US-Uzbek Ties: Preparing for the Withdrawal from Afghanistan

2012-11-02 by Richard Weitz

American policy toward Uzbekistan are driven by support for Afghan operations as well as energy policy.

The main U.S. objectives in Uzbekistan and Central Asia are the following:

  1. Promoting these countries’ security against terrorist threats,
  2. Supporting the war in Afghanistan,
  3. Ensuring their sovereignty and autonomy from the other great powers,
  4. Encouraging U.S. and European energy and other economic intercourse with these countries,
  5. And improving these countries’ human rights and democratic governance.

The main obstacles to their achievement are the resurgence of Islamist extremism in the region, the conflicts among the Central Asian countries, and the limited U.S. leverage in the region.

Since Uzbekistan became independent, the U.S. government has given the country about $1 billion in aggregate assistance, with about 40% of this total consisting of military assistance or support for WMD nonproliferation programs. The United States began by providing the Uzbekistani military with nonlethal equipment, such as flak jackets, Humvee vehicles, and radiation detectors.

Bilateral defense cooperation grew in importance after 1998, when a number of senior U.S. military and civilian officials visited Uzbekistan. U.S. military involvement in Uzbekistan became even more extensive after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent U.S. military invasion of neighboring Afghanistan. Indeed, the Pentagon used Uzbekistani territory to organize and launch the initial post-9/11 offensive by the Northern Alliance.

Starting in October 2001, the Uzbek government allowed U.S. troops and planes to use Uzbekistan’s airspace and the large Karshi-Kanabad (K2) airbase in Qashqadaryo Province near the country’s border with Tajikistan. This Soviet air base provided extensive support for the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan but had ceased military operations following the USSR’s collapse. The agreement did not allow for direct combat support operations from K2 but did allow search-and-rescue flights into Afghanistan. The Army established Camp Stronghold Freedom, a logistics base, at K2.

The Defense Department then relied on Uzbekistan as its main transportation hub from 2001-2005 due to the country’s superior military infrastructure as compared with Afghanistan or its Central Asian neighbors.

Uzbekistan has some of the best road-and-rail networks between Afghanistan and Central Asia, such as the Termez to Mazar-i-Sharif route.

Uzbekistan and the United States have had a difficult relationship. And with the coming withdrawal from Afghanistan, how will the United States shape its relationship to the country? Will Tashkent either drift toward Moscow or strengthen ties with Beijing in the wake of the American withdrawal? Credit Image: Bigstock

In exchange for its assistance, Uzbekistan obtained $300 million in aid from the United States. Additionally, Uzbekistan received an extra $25 million in foreign military financing (FMF), $18 million in nonproliferation, anti-terrorism, demining, and related programs (NADR), and $40.5 million in Freedom Support Act (FSA) funds. The Uzbek and U.S. governments in March 2002 signed a Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework Agreement that provides for military, diplomatic, and economic cooperation between the two countries as well as some general U.S. security guarantees to Uzbekistan.

With U.S. funding, the Uzbekistani government accepted the arms control obligations of the former Soviet Union, acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state, eliminated former WMD-related facilities in western Uzbekistan (Nukus and Vozrozhdeniye Island), and strengthened its border security against the illicit transit of WMD-related materials.

But in 2004, the U.S. Congress forbade the Bush administration from giving military assistance to Uzbekistan unless the State Department was able to certify that Uzbekistan was making progress in meeting its commitments, including respect for human rights and economic reform; the Department could not do so.

This period of defense cooperation with the United States ended with the May 2005 military crackdown in Andijan, which soured relations between the Uzbek and U.S. governments for several years and led to stronger security ties between Uzbekistan and Russia as well as a greater focus on national sovereignty and independence.

Since mid-2007, the United States and Uzbekistan have begun to rebuild cooperation on issues of shared interest and concern. In April 2009, Uzbekistan signed a deal with the United States to allow U.S. supplies for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to transit through Uzbekistani territory. Uzbekistan has since found its new role of allowing Western countries to send non-lethal supplies through its territory to in Afghanistan lucrative for generating transit fees from this Northern Distribution Network (NDN). The Pentagon ships most of the fuel used by ISAF through Uzbekistan’s railway system. The NDN also has provided Tashkent with greater attention in the West as well as some leverage over Western government policies in the region. Senior U.S. military and political officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in October 2011, have resumed visiting Tashkent.

The United States and Uzbekistan have launched annual high-level bilateral consultations to enhance mutual cooperation. There have been three rounds of formal bilateral U.S.-Uzbek consultations: in Washington (December 2009) and Tashkent (February 2011 October 2012). These have covered security issues, economic relations, and political and civil society developments, science and technology, and educational and parliamentary exchanges.

Bilateral tensions persist over constraints on Uzbeks’ human rights and civil society, impediments on American business activity in Uzbekistan, and Karimov’s disdain for Washington’s Silk Road Vision, which aims to increase economic integration in Central Asia. Karimov considers the vision excessively idealistic, while Uzbekistani security officials note that opening the borders to commerce also facilitates transborder narcotics trafficking and terrorism.

The United States has recently relaxed its rules for providing foreign assistance to Tashkent. Staring with its FY2003 foreign operations appropriations, Congress prohibited U.S. assistance to Uzbekistan’s government unless the Secretary of State reported that the country was making substantial progress in meeting its obligation regarding human rights and political democracy. The FY2012 foreign operations appropriations, signed into law in December 2011, allows the Secretary of State to waive these restrictions every six months on national security grounds such as assisting U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

A small trickle of U.S. weapons has resumed since the beginning of the Northern Distribution Network in 2009, but sanctions had prohibited most transfers. The waiver will allow the resumed flow of non-lethal defense items to Uzbekistan. According to the State Department spokeswoman, “Examples of the kinds of things that this waiver was given for – this will enhance the Uzbeks’ ability to counteract transnational terrorism and all – things like night vision goggles, personal protection equipment, global positioning systems. It’s defensive in nature, and it’s also supportive of their ability to secure the routes in and out of Afghanistan.”

The FY2012 foreign operations legislation also permit expanded International Military Education and Training (IMET) assistance for Uzbekistan. In 2012, the State Department has issued waivers for assistance to Uzbekistan, which allowed $1.5 million in Foreign Military Financing to go to Uzbekistan in FY2012; the administration is seeking a similar amount for FY2013.

Following a July 2012 agreement with NATO, Uzbekistan is now negotiating with NATO countries how they can members can remove military equipment from Afghanistan. The fastest and easiest route would be by rail across the Amu-Darya River separating Afghanistan from Uzbekistan. Recently, the Interior Ministry and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency signed an agreement on anti-trafficking drug operations designed to help counter the Afghan drug trade as the U.S. and ISAF draw down forces in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon is discussing with Tashkent the possible cost-free transfer to Uzbekistan of some defense items removed from Afghanistan.

The U.S. preference would be to leave behind only non-lethal military equipment such as night-vision goggles, communication systems, and logistics technologies, but the Uzbekistani armed forces might want some combat equipment. This handover would save the U.S. Defense Department the costs of returning the items to the United States or Europe. But it has also alarmed Moscow since it could undercut Russian arms sales to the recipient countries and orient their militaries around NATO standards.

The Obama administration is not seeking permanent military bases in Central Asia, but only exploring temporary access to regional military facilities. The planned end of U.S. military use of the Manas Transit Center in 2014 has led the United States to engage in preliminary talks with Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian governments about continued U.S. military access in the region beyond then, but Washington first has to agree with Kabul what role the Pentagon will play in Afghanistan after 2014 before determining the precise support it needed from neighboring counties.

U.S. and Uzbekistani experts are divided regarding whether Tashkent would want to host such a facility, which would depend on Uzbekistan’s relations with the United States, Russia, and China, as well as the internal situation in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. A small facility capable of supporting a larger force in an emergency might be possible, but Uzbeks are generally unenthusiastic about foreign military bases on their own territory or those of neighboring countries with the exception of a continuing Western military presence in Afghanistan itself, which they believe would be helpful.

Despite the resumption of direct U.S. military aid, the drawdown of U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan is generating alarm in Tashkent. Uzbekistan’s balanced foreign policy will lose equilibrium without a U.S. pillar.

Tashkent will either drift toward Moscow, strengthen ties with Beijing, or both, to the detriment of American values and interests.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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