Why the U.S. Should Work With Uzbekistan

The United States has few good options in Central Asia, and maybe Uzbekistan, for all its faults, is the least bad of them

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Uzbek President Islam Karimov / Reuters

The U.S. inked a new deal with the government of Uzbekistan last week.

The Obama administration has pushed for, and the US Congress is poised to pass, a law allowing the United States to give Uzbekistan aid to buy equipment for its military, known as Foreign Military Financing (FMF). Such financing for Tashkent has been suspended since 2004 because of concern over the Central Asian nation's record on human rights.

This is sparking worry and concern in the human rights community. The International Crisis Group, for example, is spearheading a letter-writing campaign regarding the questionable ethics of the policy:

We, the undersigned organizations, deplore the recent move to provide direct security assistance to one of the world's most repressive governments. We call on you to stand behind your strong past statements regarding human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, including those made on the eve of your visit to Tashkent last December to meet with President Islam Karimov. We strongly urge you to oppose passage of the law and not to invoke this waiver. Furthermore, we call on you to publicly reiterate the serious concerns the US government has regarding Uzbekistan's abysmal human rights record.

But this letter is shortsighted. In an ideal world we could wish away the war in Afghanistan and make sure every country in the region knows we are deeply displeased with their human rights violations, but in the real world people must make difficult choices. They have to prioritize. And the deal in Uzbekistan is meant to satisfy one purpose only: Afghanistan.

Right now, most of the supplies heading into Afghanistan still must go through Pakistan. And Pakistan, as we all know, is a horrific supporter of international terrorism: the Taliban, the Haqqanis, AQ Khan's global nuclear proliferation network, most of the groups in Kashmir, even, potentially, the Uighurs. In country after country in Central and South Asia, the terrorism leads to Pakistan.

Pakistan is able to get away with its intransigence for three reasons:

  1. It has nuclear weapons. This is something no one can change, and it is a near-perfect safeguard against any retaliation by India, and against most forms of intervention by the United States or the international community.
  2. Geography matters. Both Pakistan and Iran contain the most efficient routes from Afghanistan to the nearest coast. Again, in a world of reality Iran is a non-option, which leaves us Pakistan.
  3. Pakistan is essential to regional peace. Because of its nuclear weapons and its geography, and also its direct sponsorship of international terrorism, the Pakistani government can play a unique role in the eventual peace of South Asia. No one has yet figured out how to make it do that, but it is nevertheless important if only as a veto power.

Taken together, these three reasons explain why the U.S. chose to work with Pakistan, rather than around it. It was better, or so it seemed in 2001, to help the Pakistani Army's shipping and trucking businesses with ISAF transit fees, and use that to try to get the government to even out its policies. Furthermore, maintaining free and open access for the government agents, military officials, and intelligence agencies made keeping track of everything much easier. Plus, when it wanted to, Islamabad could mysteriously find a very important terrorist, like Khaled Sheikh Muhammed, and hand him over to U.S. interrogators. It seemed awesome.

America's dysfunctional relationship with Pakistan is no longer awesome. It looks more like that of a drug dealer and an addict than two countries warily working toward some common goal. But so long as the U.S. war in Afghanistan relies on Pakistani supply lines, Washington's hands are tied. It can't risk cutting off U.S. troops, and Pakistan knows this. So, Washington has little choice but to find an alternative.

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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