The following article originally appear on CNN's Global Public Square on 18 October 2011.
As Washington’s relations with Pakistan seem to hit a new low every week, the U.S. has been trying to compensate by improving ties with Uzbekistan to the north to shore up international efforts in Afghanistan. It is an understandable repositioning, but it is not one that will improve security prospects in the region.
Step by step, the U.S. has been increasing its reliance on Tashkent. Already the “Northern Distribution Network”, which relies in large part on overland links through Uzbekistan, delivers over 50% of NATO’s non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan, a number set to rise to 75% by he close of 2011. At the end of last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee helped deepen commitments by approving an Administration-backed measure to remove seven years of human rights-related restrictions barring military aid to Uzbekistan. And to just keep things running smoothly, President Obama personally phoned President Islam Karimov last week to congratulate him on his country’s 20th anniversary of independence.
Of course, no one is under any illusions about what kind of regime is fast becoming central to the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The State Department’s most recent Human Rights Report on Uzbekistan in April made it clear enough. It described the country as an “authoritarian state”, where torture is “routine”, freedom of speech and association are non-existent, independent political activity is impossible, and state-imposed “forced child labor in the cotton sector was widespread”.
The odious character of Karimov’s regime is clear, but, the reasoning goes, sometimes you have to hold your nose and deal with nasty dictatorships to achieve foreign policy objectives. NATO needs a supply route, and the fact that Uzbekistan literally boils its critics alive does not change geography.
Unfortunately, holding your nose in this case also seems to mean shutting your eyes - not just to the extreme abuses of the Uzbek regime but to what the security implications will be for U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the wider region.
It is as if the U.S. has not learned one of the central lessons from its own history of international affairs: relying on dictatorships for regional policy objectives is short-term thinking as best, and at worst makes you long-term enemies. Look at the Iranian revolution, after which popular hatred for the U.S.-backed Shah turned into lasting anti-Americanism that was so strong it became one of the pillars of the Iranian regime’s legitimacy for two generations to follow. See how fervent and blinkered U.S. support for Pakistan’s military dictator Pervez Musharraf for so many years helped dig the hole the U.S. finds itself in there now, with an army and intelligence partner not just unreliable but openly hostile, and the country itself on the brink. Or look at the Arab Spring today, where U.S. support for people’s former oppressors complicates Washington’s hopes of winning new friends among the emerging political elites.
The short-term thinking of this move to put so many more Afghan eggs into a rotten Uzbek basket is a policy of desperation, driven by frustration at the apparent lack of options for a single need: a supply route. But even in this one objective it is doomed to failure. The land route actually boils down to a single border crossing at Heiraton, Afghanistan, and is thus extremely vulnerable to militants. One day, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, one of the larger jihadist movements fighting in Afghanistan, may decide to do something about this bottleneck. If that happens, there are few, if any, alternative crossings.
For this weak, and probably temporary, supply point, Washington is willing to close its eyes to the oppression and corruption of the Karimov regime, which, when it ends, will surely do so very violently precisely because of its very nature. Not only is there no post-Karimov succession plan in place for an old, and by all accounts unwell, ruler, there is a fundamental axiom at work: the more brutal the dictatorship, the more likely its end will be associated with mass violence.
Embracing one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships is no way to bring security to Afghanistan. If, after ten years of demonstrably failing to stabilise the country, the U.S. and NATO wanted to start moving Afghanistan in a positive direction, they would have to instead radically change their entire approach to the Afghan government. They would have to focus all efforts on getting it to be responsible and responsive to its own people and on engaging the Afghan public in the peace process. Only such moves have a chance of drying up the source waters of the Afghan insurgency, not hoping you can cut a quick deal with an enemy that sends suicide bombers for peace negotiators.
That is a long road to go down, to be sure, but it would ultimately prove to be a more reliable road than one that leads through a dangerously abusive neighbouring country always just one heartbeat away from violent collapse.