America’s Uzbekistan Problem
By JOSHUA KUCERA
There is perhaps no country on earth surrounded by more difficult neighbors than Afghanistan. When the U.S. wants to ship matériel to its troops there, it can’t go through Tajikistan because the roads are so poor; it can’t go through Turkmenistan because that country maintains an isolationist neutrality; and, for obvious reasons, it can’t go through Iran.
Until Nov. 26, the U.S. military shipped about a third of its supplies through Pakistan, but after an American attack killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, the country cut off NATO’s access to the border, and there is little indication that officials in Islamabad intend to change their minds. The U.S. military ships another third of its cargo to Afghanistan by air, but that costs so much more than shipping by land that to expand those operations would be prohibitively expensive. That leaves Uzbekistan.
Anticipating problems with Pakistan, Pentagon planners began putting together the Northern Distribution Network, a series of transit routes from Europe through the former Soviet Union. Nearly all of those routes converge at Termez, Uzbekistan, whose sleepy, dusty streets belie its strategic location: 75 percent of the network’s traffic passes through the town and across the Soviet-built “Friendship Bridge” into Afghanistan. Now, the U.S. will have to ship even more military cargo through Uzbekistan, one of Washington’s least likeable allies.
Ruled since the Soviet era by President Islam Karimov, it is the fifth-most corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International, and in Freedom House’s rankings of political and civil freedoms it is tied for last.
“The challenge for the United States is to strike a balance between its short-term, war-fighting needs and long-term interests in promoting a stable, prosperous and democratic Central Asia,” John Kerry wrote in the introduction to a report released on Dec. 19 by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations entitled “Central Asia and the Transition in Afghanistan.”
This is a difficult needle to thread, but Washington has so far largely succeeded. The U.S. has kept the supply lines running while compromising little on its principles. The yearly State Department human rights reports have remained consistently critical, even as military cooperation has blossomed. Human rights advocates in Uzbekistan — a small, beleaguered community — still say that, for the most part, they feel like the U.S. Embassy is an ally.
But this balance is difficult to maintain, and lately there have been signs that America may be wavering. The defense budget authorization act passed on Dec. 15 by Congress removed restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan that had been in place since 2004 because of the country’s odious human rights record. Asked about that decision, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there had been “progress” on human rights and political freedoms, which, while not a realistic assessment of the situation, technically speaking is true.
The Kerry report makes the same claim and as evidence reaches back nearly four years to note only one such bit of progress: that the government began allowing the Red Cross to visit prisoners in 2008. But the overall picture is grim, and, if anything, getting worse.
When Clinton visited Tashkent in October, a State Department official told the reporters accompanying her that “President Karimov commented that he wants to make progress on liberalization and democratization, and he said that he wants to leave a legacy of that for his — both his kids and his grandchildren.” Pressed by an incredulous reporter, the official added, “Yeah. I do believe him.”
This new, more accommodating rhetoric is embarrassing. If Clinton were to say: “No, we don’t agree with how Uzbekistan’s government runs its country. But we need their help in Afghanistan, and so we’re temporarily putting our differences aside,” would anyone object? That is obviously the bargain being struck, and one that few in the U.S. or Uzbekistan would take issue with.
Wikileaked cables reporting on U.S. negotiations with Karimov over the past few years reveal a president who doesn’t seem to care much about how the U.S. sees his government, but just doesn’t want what he calls American “pressure and diktats” to reform.
Though the U.S. has consistently hectored Uzbekistan on human rights over the past two decades, the country has become more oppressive. The U.S.-Uzbekistan military relationship has had its ups and downs — the U.S. operated an air base there from 2001 to 2005 — and through it all, Karimov hasn’t changed.
There is no question that as long as the U.S. is in Afghanistan, it will need to engage with Uzbekistan. But how it chooses to engage can make all the difference. “Achieving our security goals and promoting good governance and human rights are not mutually exclusive,” the Kerry report says. “In fact, security and political engagement are complementary strategies that are more likely to be effective when pursued together.”
The report doesn’t back up that assertion, and in the case of Uzbekistan it plainly isn’t true. No sort of political engagement will work, and the irony is that the more U.S. officials believe it, the more likely they are to compromise their principles. In this case, saying nothing may be the best way for the U.S. to stay true to what it believes.
Joshua Kucera is a freelance reporter based in Washington who writes frequently on Central Asia.