The question of whether, or how, to give military aid to Uzbekistan is probably the hottest question among Central Asia policymakers in Washington these days. The U.S. has agreed to leave some equipment behind for its partners in Central Asia after its forces withdraw from Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan has made clear that it has high expectations for the sort of equipment that it will get. But some in Washington are concerned that giving military equipment to Uzbekistan would only abet the misrule of President Islam Karimov, who heads one of the most repressive governments on the planet. This question will undoubtedly be at the top of the agenda this week when a large delegation from Uzbekistan, headed by Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov, visits Washington.
Publicly, the U.S. says it can provide military aid to Uzbekistan while still respecting human rights. At a recent congressional hearing, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake said that "the approach we have taken with Central Asia helps proactively strengthen the region’s capacity to combat terrorism and counter extremism, while encouraging democratic reform and respect for human rights.” But Blake didn't provide specifics. And It's easy to say you can give military aid while respecting human rights, but the devil is in the details. Meanwhile, behind closed doors there are discussions about expanding donations or sales of U.S. military equipment to Uzbekistan.
So, The Bug Pit surveyed a few experts on Central Asian-U.S. military relations to try to put forward some proposals about U.S. military aid to Uzbekistan, in public. Three agreed to participate: John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan during the post-9/11 period when military cooperation was at its peak; Roger McDermott, a widely published analyst of Central Asian militaries; and Nathan Barrick, a former U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer for Eurasia who has worked at US Central Command and is now a consultant at CLI Solutions.
Their full responses are below, but to summarize: Herbst recommended to focus on intelligence sharing and on border security, and the latter could include sensors, vehicles and perhaps helicopters. In terms of human rights, he recommends making clear publicly that the aid does not imply that the U.S. condones Karimov's behavior. But he also notes that should Islamists take over Uzbekistan the human rights situation would be even worse than it is today. "From a human rights standpoint, the Shah was better than Khomeini. Karimov is not as bad as an IMU or IJU successor. So providing assistance that makes it harder for the jihadis to take over is not a cynical sell out of our principles in exchange for strategic gains," Herbst wrote.
Barrick said that small amounts of "lethal" aid could be given to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan but not to Uzbekistan because the latter kicked the U,S, out of the Karshi-Khanabad base in 2005. He said that the type of aid given should be nearly completely oriented towards U.S. interests, not Uzbekistan's interests, and that it should be contingent on Uzbekistan accepting other forms of engagement, including civil society promotion. But he added that the U.S. needs engagement to gain leverage over the behavior of the Uzbekistan security services' human rights practices, that Karimov is committed to reform, and that the U.S. government highlights Karimov's shortcomings. "It is short-sighted, and approaching ignorance, to not recognize that the U.S. government is continually highlighting to the government of Uzbekistan where it falls short in meeting international standards of behavior, frequently at the risk of the bilateral relationship and important U.S. interests in Uzbekistan," he wrote.
McDermott recommends not giving equipment at all, noting that past equipment transfers have been ineffective at best, and given rising tensions between the three countries that are likely to be the recipients of more aid in the future -- Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- more aid could in fact fuel regional tensions. He adds that the countries of the region don't have an accurate sense of threats to their security -- the purported basis for giving more aid -- because the intelligence structures are so politicizes. "Enhancing security in the region demands the reform and overhaul of the local intelligence structures and that is not likely to happen anytime soon," he wrote, adding that "most of their working hours are spent on spying on political opposition, or in pursuing their own corruption rackets. They do not per se have anything to add on the most pressing issues facing the security of their own state."
Their full responses:
The Bug Pit: What specific military equipment would you leave behind from Afghanistan? Do you think U.S. interests would be served by providing “lethal” aid – guns, armored vehicles, helicopters, drones? Under what conditions? What sort of training would you focus on?
John Herbst: The danger posed by Islamic extremism is greatest in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The limited reach of the governments in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan mean that there are areas in the two countries where Islamic extremists could establish safe havens and, if events were to deteriorate, to establish some form of control. The principal Central Asian terrorist groups hail from Uzbekistan and establishing an Islamic state there remains their principal objective.
We have an interest in preventing all of this. Yet we also have an interest in promoting open, tolerant societies in Central Asia, something far from the realities of the autocratic regimes in power there. At a minimum, we want to avoid taking any steps that make it easier for the region's autocrats to violate human rights and maintain their power. How can we help them fight legitimate dangers such as extremist Islam without enhancing their ability to clamp down on their citizens?
