Circumstances have forced the United States and Uzbekistan into a long-term embrace that both states may welcome, but which neither state was prepared for. The obligations suddenly assumed by both Washington and Tashkent have complicated and potentially dangerous implications.
A US-Uzbek joint statement October 12 provided the clearest idea to date of the nature of the new strategic partnership, forged under crisis conditions surrounding the September 11 attacks in the United States and the ensuing campaign against terrorism. According to the statement, the United States has extended security guarantees to President Islam Karimov's government. In return, Uzbekistan has sanctioned the use of its military facilities by US armed forces for offensive military operations against Afghanistan.
Prior to the release of the joint statement, Uzbekistan had been a somewhat reluctant host to US military forces in Central Asia. While Karimov granted the United States access to military bases, he insisted that American soldiers could only use Uzbek facilities for humanitarian and search-and-rescue missions. Tashkent repeatedly demanded stronger US security commitments in return for greater Uzbek cooperation.
Karimov's tentativeness evidently was rooted in concern that an American military presence in Uzbekistan would stir increased opposition to his government by Islamic radicals. Uzbek authorities have battled for the past three years to contain an insurgency conducted by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Another radical Islamic movement, the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, has also conducted a non-violent campaign in Uzbekistan to oust Karimov and reestablish an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia. The Taliban's October 5 declaration of a jihad against Uzbekistan for its support of the US anti-terrorism campaign doubtless heightened concerns in Tashkent.
For these reasons, Tashkent pushed for, and received, a US commitment to Uzbekistan's security. US accommodation cannot be considered a surprise. Even before September 11, the United States sought to promote greater Central Asian independence from Russia, and had viewed Uzbekistan as a potential partner. Robert Legvold of Columbia University told EurasiaNet that in the mid 1990s, "Washington decided that Uzbekistan represented the strongest counter-balance to Russian domination within Central Asia," and even explored potential cooperation with the Uzbeks on counter-terrorism initiatives. But with the October 12 agreement, the United States made a quantum leap in its relationship with Uzbekistan, assuming in the process a daunting challenge to guarantee security in a historically turbulent region.
Uzbekistan's attractiveness as an ally for the United States extends beyond immediate strategic exigencies. With a population of over 24 million, Uzbekistan is the most populous of the five Central Asian states, and possesses the region's most powerful military establishment. In addition, Karimov in recent years has demonstrated the political will to act independently of Russia. Such action was often taken with the encouragement of Washington.
Over the short term, a US security guarantee should boost stability in Uzbekistan. But the sudden emergence of an American ground presence in Uzbekistan alters the regional geopolitical balance in a way that poses medium- and long-term challenges for US diplomacy.
Some human rights activists are concerned that the agreement will result in less US scrutiny of Uzbekistan's human rights record, which remains one of the worst in the region. In response to the IMU threat, the Uzbek government has curtailed civil liberties. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Before October 12, the US government was critical of the Uzbek crackdown. It remains to be seen how closely the US will continue to monitor Uzbek domestic policies and criticize abuses that are identified. An intensification of the government crackdown could potentially produce a destabilizing popular backlash that increases support for anti-government action by Islamic radicals.
Some political observers also worry about how Russia will react to the US presence in Central Asia. For more than a century before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia was in Moscow's sphere of influence. Russian officials are now not happy about the growing US influence in Uzbekistan. The Bush administration is aware of this fear and has done its best to demonstrate its benign intentions, and so far, the Russian government has cautiously supported the US campaign against Afghanistan. However, Russian public opinion is wary of a US presence in Central Asia, with a recent poll of Moscow residents showing 56 percent opposed to US military operations in Afghanistan. Such a level of opposition raises the possibility of future diplomatic confrontation between Russia and the United States over Central Asia
Another danger concerning the US commitment to Uzbekistan, largely undiscussed, concerns interethnic tensions in the Ferghana Valley Central Asia's overcrowded agricultural heartland that is shared by Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Valley is a tangle of ethnic groups and awkwardly delineated boundaries. Over the past decade it has been the scene of inter-ethnic rioting and of border disputes among states. At least 130 spots in the Valley are contested between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, according to Amy Forster, an expert on regional interethnic relations. In backing Uzbekistan, the United States may unintentionally encourage Tashkent to behave in an increasingly bellicose manner, heightening the risk of conflict between Central Asian states.
Uzbekistan's relationship with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan also bears close monitoring. An ethnic Uzbek militia commanded by Rashid Dostum is a major component in the Northern Alliance. While Uzbeks in Afghanistan have never voiced any tendencies toward irredentism, Uzbeks in Uzbekistan proper still feel some connection to their ethnic kin, if only psychological. Thus there is a risk that US support for both the Northern Alliance and the Uzbek government could give rise to an aggressive kind of Uzbek nationalism.
Anthony Baird is a Program Coordinator for the Committee on International Security Studies at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in Cambridge, MA.