In U.S.-Uzbekistan Military Relations, How Big A Factor Is Money?
The question of what motivates Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, is key to U.S. policy in Central Asia, which relies heavily on Uzbekistan as a staging ground for military equipment being shipped to Afghanistan. What does Karimov want in return for his cooperation for this Northern Distribution Network? The most plausible explanation is that he is looking for some sort of geopolitical support against Russia, and the military equipment that the U.S. is in the process of giving Uzbekistan is meant as an explicit symbol of that support.
This is in marked contrast to Uzbekistan's neighbors Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, who by all accounts are just out for money, and see military cooperation with foreign countries as a cash cow. Karimov, for all his faults, is generally believed to be relatively uncorrupt (his daughters, of course, are a different story...)
But might Karimov be more motivated by money than we usually think? A reader passes on a very interesting report, which I missed when it was first released (yes, in 2006). The report discusses the fate of the Karshi-Khanabad air base that the U.S. operated in the early years of the war in Afghanistan. And the experience of K2 is probably our best look into what Karimov wants, and doesn't want, out of his military ties with the U.S.
The report, Anatomy of a Crisis: U.S.-Uzbekistan Relations, 2001-2005, is co-authored by Fred Starr, and published by the think tank he heads, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute. Starr has good relations with Karimov and his government, as well as with key members of the Bush administration managing Central Asia policy during those years, like former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. And the report seems heavily sourced from both sides. And the portrait that emerges is that Karimov, above all else, wanted the kind of financial support that Kyrgyzstan was getting for its hosting of the Manas air base. According to this account, even the international reaction to the massacre at Andijan was a minor issue, and only served to exacerbate tensions that were already there.
By the end of 2003 Tashkent began hinting broadly at some sort of programmed remuneration for the U.S. use of Khanabad. The German government had previously agreed to significant payments for its use of Termez airfield in southern Uzbekistan as Berlin took over the mantle of leadership for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). As well, the apparent wealth Uzbekistan’s neighbors in Kyrgyzstan were able to acquire through leasing portions of Bishkek’s civilian airport to the Coalition was not lost on Karimov and his military advisors as they attempted to finance military reform and modernize aging Soviet era equipment and infrastructure.... In blunt terms, the Ministry of Defense needed money and Khanabad was a potential cash cow.
But instead, the U.S. had to cut military aid to Uzbekistan, because of Congressionally imposed restrictions aimed at Karimov's human rights record.
The fact that the Kyrgyz President, Askar Akayev, was understood to be profiting financially through his son-in-law’s management of the Bishkek airport at Manas was not considered part of the issue from the U.S. perspective. However, Krygyz remuneration was very important to the Uzbeks, who understood perfectly well the nature of such business operations in Central Asia. The Kyrgyz President was making significant revenue, while not committing politically to the U.S. as heavily as the Uzbeks. In private meetings, Uzbek officials regularly mentioned financial windfalls by Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan as examples of a seeming double standard for the U.S Karimov doubtless felt himself looking like the fool to his neighbors, while being used by the Americans.
Karimov even wrote a letter to President Bush, asking him to go over the head of Congress:
In the spring of 2003 President Karimov addressed a personal letter to President Bush requesting economic assistance. It is possible he felt this letter would allow him to get his issues around the State Department, and would be more productive than trying to work through the certification issues Congress had implemented. Perhaps he was mirror-imaging his own situation in power onto the U.S. President: In Uzbekistan, if the legislature becomes problematic (and it does not), then President Karimov has a great deal of latitude in simply making decrees, financial or otherwise. Did Karimov feel that Bush could override Congress and find some source of money for economic assistance that went around the congressional and State Department bureaucracies? In any event, Karimov eventually received a negative personal response from President Bush in which he cited the need for real reforms, shattering hopes the Uzbek President may have held for a personal relationship to override the political realities in Washington. The response also elicited Karimov’s frustration in that he did not see his economic reforms as insufficient or badly executed. This was perhaps the first real event to cause both Karimov and the Uzbek elites in his government to begin questioning the nature of the relationship between the two strategic partners.
The fact that he wasn't getting paid hurt Karimov's legitimacy in the eyes of Uzbekistan's elites, the report argues:
Among Uzbek elites whom Karimov relied upon for political standing it was understood that many had disagreed with Uzbekistan’s close ties to the U.S. The payment situation was causing Karimov embarrassment and humiliation within his inner circle.
There is much more detail in the report, which people interested in this issue are recommended to read (in particular pages 28-37).
Of course, today Karimov is getting paid for the NDN. We don't know exactly how much, as the income isn't a direct cash transfer (like it is with Manas), but instead is made up of transit fees and revenues from the contracts, subcontracts and subsubcontracts that Uzbekistani companies (which, of course, are generally controlled by government elites) get for shipping U.S. goods. So that lesson from 2005, perhaps, has already been learned.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.