Trump meets with Uzbekistan president to talk Afghanistan

President Donald Trump meets Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, May 16, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and the leader of Uzbekistan pledged a close partnership on trade and military ties on Wednesday, as the two leaders conferred on the country's strategic position near Afghanistan.

Trump welcomed President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to the Oval Office for the first time and nodded as the Uzbekistan leader credited the U.S. president for "achieving very outstanding results" in job creation and last year's tax overhaul. Trump cupped his hands along the side of his mouth, leaned toward his counterpart and said, "I agree 100 percent."

The Uzbek president, who came to power in 2016 following the death of the country's longtime autocratic ruler, Islam Karimov, hailed a "new era for strategic partnership" between the two countries.

Uzbekistan shares a short border with Afghanistan and provides a crucial supply route for U.S. forces based in the country. The two leaders were expected to discuss the situation in Afghanistan as the U.S. aims to bring the Taliban to the peace table.

Mirziyoyev has promoted gradual liberal changes in the Central Asian country of about 33 million. He has shed some of the repressive legacies of his predecessor, releasing some political prisoners, lifting restrictions on foreign currency exchange and ordering an end to the practice of compulsory cotton-harvesting work for students and others criticized by human rights groups.

Mirziyoyev has reshuffled the government, removing many old-guard officials, most recently the chief of the nation's national security agency.

White House officials said in advance of the meeting that Trump would raise human rights conditions but neither leader addressed the subject during brief remarks to reporters.

Russia, China and the U.S. all have vied for influence over Uzbekistan, a resource-rich and strategically placed country that provides the so-called Northern Distribution Network for the U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Mirziyoyev has sought to maintain friendly ties with Russia while moving to expand ties with the West. His trip to Washington was expected to offer clues about how far he's ready to go to open up to the U.S.

Trump said the two nations had forged strong ties on trade and the military, pointing to Uzbekistan's "purchase of equipment and military equipment from the United States." Mirziyoyev told reporters his country had signed contracts with leading U.S. companies worth $5 billion.

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Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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On Twitter follow Ken Thomas at https://twitter.com/KThomasDC

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