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.

The biggest reason why the U.S. government has been pushing the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) trade route through Central Asia for well over three years is so that it can develop an alternative to the Pakistani supply lines. And Uzbekistan is the only other country bordering Afghanistan with access to Eurasian railways and a reasonably high-volume rail network.

Neither Tajikistan nor Turkmenistan have the infrastructure or geography (or politics!) to support a U.S. supply line into Afghanistan. And China's only border with the country is way up at the tail end of the Wakkhan Corridor, with the nearest city as isolated as Kashgar -- that's hardly an option either. Nowhere else has the equivalent of Termez, right over the border from Mazar-i Sharif. Which means Uzbekistan.

It's not hard to see why people would object to Uzbekistan's human rights record -- it is atrocious, and there is no excuse for it. If all we look at was Uzbekistan's human rights record, it would seem like madness to "reward" Uzek President Islam Karimov's regime with military training and equipment. But the reality of Security Assistance or SA, as it's known, is actually more complex.

Recent studies have indicated that SA arrangements lead to an increased professionalism (pdf) in a host country's security forces. Look at Egypt, where U.S.-trained professionalism is widely credited, at least partially, with the military's decision not to open fire on the protesters at Tahrir Square earlier this year. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of SA as a cure-all for unprofessional and abusive security services, but the value SA can provide shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

When it comes to improving the situation in Uzbekistan, there are almost no options left. International isolation only made things worse -- the country is now more repressive and less respectful of human rights than it was in 2004, the last year the U.S. and EU maintained extensive contacts with the regime. Blanket engagement did not work very well, either, but the human rights situation there never got this bad.

The human rights community might want to consider whether it is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. I don't think Uzbekistan has any prospects at all for turning into a model country, even if its elderly dictator Karimov dies and a new regime, devoid of his family members, takes over. The Western narrative of the repression in Uzbekistan has become overly personalized in Karimov himself (and his daughters). As a result, people tend to lose sight of the larger, systemic problem behind that family, driven by a class of elites at the top of Uzbek society.

When dealing with a system we lack the means to topple or significantly change, maybe the best we can hope for is marginal improvement. Over time, small improvements in Uzbekistan's human rights record could add up for its people. And maybe small improvements are all we can hope for at this point.

From two perspectives, the U.S. partnership with Uzbekistan makes sense: it is a far better choice of transit country than Pakistan, and this partnership at least has a small chance of maybe improving things a bit. That's not the same thing as selling out to a vicious thug. Sometimes there are no perfect choices, only degrees of imperfect ones. A security partnership with Uzbekistan is one of those imperfect choices.

A version of this post appeared at Registan.net