Wishing for Unicorns

by Joshua Foust on 10/19/2011 · 10 comments

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.

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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

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marc October 19, 2011 at 11:51 am

I am beginning to think that just because the U.S. from half a world away has decided Pakistan, Afghanistan and all the other ‘Stans is our own very expensive problem doesn’t actually make it so. Time to let the neighbors China, Russia and India deal with it.

Michael Wells October 19, 2011 at 7:32 pm

I just spent a couple of weeks in Uzbekistan working with NGO’s. Yes, it’s a police state, but people don’t seem terribly intimidated. There were police at the subways, but in September the thing that caught my eye the most in Tashkent was the number of brides getting their pictures taken in photogenic sites. It’s a Muslim country but you don’t see Burkas, just headscarfs on older women in traditional clothes — and lots of younger ones in (modest) modern dress. And women working and walking on the streets, just like any Western country. There are a fair number of tourists — Europeans, Japanese and a mix of others. I talked to a college kid from Columbia backpacking across Asia and a retired Canadian gent seeing the Silk Road, saw various tour groups. Samarkand and Khiva have world class tourist sites and UN historical sites. One thing that s truck me, coming from Portland and traveling around the US, there were no beggers or people sleeping on sidewalks.

The thing about Uzbekistan is not only that it’s a former Soviet country, but it’s also moving from the 18th century to the 21st. It’s never been a gentle place. Bride kidnapping is still practiced in rural areas, there’s child labor in the cotton fields (but everyone works in the cotton fields), there’s lots of inefficiency — big buildings are constructed, stand empty and are torn down a few years later. Illegal currency changers stand around like drug dealers in US skid rows. Probably no more corrupt than Chicago or Providence not too long ago.

There are certainly examples of seemingly peaceful places erupting in violence, but as above, many examples of it not. I’d rather see the US engaged than in denial. The Uzbeks don’t need us, they have trade with China, South Korea, the other Stans, etc.

Michael Andersen October 20, 2011 at 1:53 am

Dear Michael Wells’ – are you a REAL LIVING person or somebody from the Uzbek regime writing under an alias here?
“Yes, it’s a police state, but people don’t seem terribly intimidated” ???
This is a wrong, shameful and bizarre thing to say – and no person with knowledge of the situation would ever write this. (Well, apart from Shirin Akiner).
(I would, for the record, be very interested in hearing which ‘NGOs’ you are working with in Uzbekistan……)

Nathan October 20, 2011 at 7:39 am

Michael, I agree that people in Uzbekistan are very intimidated, but they are so in ways that aren’t always readily apparent to outsiders on fairly short visits. So, I don’t think you need to cut Mr. Wells slack on that.

However, the supposition that someone’s disagreement can only be the result of being on someone’s payroll or that disagreement gives anyone the right to full disclosure of associations is ridiculous. I’m sure that this happens in more than just the Central Asia community. However as the recent target of slanderous accusations from both a well-known organization active in Central Asia and people associated with it, I’m fed up with this kind of garbage.

Dilshod October 20, 2011 at 5:03 am

Michael Andersen, come and see and talk to people, not just with “whatever agenda-driven” people, but talk to regular ones. (Though have no idea if they will let you in:). I like that you care for the Uzbek people, not everyone does that. To me, the problem is that you people tend to meet with guys from local human rights industry and opposition, who have a vested interest in painting black and white pictures, having no appeal inside the country, the only reason they still “perform” is a sympathy of the West. And they need to keep constantly proving themselves through such rhetoric. Fear is not something you can impose and exploit forever – in some time it makes you dysfunctional and this is not what we see currently in Uzbekistan. I urge you to disbelieve those who exploit your feeling of compassion and sympathy.