There are two areas where we can work with the Central Asian governments without risk of making the human rights picture bleaker. First, we can establish an intelligence exchange on Islamic extremism and terrorism. Providing timely information on the activities of Islamic extremists would make it easier for the regional governments to manage this problem. Encouraging a region-wide sharing of information would make it more effective and would set an example for a regional approach to other issues. (The reluctance of the Central Asians to work together on regional problems is one of the pathologies of the area.) It would also make sense to include the Chinese, Russians and Indians in this effort. That would both increase the value of he intelligence shared and reduce the risk that these other powers would see the American initiative as an effort to promote our influence in Central Asia at their expense.
The second area is promoting border security. Helping the Central Asian states to better secure their borders should likewise not pose a risk to human rights. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan all share a border with Afghanistan. But improving border security in inaccessible areas of the borders separating Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan would also be useful in the fight against terrorism. In conducting raids into Uzbekistan, the IMU has taken advantage of the poorly defended badland borders among these three nations. Helping secure the borders might involve the transfer of equipment that can detect contraband of various sorts -- weapons,
explosives, radiological materials. (Indeed, our provision of such equipment in the past helped the Uzbek government detect and confiscate such materials.) We might also help install a system of electronic sensors to better monitor the borders especially where the terrain is rugged. Additionally, we could provide radios for use along the border. We might also consider the supply of transportation for border units -- cars and perhaps helicopters.
Roger McDermott: In my view, the US should not leave any equipment behind. There is no evidence that equipment transfers will improve security in the region. I arrive at this view based on three basic premises: the “worth” of the equipment, how it fits or helps the host nation and the risk to the strategic balance in the region.
First, the items in question, let’s face it, have long been used and maybe over-used in a combat zone. Off-the-record discussions with US defense attaches suggest that most equipment transferred to non-NATO CIS states through similar arrangements (EDA) is basically worthless. Let’s take an example. A HUMVEE could be transferred through the draw down arrangements. These will be HUMVEES that have clocked up lots of mileage and received multiple repairs. So pass this to a Central Asian state, and the first question is does that country have the capacity to repair and maintain and successfully introduce the asset? The answer is the only country in the region that has a HUMVEE repair center is Kazakhstan, and guess what? That country is showing no interest in receiving US military assets from the draw down.
Often US military equipment transfers to Central Asia encounter, but never address, these basic issues. Also, there are little available options for Washington to provide equipment to these countries without taking serious risks in terms of how the assets are used.
A related issue is that the only country in the region that claims that they need such support based on a bleak-assessment of post-2014 Central Asia linked to the draw down from Afghanistan is Uzbekistan. They mainly want to receive advanced scanning equipment for border security.
If items are provided to one of the three countries requesting US tranfers (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) judged by another, even beyond these, to upset the strategic balance, there will be a response. In fact, some transfers may result in an increase in inter-regional tensions.
Much of the US “equipment” that has been already sent to Central Asia is ineffective to the ultimate links to local corruption rackets; visit the bazaar in Bishkek and you can buy the small items such as NATO uniforms etc.
Moscow and Beijing see this level of water spilled on the sand, in terms of equipment transfers and do not take it too seriously; but Moscow uses this cooperation to push its own vision of the region depending on Russia for security.
Nathan Barrick: As far as providing Excess Defense Articles (EDA) or “lethal aid” to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan based on the fact that these countries are conveniently located along a logistic transportation network, I would recommend being very assiduous in making certain that the quid pro quo for provision of EDA to Central Asia gains the U.S. something we want. For example, payment in kind for access to facilities (in lieu of cash payments or other programs). In essence, saving costs in dollars for the Defense Department – economy of resources. I would also assess that the provision of so-called “lethal” equipment should be estimated at greater than simple monetary value in terms of “in kind” transactions.
I would not provide “lethal” equipment, for example, to countries that did not permit us to establish bases or kicked us out of a base. For Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, I would place any deals for lethal aid into the normal, State Department guided, Congressionally approved foreign military sales (FMS) routes. I do think that “lethal aid” to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan could bring the U.S. significant benefits both in national security benefits and in assuring future access for contingency and countering regional threats. Neither of these countries could absorb more than a few of these types of platforms and as in the case of Afghanistan, our primary concern should be the risk of technology transfers to third parties.
As an additional thought, I would also view favorably efforts to provide equipment to any of the four countries, that obligated them to participate in UN [peacekeeping operation] within a couple of years (i.e., the equipment goes to units that are dedicated to participation in UN PKO and then actually participate based on training readiness under UN supervision). I think the risk that any lethal aid we provided under these conditions would be used to commit human rights violations is very low. In this particular case, equipment leaving Afghanistan, priorities and resource considerations should drive our decision-making -- not a fear about human rights violations.
The Bug Pit: Which countries and units/branches of service (e.g. military, border guards, GKNB, Alfas, regular police, etc.) should be focused on, which need the most improvement in capabilities? Which should be avoided because of risk of human rights violations?
McDermott: The real area that Washington could focus on and help to build Central Asian security is actually subject to a Russian veto. Moscow is officially and dogmatically opposed to any initiative from the US in Central Asia that may involve cooperating with the local intelligence agencies. That limits all options for the US. Threat assessment in the “region” is rooted in the weakness of Central Asian intelligence agencies, rendering them dependent upon Russian structures for their core threat assessment. Moreover, local intelligence services are not to be confused with western agencies, as most of their working hours are spent on spying on political opposition, or in pursuing their own corruption rackets. They do not per se have anything to add on the most pressing issues facing the security of their own state.
US security assistance has to be recast in Central Asia. It must become more discreet, less open to political critique from Moscow, and targeted on core institutions, while drawing on lessons from failed initiatives.
Fundamentally, it must be understood that the structures involved in the “region” are not like Western versions, and they are axiomatically much more suited to cooperating with Russia. The Soviet legacy among these defense and security forces is very strong. To that you have the added problem that many within these agencies see NATO/US as a hostile potential enemy; they don’t think this way about allied Russia.
As these security assistance programs are framed to cooperate with Central Asian partners beyond 2014 it will be necessary to address underlying weaknesses in delivery, planning, aims, follow-up and address issues linked to the vast haemorrhaging of personnel that frequently occurs from these structures after US assistance is provided.
Enhancing security in the region demands the reform and overhaul of the local intelligence structures and that is not likely to happen anytime soon, despite engagement plans in Washington that are subject to scrutiny by Russia and China.
Barrick: Although talking about avoiding the risk of human rights violations sounds good and morally conscientious, I think history and current events demonstrate the practical and ideological fallacies associated with the policy – such as the Leahy Amendment, which requires the U.S. to validate organizations and individuals as free from the risk of committing human rights violations before receiving training. Leaders and organizations change for better or for worse, so arbitrary policies will not be effective; just because a unit committed atrocities in the past does not mean we cannot change that unit’s conduct. I would argue instead that if we want to reform behaviors of security services, be they police, intelligence services or military, then we should be engaging to educate them on a better, more in line with “international standards” way of doing their jobs. You cannot sanction or compel this type of change, you can only educate and train it – that requires interaction and the development of trust between professionals that the new way can be demonstrated to be more effective in the long run. Might the differences in how security services responded across the Arab world during the Arab Awakening give an indicator of how professional interaction with the U.S. military might impact the scope of repression? Might we consider how very different the situation in Syria might be today if we had had any type of interaction with Syrian military that would give us inroads and insights on how to affect or change what is happening there?
That being said, I would recommend that our respective security services – military, CIA, FBI, police, DEA, Border and Customs, FEMA, Homeland Security – engage with their Central Asian counterparts, as it fits in with U.S. diplomatic priorities and interests and our own resource constraints.
How would I prioritize these engagements across Central Asia? The areas of greatest need are in counter narcotics, organized crime, and border security – Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan in that order. We should be engaging with Central Asian border guard forces, counter-narcotics organizations, and law enforcement agencies, conducting combined training, professional exchanges, liaisons and investing in improved infrastructure, communications, and regional cooperation exercises and operations.
Next, we have a tension between the mis-aligned objectives of counterterrorism and regime repression – one is positive, the other generates concern – yet the critical issue is the refinement of “targeting” and the rule of law. In this regard, we should be engaging with portions of Ministries of Defense, the various National Security Services or intelligence agencies and the special operations forces involved in these activities. The focus should be practical and professional. By making special operations forces more professional, we can limit the collateral damage caused when operating among civilians, especially in urban environments. By working with intelligence services, we can share information and analytic techniques to better distinguish between people who believe or think differently and those that are threats due to their resort to terrorist violence. By developing and demonstrating interagency cooperation, we can further the rule of law procedures that can promote better adherence to international legal norms and standards of conduct. This is not pollyanna wishful thinking – it's cold hard reality of life in this arena. It is when professionals are isolated from the interaction with their international peers that they are free to act barbarously or criminally. When we develop relationships in Central Asia that those security services believe are useful and beneficial, we will gain a leverage over their professional conduct because they understand that those relationships would be at risk if they committed human rights violations. It is when those relationships are too valuable to risk, that organizational norms will begin to change. Our priorities should be Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. I think we will find that the agencies we would be most concerned about will self-select not to participate in relationships with us. If we are discerning, we may be able to gain access to those agencies and begin to modify their professional behavior when they see the value added and the internal risk bureaucratically that they face within their governments when we assist and presumably improve the effectiveness of the other organizations willing to work with us.
