less than a month after Sept. 11, 2001, the United States secured the rights to use Karshi Khanabad, a former Soviet aerodrome in southern Uzbekistan. Karshi Khanabad—known in the inevitable military shorthand as "K2"—became a major logistics hub for military operations; it also served as a base for Air Force search and rescue operations. The first major contingent of U.S. ground troops from the 10th Mountain Division arrived there in October 2001.
It was an arrangement of convenience. If one accepts the argument that fighting terrorism abroad requires a new network of bases, then cutting deals with some unsavory regimes is a necessary evil. And if that means turning a blind eye to the occasional show trial or ignoring reports of torture, so be it. After all, we had a war to prosecute.
"When the United States operated the base, Karimov was your No. 1 friend," Karaev said.
That logic collapsed, however, after the Andijan massacre. After calls from the United States and other countries for an independent investigation, Karimov retaliated. His government told the United States to quit K2 within six months.
The last warplane departed K2 on Nov. 21. But in a final gesture, on Nov. 14 the Pentagon made a $22.9 million payment to the Uzbek government for the use of the base. Among other things, this "coalition support" payment reimbursed Uzbekistan for fuel, security, repair, and construction of facilities.
Paying a dictator who was evicting U.S. troops was, to put it mildly, perverse. But it's even more mystifying for an administration that often measures foreign governments by their cooperation in the war on terror.
The explanation? Apparently, it was pure bureaucratic momentum. In a lengthy e-mail, a Defense Department spokesperson explained that Gordon England, acting deputy secretary of defense, approved payment for K2 back in late July. The payment then went "through the interagency"—in other words, it required concurrence from the State Department and consultation with the Office of Management and Budget, as well as a 15-day congressional notification-and-wait period.
The e-mail also spelled out the lengthy process the Defense Department used for evaluating Uzbekistan's claimed costs. The U.S. Embassy in Tashkent and U.S. Central Command both signed off on the level of payment.
But lost amid all this information was any explanation of why the United States government continued to move forward with this payment once it was clear Karimov intended to kick U.S. forces out.
Legislators had, in fact, moved to stop the payment. In October, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced an amendment to the fiscal 2006 defense appropriations bill that would have prohibited the payment of funds from the U.S. Treasury to Uzbekistan for one year. The Senate passed the amendment, but the bill was not completed by the time the payment went through.
"The decision was taken unanimously at the highest government levels to pay because we did not want to set a bad precedent," a senior State Department official told Reuters after the payment was made. "We have to pay our bills for services rendered."
Perhaps part of this concern about precedents had something to do with neighboring Kyrgyzstan. After Uzbekistan issued its eviction notice to the United States, the military shifted much of the K2 logistics operation to Manas Air Base, an airfield about 20 miles outside the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. Other military assets were moved to Bagram Airfield, the hub of U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
Air Force Col. Randy Kee, the commander of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing at Manas, said the Kyrgyz base is now the "primary logistics hub" for Operation Enduring Freedom. Manas—informally known as Ganci, in honor of New York Fire Department Chief Peter Ganci, killed on Sept. 11—is a tidy collection of tents, dormitories, and temporary buildings adjacent to Kyrgyzstan's main civilian airport.
Manas is conveniently located: Bagram is about two hours' flying time from there. But much as in Uzbekistan, getting permission to set up a base in Kyrgyzstan has meant turning a blind eye to bad behavior.
In negotiating the use of Manas in late 2001, the Pentagon accepted an arrangement to buy jet fuel from companies connected to Askar Akayev, who was president of Kyrgyzstan at the time. In a recent investigative report, the New York Times documented how two firms, Manas International Services and Aalam Services, were paid tens of millions of dollars to supply jet fuel to the U.S. military. Manas International was part-owned by Aydar Akayev, the president's son; the president's son-in-law had a stake in Aalam.
What's a little graft when there's a war to fight? The problem is: Akayev was ousted this spring, and the Kyrgyz government now wants to recoup some of the money it believes was siphoned off under his rule.
The base-payment issue has placed a big question mark over access to Manas. The Kyrgyz government has recently ratcheted up the pressure in negotiations over the base; in addition to claiming that it has been underpaid, it claims emergency fuel dumping is ruining the environment around the base.
Air Force officials say fuel dumping is an uncommon practice that follows strict guidelines. But the residents of a village near the airport say it has ruined their orchards and vegetable gardens. In the past, the Kyrgyz government had downplayed such claims; but now "environmental compensation" figures in negotiations.
Of course, the $22.9 million recently paid for services at K2 is a piddling sum in Pentagon terms: It won't even buy a decent fraction of an F/A-22 Raptor fighter aircraft. But it's serious money in this part of the world. Average pay in Bishkek is $50 or $60 per month; Manas provides some well-paying jobs in an economy that is otherwise dependent on foreign aid.
But it wasn't the money that had Karaev and Babadjanov so incensed.
"They [the United States] kept their eyes closed to human rights abuses in Uzbekistan while they had the base, and now they have been forced out, they are critical again," Babadjanov said. "It's hypocrisy."