Tuesday 18 October 2011

Why Uzbekistan Matters

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.