In line with the CT [counterterror] cooperation, I believe we have lessons learned over the past decade that we could incorporate into an interagency CT training method. This would require partnering in interagency training events with host nation interagency buy-in to the participation as a standard criteria. The interagency spans military, intelligence, law enforcement and justice organizations. This type of program does not currently exist, as far as I know, but I think it should be part of our way ahead.
The minimum level of engagement should be with regular military forces in Central Asia, developing their abilities to support and interoperate with United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (and other coalitions of the willing). This path will raise their international profile and perhaps generate desires to be more professional, more effective and enhance prestige.
The Bug Pit: How would you manage the perception, both among Uzbeks and the international community, that giving military aid would be a form of approbation for Karimov's government?
Herbst: I think it is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. That is, we can pursue two or more objectives simultaneously. Yes, we want to encourage better human rights practices in Uzbekistan and we have a variety of ways to do that. We make public statements when there are known abuses; we issue the annual human rights report; we intervene diplomatically to help individuals or groups (as we did in Bishkek to prevent the repatriation of Uzbeks after Andijon).
At the same time, we have an interest in preventing the spread of Islamic extremism in Central Asia. That is goal consistent with our interests and our values. Yes, the current regime in Tashkent is repressive, but it is not as repressive as a likely Salafist successor. From a human rights standpoint, the Shah was better than Khomeini. Karimov is not as bad as an IMU or IJU successor. So providing assistance that makes it harder for the jihadis to take over is not a cynical sell out of our principles in exchange for strategic gains.
The PR issue is a real one. To avoid any misunderstanding of our policies, we need to explain that our specific support is not an endorsement of all regime policies.
Barrick: Firstly, I have to give kudos to the State Department who daily handles this delicate balance of maintaining an international relationship and criticizing the Karimov government. There is consistent support for the development of Uzbek civil society organizations and the U.S. has continued the policy despite the displeasure of Karimov’s government. I believe it is short-sighted, and approaching ignorance, to not recognize that the U.S. government is continually highlighting to the government of Uzbekistan where it falls short in meeting international standards of behavior, frequently at the risk of the bilateral relationship and important U.S. interests in Uzbekistan.
In my view, we must have a relationship with Uzbekistan and a relationship does NOT constitute approbation for the government. President Karimov does run Uzbekistan and Uzbekistan is geostrategically important for us. We simply cannot afford to ignore Uzbekistan and Uzbekistan cannot afford to ignore us. This gives us a relationship and it gives the United States opportunity, across a broad spectrum of activities, to influence the people and government of Uzbekistan. President Karimov has publicly committed Uzbekistan to various social, political, and economic reforms. I do not think President Karimov would disagree that reforms are being implemented very slowly – in fact, it is deliberate. Uzbekistan is on a path towards improved development and I appreciate that there are people who strongly believe Uzbekistan is not progressing fast enough and that there are officials in Uzbekistan, as there are around the globe, who should be punished for crimes against humanity and lesser offenses.
For Americans, we should not focus our attention narrowly on military aid. If Uzbekistan attempted to restrict the bilateral relationship to the provision of military aid, then the U.S. should reject that notion. I think we should be realistic that Uzbekistan will not be receptive to some programs the U.S. would sponsor or want to implement. However, we should also make the provision of military assistance conditional on the access to other aspects of U.S. diplomacy, economic assistance, and civil society development. The provision of U.S. military aid should also be nearly 100% related to the achievement of U.S. national security objectives; in other words, if it doesn’t serve our interests we should not provide military assistance.
For the international community, I think they are much more keenly aware than the critics that U.S. foreign policy is multi-faceted in its relationships with other countries. Most of the international civil society organizations and human rights organizations benefit greatly from U.S. interest in their success. It is the nature of such watchdog or oversight organizations to find things to be critical of and act upon, and we should not let the existence of these facts blind us to the bigger picture of the greater good. There are practical limitations on how much security assistance the U.S. would provide to Uzbekistan, in any case, and it is reasonable to focus attention on the opportunities to increase professionalism and leverage access for possible improvements in Uzbekistan in a transactional nature. Ultimately, it is incumbent upon Uzbeks to improve their own nation and the rest of the international community should pursue policies that appropriately balance values-based agendas and pragmatic