Why Uzbekistan Is A Good Choice for Partnership

by Joshua Foust on 10/5/2011 · 24 comments

The U.S. inked a new deal with the government of Uzbekistan last week.

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.

Predictably, this is sparking worry and concern in the human rights industry. The International Crisis Group, for example, is spearheading a letter-writing campaign to complain about the questionable ethics of the policy:

We, the undersigned organizations, deplore the recent move to provide direct security assistance to one of the world’s most repressive governments. We call on you to stand behind your strong past statements regarding human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, including those made on the eve of your visit to Tashkent last December to meet with President Islam Karimov. We strongly urge you to oppose passage of the law and not to invoke this waiver. Furthermore, we call on you to publicly reiterate the serious concerns the US government has regarding Uzbekistan’s abysmal human rights record.

What’s so remarkable about this letter is how shortsighted it is. I’m sure in an ideal world we can wish away the war in Afghanistan and make sure every country in the region knows we are deeply displeased with their human rights violations, but in the real world people must make difficult choices. They have to prioritize. And the deal in Uzbekistan is meant to satisfy one purpose only: Afghanistan.

Right now, most of the supplies heading into Afghanistan still must go through Pakistan. And Pakistan, as we all know, is a horrific supporter of international terrorism: the Taliban, the Haqqanis, AQ Khan’s global nuclear proliferation network, most of the groups in Kashmir, even, potentially, the Uighurs. In country after country in Central and South Asia, the terrorism leads to Pakistan.

Pakistan can get away with its intransigence for three reasons:

1. It has nuclear weapons. This is something no one can change, and it is a near-perfect safeguard against any retaliation by India, and against most forms of intervention by the United States or the International Community.

2. Geography matters. Both Pakistan and Iran contain the most efficient routes from Afghanistan to the nearest coast. Again, in a world of reality Iran is a non-option, which leaves us Pakistan.

3. Pakistan is essential to regional peace. Because of its nuclear weapons and its geography, and also its direct sponsorship of international terrorism, the Pakistani government can play a unique role in the eventual peace of South Asia. No one has yet figured out how to do that, but it is nevertheless important.

Taken together these three reasons add up to why the U.S. chose to work with Pakistan, rather than around it. It was better, so it seemed in 2001, to help the Pakistani Army’s shipping and trucking businesses with ISAF transit fees, and use that to try to get the government to even out its policies. Furthermore, maintaining free and open access for the government agents, military officials, and intelligence agencies made keeping track of everything much easier. Plus, when it wanted to, Islamabad could mysteriously find a very important terrorist, like Khaled Sheikh Muhammed, and hand him over to American interrogators. It seemed awesome.

America’s dysfunctional relationship with Pakistan is no longer awesome. It is more akin to a drug dealer and an addict now than two countries warily working toward some common goal. But so long as the U.S. war in Afghanistan relies on Pakistani supply lines, Washington’s hands are tied. They can’t risk cutting off their troops, and Pakistan knows this. So, they have to find an alternative.

The biggest reason why the U.S. government has been pushing the NDN for well over three years is so that it can develop an alternative to the Pakistani supply lines. And Uzbekistan is the only other country bordering Afghanistan with access to Eurasian railways, and has a reasonably high-volume rail network for it.

Neither Tajikistan nor Turkmenistan have the infrastructure or geography (or politics!) to support an American supply line into Afghanistan. And China’s only border with the country is way up at the tail end of the Wakkhan Corridor, with the nearest city as isolated as Kashgar — that’s hardly an option either. Nowhere else has the equivalent of Termez, right over the border from Mazar-i Sharif. Which means Uzbekistan.

Now I can see why people would object to Uzbekistan’s human rights record – it is atrocious, and there is no excuse for it. If all we look at is Uzbekistan’s human rights record, it must seem like madness to them “reward” the Karimov regime with military training and equipment. The reality of Security Assistance, as its known, is actually more complex.

Recent studies have indicated that SA arrangements lead to an increased professionalism (pdf) in a host country’s security forces. In Egypt, that U.S.-trained professionalism is widely credited, at least in a partial way, with the military’s decision not to open fire on the protesters at Tahrir Square earlier this year. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of SA as a cure-all for unprofessional and abusive security services, but that doesn’t mean the value SA can provide should be dismissed out of hand.

When it comes to improving the situation in Uzbekistan, there are almost no options left. International isolation only made things worse—the country is now more repressive, and less respectful of human rights, than in 2004, the last year the U.S. and EU maintained extensive contacts with the regime. Blanket engagement did not work very well, either, but the human rights situation there never got this bad.

