The US State Department says reinstating American military aid to Uzbekistan is designed to assist Tashkent in protecting vital supply routes to Afghanistan.
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.
The move to lift the prohibition on military assistance underlines Uzbekistan's increasing strategic importance to the Pentagon. But it has drawn criticism from human rights advocates, who argue that Washington is abandoning its democratic principles in order to secure Uzbek cooperation in keeping the Afghan supply route, known as the Northern Distribution Network, open. Uzbekistan, according to watchdog groups, has one of the most repressive governments in the world.
Since 2002, FMF money for Uzbekistan has been contingent on the US secretary of state certifying that Uzbekistan is making progress toward meeting human rights standards. Since 2004, no secretary of state has made such a certification. Despite this, the Obama administration this summer made a push to renew military cooperation with Uzbekistan, and on September 22, the US Senate Appropriations Committee passed an administration-backed bill that would allow the Secretary of State to waive the human rights restrictions on the grounds of national security interest. The bill is not expected to encounter any opposition in the full Senate.
“This waiver would allow the US Government to use Foreign Military Financing funds to provide Uzbekistan with defensive equipment to enhance Uzbekistan's ability to protect its border through which cargo destined for US forces in Afghanistan flows,” a State Department spokesperson told EurasiaNet.org. “Permitting this transit has increased the risks to the security of this cargo and to Uzbekistan's territory and borders. Enhancing Uzbekistan's defensive capacity, especially at its borders, enhances the security of the US supply transit system to Afghanistan.”
The amount of FMF aid the administration is seeking for Uzbekistan in the next fiscal year is relatively small, $100,000, which suggests either that the move is only intended to be symbolic, or that it will open the door for more substantial aid in future years.
Over the last three years, Uzbekistan has become a key node in the NDN, a network of road, rail and air routes that funnels supplies from Europe to US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. US officials have said that about 98 percent of NDN traffic passes through Uzbekistan.
Internal diplomatic discussions suggest some US officials believe that Uzbek authorities are more intent on restoring Tashkent’s military aid eligibility for “legitimacy and recognition” purposes, than to address security concerns. Specifically, US diplomatic cables obtained and released by Wikileaks indicate that Uzbek President, Islam Karimov, has sought to explicitly tie cooperation on the NDN to both military aid and a lessening of pressure on human rights issues.
In one wikileaked cable, US officials acknowledged the risk of an attack on the NDN in Uzbekistan, while also pointing out that Uzbek security services seemed reluctant to share pertinent information with American officials. The cable, sent in 2009, said that hosting the NDN would “raise somewhat the profile of Uzbekistan as a target for Taliban and Al Qaeda attack.” It added that “[g]iven the lack of information sharing with Uzbek security services, however, it is difficult to estimate the degree of threat.”
According to a cable from February 2010, Karimov sought “legitimacy and recognition” from two sources – a visit to Tashkent by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the “lifting or waiving of the Congressional restrictions on FMF.” The cable continued: “The [government of Uzbekistan] is clearly looking for 'signals,' and, as part of any additional NDN-related requests, we would be well-served to be able to offer tangible responses to the Uzbeks on the question of a high-level visit or military-technical cooperation.” Clinton did visit Tashkent later that year, and she called the relationship with Uzbekistan “crucial.”
Another cable from the same month said that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tashkent had told US Embassy officials that Uzbek diplomats expected “substantive discussion” on “how Uzbekistan's military-technical needs match specific US systems and capabilities. The cable noted that, in addition to FMF assistance, the [government of Uzbekistan] is open to outright purchases.”
In a 2009 cable, US diplomats at the Tashkent embassy warned that Karimov might cease cooperation on the NDN, if the United States pressed Uzbekistan too hard on rights issues. “Pressuring [Karimov] (especially publicly) could cost us transit through Uzbekistan into Afghanistan, not to mention the ability to engage on human rights and other issues,” the cable's author wrote.
A State Department spokesperson told EurasiaNet.org that reinstituting military aid did not mean that the United States was giving up on human rights: “This waiver and the provision of defensive border protection equipment to Uzbekistan would not in any way affect our efforts to encourage respect for human rights in Uzbekistan.”
Although there has not been any attack thus far on the NDN, one is possible, said Jon Chicky, a Eurasia expert at the National Defense University. “Given that the Taliban and their allies have a demonstrated ability to carry out audacious attacks that tend to be symbolic, I would say the possibility of some sort of demonstration attack along the border of Uzbekistan (and Tajikistan) does exist,” he said in an email interview with EurasiaNet.org.
“It would be prudent for the United States and the Central Asian frontline states to cooperate to prevent such a symbolic attack, rather than be taken by surprise and then be heavily criticized for not preparing for such an event,” added Chicky. (He emphasized the views he expressed were his own, and did not necessarily represent those of NDU, the Department of Defense or the US government).
Critics argue that the claims of a security threat are a smokescreen. “No one can discount that Tashkent fears a Taliban-style incursion that could emanate from Afghanistan,” said Steve Swerdlow, Uzbekistan researcher for Human Rights Watch. “But let’s be clear: waiving the human rights restrictions in US law is important to President Karimov -- far more for what it symbolizes about the Uzbek government than for the enhanced defensive capacity it would allegedly provide.”
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. He is the editor of EurasiaNet's Bug Pit blog.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.