OSH, Kyrgyzstan — What to do about Uzbekistan? This seems to be vexing the humanitarian industry these days. Regular readers know where I stand on it: the U.S. should hold its nose and work with Tashkent, because that’s a less-bad choice than working with an international sponsor of terrorism and nuclear proliferator like Pakistan.
The human rights industry, however, disagrees. Writing for CNN, ICG’s Director of Communications Andrew Stroehlein frames it differently:
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.
That there is, of course, a slight difference not just in degree but in kind of U.S. support to the Shah, to Bahrain, to Saudi Arabia, and to Tashkent, this misses the point. The reason we’re moving toward Tashkent is a reaction against relying on Pakistan. There are only so many ways into Afghanistan: through Pakistan, through China, through Turkmenistan, through Tajikistan, or through Uzbekistan. Pakistan is a terrible choice. Iran is unworkable. China is too expensive and they won’t support it. Neither Turkmenistan nor Tajikistan possess the infrastructure to handle the volume of traffic we need. That leaves Uzbekistan as, literally, the only option.
Does anyone think the U.S. would be making this decision if other options hadn’t dried up already? But Stroehlein continues:
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.
A quick dash of reality: the U.S. knows how to secure single-point supply routes. All of the disruptions that happened in Pakistan were in Pakistan, where troops could not stop them. Troops can secure a corridor from Heiraton to Mazar-i Sharif without much fuss. This is a non-concern.
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.
I don’t see any reason to assume this, either. When Sapurmurat Niyazov, the previous tyrant of Turkmenistan died, most people seemed to think the country would collapse violently as elites battled for control of limited resources. There was no clear succession plan, even if the head of the Parliament was meant to be the interim president. That never happened. What happened instead was elites quietly negotiated a new status quo by putting famous dentist Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov in charge, then presented that to the world as an election in fait accompli.
The violent, abusive system in Uzbekistan is not an artifact of Islom Karimov, no matter how hard the human rights industry tries to personalize it as such. Rather, the abusive system in Uzbekistan is the result of a system of elites, all of whom have various stakes in maintaining the status quo. When he was imprisoned, tortured Uzbek human rights activist Sanjar Umarov had a startling realization:
By Mr. Umarov’s measure, the torture in Uzbek prisons, widely documented by human rights organizations, is rarely conducted at the order of senior officials. It is, he suggested, a crude tool of the low and middle rank, a habit of some investigators and guards (and prisoners in their employ) to gain confessions, intimidate inmates and maintain leverage over the crowd. He is no apologist for his country. But he said he wanted to stay in the realm of fact, and he described the torture he knew of personally as an expression less of the state than of its thugs.
“I don’t want to say all the guards were bad,” he said. “There are some good ones and some bad ones, and without transparency, the bad ones take advantage of their positions.
“If there were video cameras in the prisons, they may be afraid to use force. They would be polite.”
This speaks less to a weak system on the verge of catastrophic failure barely held together by the sheer force of will of the man ruling it with an iron fist (Stroehlein’s, and most of the human rights industry’s portrayal), and more at a system with failures and criminality but still nevertheless a system that can respond to pressure and even show improvement. There is no reason to assume that Uzbekistan is destined for a Somalia-like state the second Karimov’s heart stops beating.
But for the sake of argument let’s accept Stroehlein’s argument, that Uzbekistan is so weak, so compromised, so destined for violent failure and long-term enemy status with the U.S. should it get engaged, that another solution must be found. What is his solution?
If, after ten years of demonstrably failing to stabilise the country, the U.S. and NATO wanted to start moving that country 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.
I could be wrong, but considering how many years I spent working for the U.S. government as an advisor to the Afghanistan effort I don’t think I am, but this is precisely what we’ve been trying to do since 2001. From a logical perspective, if the U.S. cannot succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan after ten years, why would it be any more successful at suddenly turning the government responsible, or making it more democratic? And in fact the Afghan public itself is wrestling with the peace process — that isn’t something we can really change (especially because it is something we really don’t understand).
The case for the U.S. to not work with Uzbekistan is founded on really poor assumptions. It requires assuming the Washington-Tashkent will be equivalent to much different relationships for very different purposes. It requires assuming incompetence in an area where the U.S. military in particular is very skilled. It requires assuming something will happen that most likely will not based on a similar experience nearby. And, lastly, it requires adopting an alternative course of action that has an even smaller chance of success.
Despite the dire talk, Stroehlein presents no proof or data to suggest shifting supply routes from Pakistan to Uzbekistan will make Central Asia worse off. Uzbekistan is not sending fighters into the region, attacking third country’s parliaments, or trying to detonate explosives in western cities. Pakistan is doing that. How on earth could Uzbekistan be a worse choice? We never actually get that, just a bunch of posturing and unsupportable “what if” statements. What a loss.