Maybe it’s time for the human rights industry to stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good? I don’t think Uzbekistan has any prospects at all for turning into a model country, not even if its elderly dictator Islom Karimov dies and a new regime, devoid of his family members takes over. The repression in Uzbekistan has become overly personalized in Karimov himself (and his daughters), and as a result people tend to lose sight that it is in fact a systemic problem driven by a class of elites at the top of Uzbek society.

When dealing with a system we lack the means to topple or catastrophically change, maybe the best we can hope for is marginal improvement. Over time, small improvements in Uzbekistan’s human rights record can add up in some major ways. Maybe small improvements are all we can hope for at this point.

From two perspectives, the U.S. partnership with Uzbekistan makes sense: it is a far better choice of transit country than Pakistan, and this partnership at least has a small chance of maybe improving things a bit. It is pure folly to object to that outlook, or to write it off, as the human rights industry seems to want, as selling out to a vicious thug. In the real world, away from New York and Brussels, there sometimes are no perfect choices, only degrees of imperfect ones. A security partnership with Uzbekistan is one of those imperfect choices.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


53 October 5, 2011 at 7:23 pm


no but seriously I bet you said some smart shit here about central asia that simultaneously manages to troll someone whose ideals offend you



CE October 5, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Won’t a heavier flow of goods from the Uzbekistan incentivize the insurgents to turn the north into another battle zone? They can attack convoys heading to Mazar-i-sharif, and then get paid to protect them, just like the Pakistani route. Or is the northern route a fundamentally different, less difficult security proposition?

Don Bacon October 5, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Of course CE is correct, this will convert AfPak into AfPakUz, or something.

Also I don’t agree with dumping on Pakistan for (naturally) protecting its own security. The US overthrew Pakistan’s friendly Taliban government in Afghanistan and installed an India-friendly one, all the while cozying up to India big-time. So Pakistan is correct in looking out for its own security, which is more important then US pipe-dreams particularly for Pakistan.

Ex-president Musharraf was recently asked if Pakistan needed the support of the powerful insurgent family led by Jalaluddin Haqqani . He said: “If I was in government I would certainly be thinking how best to defend Pakistan’s interests. Certainly if Afghanistan is being used by India to create an anti-Pakistan Afghanistan, we would like to prevent that.”

Nathan October 6, 2011 at 11:21 am

“…this will convert AfPak into AfPakUz, or something.”

I keep hearing people say this and I keep wondering why. Don’t get me wrong. The Uzbek military isn’t exactly the bee’s knees, but some parts of it are at least as competent as the parts of the Tajik military that seems to be doing a fairly good job handling insurgent incursions. Because Tajikistan is usually the best route to insurgents to enter Uzbekistan (less chance of getting killed at the border), I’d think that Tajikistan (and Russia if it gets its wish to return to the border) will provide additional defense to the region. All three of these governments are pretty unambiguous about wanting to thwack threats emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan into the region.

Turgai Sangar October 6, 2011 at 3:15 am

What binds the US and Karimov together is, that the future of both in Central Asia is doubtful at best, with the US facing defeat in Afghanistan and Karimov (natural) death and/or removal from power.

Metin October 6, 2011 at 4:30 am

it is natural for Americans to diversify their routs of access to Afghanistan. Human Rights industry should welcome US engagement with Uzbekistan as it opens realistic opportunities for improving the situation on rights protection there. More contacts mean more leverage to make an influence. However, it is questionable (in my opinion) that HRW, Amnesty and others will ever get back to Uzbekistan after that vicious negative publicity campaign against uzbeki government.

AJK October 6, 2011 at 8:55 am

I know you’re going to slag on me for disagreeing with you but..well…I’m going to disagree with you.

Using Uzbekistan as a transit way means you don’t start in Uzbekistan. Latvia-Russia-Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan means that you’re going through a whole lot of infrastructure just to get to Mazar-i Sharif. And a whole lot of corruption as well. It seems to me like an economic Bridge Too Far, or a militarized Nabucco Project; “Just because we want this to happen, and because we have money, it will happen.”

And that’s not mentioning that you’re dealing with a good many American Logistical Officers who are now subject to corruption. When you think about the sheer amount of materiel that goes missing just in Afghanistan, and then multiply it by 4 more countries, you have quite an issue on your hands.

You’re fired up over your Human Rights issue, and I respect that a lot, but I feel like you’re using it as a straw man to ignore the multitude of other reasons why Uzbekistan isn’t a terribly great choice. Corruption, distance, and infrastructure matter a good deal.