Dilshod October 20, 2011 at 5:15 am

Mr. Stroehlein does exaggerate somehow which is normal for a think tank focused exclusively on crisis forecasts. Let’s bring in some clarity as to the points raised by Mr Stroehlein. 1) Germany of 30-ies was a democracy and it took just one appointment to change the course of history; are you confident that a nuke democracy (and we know which one) fraught with sectarian violence and regional divisions is stable enough not to fall in a serious crisis. This is worth looking at, not Uzbekistan. 2) I think that Iranians hated US not for backing Reza Pahlevi but rather for turning Iran into its satellite, assassinating Mossadegh and reversing nationalization policies. 3) Afghan government engaging Afghan public? What is that? What you need now is a government that is respected and accepted by local actors and is in a position to power-broker between various actors. For the time being, useless to appeal to broader public in an effort to consolidate the power. In worst cases, when there’s no willingness to talk, look into the local economies and kinship relations in a given area and change that accordingly, so you will have interlocutors.

Justin October 20, 2011 at 6:56 am

How much longer is the Afghanistan disaster going to last? When a final admission of defeat is made by the West what will happen to the wonderful relationship, proposed by Foust with the Karimov regime or his heirs and successors. Will we all turn a blind eye to the reality that is Uzbekistan.
Michael Wells, sorry but two weeks in Tashkent will tell you nothing neither will the people who are too frightened to give you the truth. As a foreigner I spent a number of years in Uzbekistan and have a, slightly, more realistic view of the situation at ground level, particularly outside Tashkent.

Dilshod October 20, 2011 at 10:10 am

As long as we agree to disagree and not fully discard opponents’ view we’ll do fine. The situation on the ground will have to change, to some extent, with people changing their social psychology, let say with a father and mother listening to kids, respecting them as human beings and encouraging their talents, not just pushing them to get rich and marry and produce kids; with people creating opportunities, instead of waiting for someone to do that, otherwise life focused exclusively on survival and reproduction is not going to change the course of life. They should teach that being rich is not the same as being successful and happy, that it is ok to marry later when one feels s/he wants and not parents, etc. Coming from strongly totalitarian background, society is slowly changing to open and positive one.

Michael Wells October 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm

I’m certainly not an expert on Uzbekistan. I’m a professional grantwriting consutant and a third party hired me to train NGO’s on grantwriting (I know, not many foundations fund in Uzbekistan.) I met with women’s groups, groups serving the disabled, business associations, domestic violence groups, media, human rights organizations and others. It is a police state so I don’t think I’ll post names. I also took advantage of being there to do some traveling on my own, where I talked to other tourists.

My impressions were based on shopping in stores, talking to English speaking locals, watching folks on the street going about their business. I was fairly obviously a foreigner but nobody was afraid to talk to me. I wasn’t followed like in the old Soviet Union. They didn’t keep my passport in hotels, although you do have to document where you stay (but even tour books advise on how to game this). The illegal money changing is pretty open, I’d guess beat cops are paid off.

I was in Patzquaro, Mexico in February and a couple of times a day the local police/militia would drive around the squares brandishing automatic weapons. I saw nothing like that in Tashkent. The police looked more bored than threatening and most people ignored them. In the Tashkent bazaar the police would come through and roust the unlicensed vendors who would just move 50 yards, or walk off and come back to the same spot a few minutes later. When I walked the narrow neighborhood streets people didn’t avoid me. And I saw lots of accompaned women walking after dark, there doesn’t seem to be much fear of crime.

On the other hand, it was one of the few places I’ve been where the good hotels didn’t sell foreign newspapers. I suspect the electronic media is also pretty controlled. But I found lots of wi-fi hot-spots and so I expect the Internet is pretty available and news can’t be kept out.

I don’t mean to diminish the human rights violations or authoritarian regime. Just saying that what I saw in a brief visit didn’t seem an intimidated populace. And based on the NGO’s I talked to and the various businesses operating, I’d guess Uzbekistan could have a bright future if it became more open politically.

Metin October 23, 2011 at 4:04 pm

I’d see more professionals from US and other democracies to come and train civil society in Uzbekistan. That would have more chance of producing meaningful results. Training and helping to build democracy is likely to be more welcome/accepted.

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