Why did the U.S. send millions to a dictator who kicked us out?
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.
Nathan Hodge has reported extensively from Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East.
Photographs by Nathan Hodge.