As for “US training of Egyptians is part of why they didn’t shoot the crowd”? Come on, man, give them some agency. That’s like saying the organic corn is what makes the whisky taste so good, it’s a stretch to prove your point that nobody would argue with anyways.

Joshua Foust October 6, 2011 at 9:01 am


I’m fine with your disagreeing with me! But to me the issue isn’t whether Uzbekistan is a great choice, but rather whether is a better choice than continuing to go through Pakistan. If you think either staying with Pakistan, or going some other route is better, I’m all ears – I would love to hear it.

AJK October 6, 2011 at 11:05 am

Well, Iran is the country with the longest (and much flatter) border, but we both know that transit via pack unicorn is more likely than that.

The way I look at it is, what’s the goal?To bring men/materiel into Afghanistan, not to affect human rights and international criminals along its route. I think that the logistics of the operation are fairly mission-neutral and rightly so. I haven’t heard anything about there being shortages of men/materiel in Afghanistan, so I assume that the Pakistan-based route is working just fine. NDN would be more expensive and wouldn’t actually solve any problems. Neither of us think MOAR BULLETS will solve problems.

Related to what Mr. Bacon said above; NDN seems more like mission creep than an earnest attempt to get to an end state in Afghanistan (what that end state is, is a whole different question). Human Rights in Uzbekistan shouldn’t be necessary to Afghanistan’s domestic scene, let alone something to argue about the relative importance of.

Nathan October 6, 2011 at 11:27 am

The better the NDN works, the less leverage Pakistan has. They have shut things down in the past. That can turn into a huge problem if it goes on long enough.

I agree, corruption is a concern. But the end state in Afghanistan does have to do with Pakistan. And lessening dependence on Pakistan considerably frees our hands to address some of the issues with Islamabad more directly.

AJK October 6, 2011 at 11:52 am

That makes sense.

I suppose I just looked at Pakistan from another angle, that is, “How would threatening to weaken trade ties actually convince Pakistan to do what the US wants?”

I understand how it would allow the US to “address some of the issues with Islamabad more directly,” but I am not sure how it would convince Islamabad to proactively solve issues in a way the US would like. On the other hand, what little I know about Central Asia greatly overshadows the nothing I know about Pakistan, so I’ll defer to you all on that.

Nathan October 7, 2011 at 8:31 am

It at least allows a bit more freedom to target insurgents without concern for huge blowback.

Capt. Monkey October 6, 2011 at 11:43 am

I don’t think attacks on the rail line and supply systems between Mazar-i-sharif and Termez will be significant. For one, it’s a fairly short run between the cities. Further, it’s not cutting through terrain similar to eastern Afghanistan and Western Pakistan. It is significantly easier for ANP/ABP to defend as it’s flater and more open.

Will it cause the insurgency to push northward–I don’t think any more than the insurgency is already trying to do.

marc October 6, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Looking at the map it seems that our beans and bullets will be spending most of the trip transiting Russia. With Putin back in charge I expect things to get real interesting real fast.

Don Bacon October 6, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Strategy, strategy, strategy.

The better course of action is for the US to alter its current regional strategy (although I fear it’s too late). It needs to reduce its burgeoning ties with India, get India out of Afghanistan, and affirm that Pakistan is a true (not a fake) ally in Afghanistan. And that would include a political settlement with the Pakistan-allied Taliban, now.

After all, the US South Asia strategy needs to include Pakistan as a friendly, full partner. It depends on it. The resurrected US Silk Road strategy, now being promoted by SecState Clinton to bring Central Asian resources to populous Pakistan and India by rail and highway, obviously won’t work w/o Pakistan. Same with the pipelines.

The current strategy of lambasting Pakistan (as above) runs counter to US goals. Alienating Pakistan, as the Pak foreign minister has recently indicated, is stupid. And that includes pretending that Pakistan, destined to become the most populous Muslim nation in the world, with nukes, doesn’t matter any more — it can be replaced by — Uzbekistan? When pack-unicorns fly.

Don Bacon October 6, 2011 at 1:11 pm

This just in:
Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said he believes that Afghanistan has become the source of a proxy battle between his country and India.

“In Afghanistan there is some kind of a proxy conflict going on between Pakistan and India. India is trying to create an anti-Pakistan Afghanistan,” he said in an interview with David Bradley, owner of the Atlantic Media Company, at the Washington Ideas Forum on Thursday. Musharraf, who led Pakistan from 1999 through 2008, said this was part of “India’s vision of dominating the region” and its “ambition is to create a weak Pakistan.”

