No Comment — November 2, 2010, 2:48 pm

The White House, the Pentagon, and Central Asia

Following the April revolution in Kyrgyzstan, the nation’s new political leaders were virtually unanimous in one criticism of the United States: “All they care about is that air base.” The charge was validated by the personal testimony of President Akayev’s ambassador to Washington, who negotiated the terms of the air base deal. The Americans used to raise issues of human rights and democracy with us, he wrote. But once the base was in place, that was it. White House advisor Michael McFaul has pushed back, insisting that Washington has always cared about a variety of issues, and that military concerns are only a piece of the agenda.

Now two independent studies from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the Open Society Institute make mincemeat out of McFaul’s argument.

Near the top of their conclusions: the United States spends roughly six times the money on military and security aid in Central Asia that it spends on promoting human rights, the rule of law, and democracy. This isn’t taking into account the money that Washington spends directly on its own security—such as disbursements connected with the air base at Manas. It’s a measure of the foreign assistance budget.

Second, we find that Washington’s bark is worse than its bite when it comes to human-rights abuses. Notwithstanding a decision to terminate military aid in 2004 and fairly strong language from the Bush Administration following the massacre in Andijan in 2005, Uzbekistan was able to purchase more than $50 million worth of training and equipment directly from U.S. companies and over $12 million more through U.S. government channels. Indeed, the shutoff of American direct assistance in Uzbekistan seems to have coincided with the mysterious appearance in Uzbekistan of prime U.S. security contractors such as Blackwater. (Incidentally, the Europeans have nothing to brag about on this score either. Notwithstanding a European Union embargo, both Germany and Austria continued to supply assistance to Uzbekistan in clear breach of its terms.)

Transparency also figures as a major issue. The researchers note that the full scope of American operations in Central Asia remain enshrouded in mystery, and that the numbers disclosed by the Department of Defense have so many limitations and caveats that they invariably seriously underrepresent the scope of assistance.

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