WASHINGTON President Barack Obama and Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov discussed expanding U.S. use of the central Asian country as a route to supply troops in Afghanistan, a U.S. official said on Thursday, amid growing concern about the viability of Pakistan as a transit route.
The White House said Obama called Karimov on Wednesday to congratulate the former Soviet republic on its 20th anniversary of independence and that the leaders talked about shared interests in a "secure and prosperous" Afghanistan.
Obama's outreach to Karimov, whose has faced U.S. criticism over his human rights record, came as the United States and Pakistan are locked in a diplomatic crisis over U.S. accusations linking Pakistan's chief intelligence agency to militant attacks on Americans in Afghanistan.
Rising tension between Washington and Islamabad, at times awkward partners in the fight against Islamic militancy, have raised questions about Pakistan's role as a major U.S. supply route for American forces fighting in Afghanistan.
That has sent U.S. officials scrambling to consider expanding alternatives to lessen reliance on Pakistan.
A senior Obama administration official said the use of Uzbek territory, which already serves as a key supply route for U.S. war supplies, was an "important topic of discussion" between Obama and Karimov.
On Capitol Hill, U.S. senators have also made a clear push for improving ties with Uzbekistan so that more supplies can be moved to and from Afghanistan through the "Northern Distribution Network" that goes through Uzbekistan.
U.S. lawmakers have become increasingly strident in criticism of Pakistan since last week when the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, accused Pakistani officials of supporting the militant Haqqani network's September 13 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
U.S. aid to Pakistan is now under review.
The Senate Appropriations Committee last week approved a bill that would allow the United States to waive restrictions on aid to Uzbekistan if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certifies this is needed to obtain access to and from Afghanistan.
Those restrictions had been placed on aid to Uzbekistan out of concern over its human rights record. The measure must still be approved by the full House of Representatives and Senate.
"We're going to probably replace 50 percent of what we ship into Afghanistan from Pakistan, will go through the northern route, Uzbekistan," Senator Lindsey Graham, who is on the committee, told Reuters this week.
"I expect a major breakthrough between us and the Uzbeks in terms of ground and air access," Graham said.
Karimov has kept a firm state grip on the economy of Uzbekistan, which has reserves of natural gas and is a major producer of cotton and gold.
A former top Communist Party official, Karimov tolerates no dissent in the mostly Muslim nation of 28 million people, the most populous in Central Asia.
No opposition parties are allowed, the media is tightly controlled and rights groups say thousands of political prisons are in jails rife with torture. Karimov's unflinching style has also caused tension with Uzbekistan's neighbors.
(Additional reporting by John O'Callaghan; Editing by Will Dunham)