That’s essentially what General McChrystal assessed more than two years ago on August 30, 2009, and I agree.

saeed ahmad October 6, 2011 at 2:14 pm

it is understood that USA has no principles… It’s a hagemon empire working and exploiting around the globe for it’s own benefits. Let then now befriend Uzbakistan… they can manege another drama fow few more years but bit by bit USA is digging it’s own grave by playing those dirty games in this region as well as middle east.

pepee October 6, 2011 at 3:13 pm

I agree to friends who comment here at some point. Wait and see what happens. If you run I will be very happy with my comment. Thanks.

Don Anderson October 6, 2011 at 11:54 pm

Without getting too much into geopolitics 101, this is a clear NO to Karimov situation.

Saying that “we need to arm this regime, because, well, his dictatorial country borders Afghanistan” is just not good enough. After Mubarak, Shah of Iran, Marcos etc etc, we should know that oppresors especially former Soviet ones are not be coddled.

We cannot hope to establish a decent Afghanistan/Pakistan (probably won’t happen either) while at the same time loving Karimov. Can’t happen and Should not. Any and all sane people know that NO, we should never arm him. These arms and training will simply go towards more oppresion and make the explosion when it comes more bloody than it will be already.

Uzbekistan is a nightmare for all of its citizens, the poor and even the rich. An atmosphere of suspicion lies across the land, no one knows who is next on “enemies of the state” list that Karimov, in his current ill health maintains.

It is the land where no one smiles. Egypt was benevolent compared to the Uzbek reality. It takes two hours in Tashkent or Samarkhand to note the omnipresent security and checkpoints with arrestees every ten kilometers on the highways of the country. The place is a gulag, and the security forces a mockery in every respect.

It is the very worst place in Central Asia for oppression and that is saying quite a bit. Most oppressive regime in Western Asia, and comparable with Myanamar and somewhere less than North Korea.

All of this is very well documented. Just go there and see, it won’t take long for the atmosphere to set in.

Besides that, in our current economic collapse, and rapid financially dependent withdrawal from Afghanistan, it should be clear that the US will play only a peripheral role in what will be largely a Russian and or Indian and or Chinese influenced corner of the world. We spent our funds for ten plus years now, got little accomplished, and less back for small transit facilities and air support bases. We can’t afford it. Simply cannot afford it.

Going in whole hog arming Karimov’s goons is a first class mistake and must not be allowed to continue, its not just human rights, it is also good common sense. Surprised to see this applauded here at Registan.

Nathan October 7, 2011 at 10:26 am

Whole hog? I didn’t realize that’s what was going on here. And I dispute “applauded” to characterize the position. I won’t speak for Josh, but “good choice” is probably too positive a term for the headline. “Most realistic and least bad” is more accurate.

Michael Hancock October 7, 2011 at 10:36 am

I think there’s a lot to be said for the different natures of the borders separating Pakistan and Uzbekistan from Afghanistan. For example, Uzbekistan’s border is tiny, based on a rather famously large river, and pretty hard to cross without some kind of equipment or bridges.
However, it makes me uncomfortable that Uzbekistan’s government stands to benefit after being slapped on the wrist so many times by the US government. Oh well.

Russ Zanca October 7, 2011 at 11:26 am

Like Josh, I sort of get it. What matters most to the U.S. is the continued prosecuting of a largely failed effort to make a different type of country and society in Afghanistan.

Let’s assess U.S. successes in Afghanistan ten years later:

1. Bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda does not use Afghanistan as a major base of international terrorist operations, including the training of new cadres.

2. The Taliban does not control the government of Afghanistan.

The failures:

1.The Afghan state barely has any sort of jurisdiction beyond Kabul
2. Afghan people do not support the Karzai government in a meaningful way.
3. The Taliban still are popular and well liked in many Pashtun-dominated areas of the south and east-central areas of the country.
4. The basic economy for rural Afghans has not improved: barley and lentils are not welcome substitutes for poppy cultivation.
5. Most Afghans do not welcome and do not like American military personnel in their country.
6. Afghan infrastructural development is minimal in terms of opening Afghanistan to the outside world and enabling Afghans to have a deep appreciation of diversity and difference outside the borders of their own country.
7. The U.S. and ISAF forces may have a timetable to withdraw troops, but the only sort of unified vision they have in terms of what success or victory would mean in Afghanistan would be to leave in place a pro-Western state that is popular and can defend itself against those who would overthrow it violently (Please review failure points one and two.).

Now into this we re-kindle our relationship with the Uzbeks. Karimov is not a Muslim fanatic, and he supports a secular state model. Unlike Pakistan, his security forces don’t aid and abet the Taliban and other terrorist networks, so that rival India gains a foothold in Afghanistan.

