Deal With a Dictator

Getting supplies to Afghanistan may be worth cozying up to Uzbekistan—for now.

The city of Termez, on the banks of the Amu Darya River separating Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, has two distinctions: it is very strategic, and very, very warm—with summer temperatures over 120 degrees, which explains why the Greeks who settled it in the days of Alexander the Great named it, like thermos, after the Greek word for “hot.”

Termez last saw prominence in 1979, when Soviet tanks and troops massed there before crossing the so-called Friendship Bridge on their way into Afghanistan. A decade later, it was on the route of the Soviets’ final, ignominious retreat.

Today, Termez is again a staging ground. This time, it is the key node in the Northern Distribution Network, which the Pentagon has built to reduce NATO’s reliance on dangerous supply routes through Pakistan. The United States now ships about 35 percent of its Afghanistan matériel via Termez, and so far not one convoy has been attacked.

But this new route has its own pitfalls: it brings the United States uncomfortably close to one of the planet’s most brutal dictators, Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, whose 21-year rule has been marked by massacres of civilian protesters, widespread torture, and the imprisonment of thousands of political prisoners.

Termez’s dusty freight yards show little evidence of a U.S. presence, which is exactly Washington’s intention. The Pentagon is using, as much as possible, local freight companies to ship goods. This subcontracting dovetails neatly with what Uzbekistan wants. While some countries, like Georgia and Azerbaijan, see the distribution network as a way to strengthen their security ties, Uzbekistan has made clear that its primary interest is in making money, says Andrew Kuchins, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Uzbek officials “want to see much more happening on local procurement and us being more flexible on that,” he says.

“Business and state power are basically the same thing here,” says one journalist based in the capital of Tashkent who is well connected within the government and also friendly with the country’s beleaguered opposition. He talked freely with me about various internal intrigues, but when I asked about who might be profiting from the freight business, he clammed up. “You have to ask the Americans,” he said. “All I can tell you is, it’s impossible to do business clean here. And this transit is filling the budget of Uzbekistan.” A partial list of local operators, provided by the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, includes Fifth Millenium Networks, a former subsidiary of Zeromax, a huge holding company for state-owned businesses that is believed to have close ties to Karimov’s daughter.

Uzbekistan’s national railroad company has a $120 million contract to build a railroad from Termez to Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO soldiers protect the company’s workers. That business has further implicated the United States in Karimov’s abuses. The National Security Service, Uzbekistan’s successor to the KGB and the government’s strongest instrument of repression, demands a huge bribe for each railcar that passes along the railroad to Termez, says Nigara Khidoyatova, a human-rights activist in Tashkent. Khidoyatova knows firsthand how brutal the government can be: her husband was shot and killed in 2005, and she holds the Uzbek security services responsible.

Khidoyatova told me she still counts the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent as one of her strongest allies, and credits its diplomats for winning the release (in November 2009) from prison of one of her allies, Sanjar Umarov. Yet she also says that the Americans have become “passive” about the human-rights situation in Uzbekistan since the new freight route started up, and that the embassy’s cooperation with nongovernmental organizations has declined.

But like many liberals in Uzbekistan, Khidoyatova is afraid of undue Russian influence, and of the potential for radical Islam to spill over from Afghanistan; both are checked by the U.S. military presence. “I understand that the situation in Afghanistan is very difficult. And we don’t want the U.S. to leave Central Asia,” she says. “They have different priorities in Uzbekistan now, but maybe in the future our time will come again.”