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.