Pakistan should be abandoned. The state was created as a safe haven for the Muslims of India. Ironically, today’s 130 million Indian Muslims live better and with greater freedom than the population of the Pakistani psycho state.

The U.S. in seeing this decides it has an easier time of moving material and supplies and power through Afghanistan’s immediate neighbor to the north. Unfortunately, Uzbekistan is also a terrorist state; it’s just that its leadership chooses to terrorize its own population. This isn’t hyperbole, just reality. Josh is correct: it ain’t gonna change overnight, even if Karimov drops dead tomorrow.

Josh says since his way is more in sync with the American way vis-a-vis Afghanistan, then it’s a no-brainer to support him, but I look to the future: does the U.S. really want to be seen as the country that befriends the Uzbek dictator because we may be able to soften his nastiness–constructive engagement. If it’s about the success of the Afghan mission, I disagree this will ensure success. If it’s about currying favor in the long run with the masses in Uzbekistan, then I really question how we will ever be seen as having upheld the ideals of our republic as well as those of George Bush’s point that all peoples desired to live freely and democratically.

You may call it realpolitik, but I see it as another huge blunder in the annals of foreign diplomacy between the U.S. and the Islamic world.

Nathan October 7, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Russ, I don’t entirely disagree with you on this. In fact, I’d rather we could avoid having much of a relationship with Uzbekistan for the time being. We just aren’t going to have enough of an ability to make things any better for the effort to be worth it. However, even to pull off a 100% withdrawal of US troops and equipment from Afghanistan, there needs to be a land route for the withdrawal. Pakistan is best. Iran is second best. The NDN costs more, but from a political and security standpoint, it has huge bonuses.

Xenophon October 26, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Foust: “And the deal in Uzbekistan is meant to satisfy one purpose only: Afghanistan.”

Why do you assume this?

I don’t agree. AQ is now largely ineffective with a minimal presence in Afghanistan, and the various Pashtun resistance factions have always posed a negligible strategic threat in and of themselves. An AQ resurgence of some sort is certainly possible, but that will always be true, so that line of reasoning is bereft of any strategic endstate in Afghanistan–just more temporizing.

But there is another issue: The larger Eurasian Great Game with China and Russia. We are continuing the competition with these two, China in particular, for power and influence in Central Asia. Without the Afpak corridor, we have no access to Central Asia except the route granted to us by Russia which can be withdrawn at any time.

Central Asia has two principal strategic features of interest: The energy resources of the Caspian Basin and, even more importantly, its potential use as China’s alternative access route into the Middle East. There are two ways for China to project influence into the Persian Gulf: Via the Indian Ocean which we control OR through Central Asia.

Over the long term, it’s not Uzbekistan that supports ops in AfPak; rather, its the AfPak corridor that affords access to Uzbekistan and Central Asia more generally. Why the Afpak corridor? What other access do we have? We can’t depend on Russia or the South Caucauses. China is obviously not an option. That leaves either Iran or AfPak.

The neocons envisioned that our overthrow of Saddam would soon be followed by the overthrow of the Iranian government. We would then have had easy access to Central Asia from the Persian Gulf through Iran AND we would have had Iran as the bulwark of our position in the Persian Gulf, allowing us to block any strategically viable Chinese position from developing there and retaining our ultimate trump card of strategic control over Persian Gulf hydrocarbons.

That’s one reason why Afganistan was ignored so long–until, that is, it became clear the the neocon ME strategy had failed. That’s why interest in Afpak has risen over the last three years. The Afpak corridor provides a way to project influence into Central Asia and a way to extract resources, bypassing Iran, until such time–if ever–as we have achieved regime change there. Of course, the unwillingness of the Pashtuns to submit to our geostrategic desiderata is the fly in the ointment. So, I am not asserting that this strategic gambit will work, only that that, in my opinion, is what we are attempting in Afpak and Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan is the most culturally, politically, and militarily dynamic country in Central Asia AND it is positioned such that it can potentially act as a strategic block to any sustained Chinese attempt to dominate the Central Asian avenue to the ME as we dominate the sea route. But of course, if we don’t have some sort of reliable access–which the NDN is NOT over the long term–we must give up our geopolitical ambitions for Central Asia. That would be a huge strategic victory for the Chinese.

Our morally hypocritical relationship with Karimov–after “punishing” him once–is of a piece with our position in Bahrain, our support for Mubarek practically up to the moment his was ejected, our support for Saudi Arabia, etc, etc. Don’t bother trying to rationalize it in any other than purely strategic terms (unless it really makes you feel better).

The Great Game has many layers and wrinkles and Afghanistan or even Pakistan cannot simply be looked at as ends in themselves.

Previous post:

Next post: