The Oil and the Glory

When war against tyrants makes you cozy up to tyrants

Russell Zanca is a professor of anthropology at Northeastern Illinois University, focusing on Central Asia. He lived in a town outside the Uzbekistan city of Namangan for 18 months during the 1993-1994. The U.S. is in a fresh embrace with Uzbekistan, the best pathway for military supplies to Afghanistan if your fuel trucks keep getting ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Russell Zanca is a professor of anthropology at Northeastern Illinois University, focusing on Central Asia. He lived in a town outside the Uzbekistan city of Namangan for 18 months during the 1993-1994.

The U.S. is in a fresh embrace with Uzbekistan, the best pathway for military supplies to Afghanistan if your fuel trucks keep getting blown up using the Pakistan route. In a visit over the weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Uzbek President Islam Karimov that he ought to stop brutalizing his people, but that in any case the U.S. appreciates his help with Afghanistan (above, Mrs. Clinton visits a General Motors plant in Tashkent). And in a phone call at the end of last month, President Barack Obama congratulated Karimov on Uzbek independence 20 years after the Soviet collapse.

The object of Obama’s interest is the "Northern Distribution Network," the Central Asian roads over which diesel and other U.S. military supplies now increasingly travel. The Administration is correct in thinking that NDN, as it is known for short,  will run more smoothly through secular Uzbekistan than supplies have moved through Pakistan. But a question for practitioners of realpolitik is why the U.S.  considers it  necessary to validate the unpopular Uzbek leadership now that it is politically expedient to do so. Where is the U.S. focus on the future of its relations with the nations of Central Asia?

During the past two weeks or so, a number of interesting pieces on the subject have appeared on blogs that focus on Central Asian affairs, including Registan.net, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Eurasianet.org and Ferghana.ru. Mostly the thrust is that the Karimov regime appears beyond redemption because of gross and sustained violations of human rights and human freedoms, torture of its citizens, and the employment of children in its cotton fields and textile plants. The reporting, allegations, and documentation are not new, but they serve to highlight a reality of doing business with Uzbekistan: Presidents Obama and Karimov said a renewed relationship will further peace, prosperity, stability, and the advancement of democracy in Uzbekistan; but after two decades of such claims from the Clinton to the Bush and now the Obama administrations, does anybody truly believe it will be different this time around?

There is at least one: Joshua Foust of Registan, who knows Karimov is a tyrant, but feels this is a politically and strategically smart move for the U.S. Foust argues that because Karimov is committed to a secular state, he is one of the few regional leaders whose views coincide with America’s. Furthermore, he thinks it guarantees the best possible benefit in terms of regional partnerships and greater success for the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

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.

My point is that so far the U.S. has had virtually no influence over Karimov’s foreign or domestic policies. So what would prompt him to change tack now, especially given that the Obama call appeared to be desperate? Is the gamble worth the risk of a fresh loss of respect for the U.S. among ordinary Uzbeks?

Elsewhere, I have written that the Uzbek regime practices domestic terrorism. Citizens who dare to complain about poverty, corruption and religious persecution routinely experience psychological and physical torments at the hands of state authorities, including the planting of narcotics on people and the beating of family members. These methods have been widely reported for more than a decade.

In cozying up to Karimov once again, the U.S. fights terrorism in Afghanistan by relying on terrorists in Tashkent.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola