There remains a lot of pushback against the idea that the U.S.’s decision to re-engage with the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan represents a least-bad option for the region. Writing a guestpost at my friend Steve LeVine’s blog, Russell Zanca argues:
Like-minded thinkers see Uzbek military forces as competent and trustworthy military partners. Furthermore, Foust himself asserts that there are times when cooperation between U.S. military forces and even those of authoritarian states, such as Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, lead to a softening of how military and police forces handle domestic disturbances.
I am wondering if this was manifest in how Egyptian police recently dealt with Coptic protesters in Cairo. Those who think similarly must know that U.S. and Uzbek military forces have been working together since the mid-1990s, and yet in 2005 Uzbek military units had no compunction about killing hundreds of their countrymen in the city of Andijan. If these examples show that U.S. engagement improves the conduct of the armed forces of dictatorships, I suppose I simply don’t grasp how awful these armed forces might behave without our assistance and cooperation.
This is misreading my argument, which was that Security Assistance can lead to increased professionalism (not that it always does), and that increased professionalism would be good for Uzbekistan. In fact, former political prisoner Sanjar Umarov has argued that quite explicitly: that some monitoring and professionalization would actually substantially reduce the amount of abuse in the Uzbek system. (For the record, despite the recent incident with the Copts, the U.S.-trained professionalism of the Egytpian Army is widely credited with allowing the revolution that toppled Mubarak to proceed with relatively little violence.)
Furthermore, it was not quite “Uzbek military units” that opened fire on the protesters in Andjon. According to an OSCE survey of refugees, it was a mixture of Interior Ministry forces and the police, and some military vehicles, that were identified firing into the crowd. This is not a defense of the massacre, but it is important when using it as an argument that the details are correct. The OSCE was running a police mentorship program at the time; while it has serious problems, no one blames the OSCE for the behavior of the Uzbek police (and there is some evidence that better training has led to marginal improvements, though nothing significant). As Cornelius Graubner argued quite well, “programs must contain meaningful human rights and good governance components, not just technical innovation.” I couldn’t agree more.
Which is probably why Secretary Clinton and her staff have been up front that they also will be pushing for human rights and good governance issues as a part of the new engagement policy. I share Nathan’s skepticism that this will result in anything other than marginal improvements. But marginal improvements are better than zero improvements, which has been the result of the last six years of isolation, protest, and hectoring-from-afar (as well as the cotton boycott).
The big problem I see with the opposition to engagement is that it is focused entirely on Uzbekistan, with almost no regard for the broader political and regional context. The State Department is pushing this engagement so that the U.S. can withdraw from Afghanistan without empowering the international terrorists who run Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. The implicit argument that denying the ISI the ability to launder U.S. money and equipment to launch terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, is a bad thing because it won’t change the plight of Uzbeks is badly shortsighted.
The human rights argument about what to do in Uzbekistan are, at best, a sideshow. Ending the military subsidies to Pakistan and shifting the military’s supply chain to Uzbekistan is a massive net-gain for the entire region. Literally everyone, including Uzbeks, will benefit by starving the Pakistani beast. Moreover, it will make the war in Afghanistan more likely to end on a less-bad note, since the continuing dissolution of the U.S.’s relationship with Pakistan won’t necessarily prompt a catastrophic, sudden withdrawal.
Critics like Russell Zanca, or ICG’s Andrew Stroehlein, do not place their arguments in the context of the war in Afghanistan, which is the context the U.S. government is using. They just say engagement is bad because it won’t really help Uzbeks. They’re right about the latter part. But in the real world, where you cannot just cross your arms and pout that you don’t like your choices and wish for something better, you have to make choices. Engagement with Uzbekistan, and disengagement from Pakistan, will do the least amount of harm, which is all we can hope for at this point. It is the only real option U.S. policymakers have left.