Tashkent, Uzbekistan – Desperate for a new military supply route into Afghanistan, the US is quietly rebuilding ties with leaders of this Central Asian nation, despite its grim human rights record.
The need for a more reliable land link was underscored Tuesday after Taliban militants cut the existing major coalition supply route by blowing up a bridge in northwest Pakistan’s Khyber Pass region.
Coalition forces are not in danger of running out of supplies, a NATO spokesman in Afghanistan said. But with 80 percent of all supplies flowing through this largely lawless region of Pakistan and with attacks on convoys increasing, Washington has been moving fast to repair relations with Afghanistan’s neighbors.
Uzbekistan evicted the US military in 2005 after Washington and other Western governments called for an inquiry into the reported massacre of hundreds of civilians during a protest in the city of Andijan.
But stalled relations have served neither Uzbekistan nor the West, says US Ambassador Richard Norland. He insists, though, that the US is not turning a blind-eye to human rights abuses.
“Engagement is getting us further both on Afghanistan and on human rights than efforts to sanction and isolate” Uzbekistan, says Mr. Norland.
Further, Norland stressed that the US has no intention of reestablishing a military presence in Uzbekistan.
“I want to be very clear, there are no US bases in Uzbekistan, there are no requests for US bases, there is no offer of US bases, and there are no US [military] personnel” in Uzbekistan, other than a small staff at the embassy’s defense attachÃƒÂ© office.
Moscow has been anxious over the US presence in Central Asia, but perhaps more fearful of the expansion of Islamic militancy out of Afghanistan into its backyard.
On a recent visit here, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told reporters, “We are ready for full-fledged and equal cooperation on security in Afghanistan, including with the United States.”
Uzbekistan’s strategic location and its energy resources are important factors in drawing the attention of foreign powers, but so too are the skills of President Islam Karimov, says Alexei Malashenko, of the Carnegie Center in Moscow. “Karimov is a good player.”
After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the US stepped forcefully into the region, developing a strong working relationship with Mr. Karimov, the Communist Party chief who became president upon the republic’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The US set up air bases in Uzbekistan to support operations in Afghanistan and showered the country with economic aid. The country is also said to have participated in CIA rendition efforts.
Strains in the relationship developed after the Karimov government grew weary of US demands for political and economic reforms. At the same time, Uzbekistan was growing increasingly alarmed by the so-called color revolutions of 2005 in Ukraine and neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
Tensions culminated in May 2005, when armed militants stormed a prison and took local officials hostage in the eastern city of Andijan. Although circumstances remain unclear, government forces responded, firing on an unknown number of Uzbeks – estimated in the many hundreds – most of whom were unarmed civilians gathered in the central square.
After the US and European Union called for an independent investigation, Uzbekistan demanded the US evacuate its air bases and repatriate Peace Corps volunteers. Most NGOs were shut down and foreign media was also banned.
Uzbekistan in turn strengthened its ties with Russia and China, neither of which criticized the government’s actions at Andijan.
Now, however, Uzbekistan is growing “afraid of Russia,” especially after the events of August 2008, and its war with Georgia, says Mr. Malashenko, with the Carnegie Center. Also, “Uzbekistan hopes to receive more money and restore economic cooperation” with the West as Russia’s economic prospects decline.
Ethnic Uzbeks dominate northern Afghanistan. Also, members of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which calls for the creation of an Islamic state in Uzbekistan, found refuge in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and later allied with Al Qaeda. Although many have been killed, IMU members and other Uzbek nationals are known to be part of the Islamist insurgency in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The sole northern rail link into Afghanistan crosses Uzbekistan’s border. The railway connects with the Russian rail network and ultimately to Europe. The Uzbekistan government granted NATO access to its rail line not long after the EU eased sanctions in 2007. The supply route is said to bring in foodstuffs and other nonlethal supplies.
However, Norland, who served in Afghanistan before being posted to Uzbekistan in 2007, notes that the stability of Central Asia is of long-term interest to the US. “This part of the world is too important to just ignore. It has been a black hole in the consciousness of the West for a long time,” he says.
Nonetheless, the human rights issues of Karimov’s government aren’t going away. Freedom House recently named the country to its “worst of the worst” list. But Christopher Walker, the New York-based think tank’s director of studies, says Washington’s increasingly difficult mission in Afghanistan means it can no longer afford to isolate Uzbekistan.
“The challenge for the West is to find a meaningful way of engagement that doesn’t sideline human rights,” Mr. Walker says. “There are no easy answers. It’s an enormous problem.”