Friday, February 17, 2012

Uzbekistan: Afghan Worries Prompt US Defence Aid for Uzbekistan

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Afghan Worries Prompt US Defence Aid for Uzbekistan

As the United States lifts a ban on military assistance to Uzbekistan, a local political analyst says the security relationship is being revived because of the situation in neighbouring Afghanistan, although there is unlikely to be another US base in the country.

On January 18, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waived the ban on defence assistance for Uzbekistan, imposed after the Andijan violence of 2005 in which security forces shot and killed hundreds of civilians. At that time, Tashkent forced the closure of a US military airbase in southern Uzbekistan.

The move will allow limited supplies of items like night-vision goggles, personal protection equipment and GPS positioning devices.

At a press conference in Tashkent at the end of January, US ambassador George Krol said the decision was essential because of Uzbekistan’s role in hosting the Northern Distribution Network, NDN, the supply route for NATO forces in Afghanistan.

NBCentralAsia asked political analyst Farhod Tolipov to comment on the significance of the move and the current state of US-Uzbek security cooperation.

NBCentralAsia: Is this a breakthrough in Uzbek-American relations?

Farhod Tolipov: I think it really is a breakthrough, in a sense, a major achievement that will benefit both countries. Some of the equipment will go to strengthen the Uzbek armed forces.

The need to bolster the armies of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan reflect the possibility of threats from the south as 2014 [NATO withdrawal date] approaches. President Barack Obama’s administration has realised this, and I think wants to keep Central Asia peaceful. This kind of cooperation will also facilitate the evacuation of American servicemen via the NDN.

But this cooperation does not amount to a security guarantee for Tashkent.

Uzbekistan’s relationship with the West has had its ups and downs. An unprecedented strategic partnership was signed with the US in 2002, but things changed radically after Andijan in 2005, and relation deteriorated.

NBCentralAsia: Analysts say that by pursuing defence cooperation with Uzbekistan in support of geopolitical goals, the Americans are negating support for human rights. Do you think the approach is now purely pragmatic, and democracy promotion is off the agenda?

Tolipov: The US is unlikely to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in Uzbekistan and in Central Asia generally. In my view, it will continue to support democratisation rather than focusing solely on geopolitical objectives. At the same time, security matter will remain important. This kind of dual approach is a feature of many countries. The Americans understand they can’t impose democracy by force… the Obama’s administration has recently indicated that it does not plan to impose its views.

At the same time, one has to understand that Uzbekistan needs cooperation just as much as the US.

NBCentralAsia: Is this a first step towards an expanded defence partnership?

Tolipov: This military partnership has a history longer than just five or six years. Uzbekistan has been central to US geopolitical interests ever since it became independent in 1991. Many servicemen have been trained in the West, and this is likely to continue. So the partnership may evolve, but a US troop presence or base is still out of the question, as Ambassador Krol recently acknowledged.

NBCentralAsia: When American officials discuss security ties with Uzbekistan, they use carefully-chosen language. For example, when Assistant Secretary Robert Blake spoke at a conference on US interests in Central Asia in January, he underlined that military assistance would be of a “non-lethal” nature. Why is this.

Tolipov: It’s a kind of insurance clause. What does “non-lethal” actually mean? Any weapon is fundamentally lethal. The West is not going to accuse Uzbekistan of harbouring aggressive intentions, but this terminology is designed to deal with any future eventuality. It seems to be an attempt to ward off suggestions that the US is deliberately arming Uzbekistan.

This article was produced as part of IWPR's News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy