At a time when Republican presidential frontrunner Herman Cain is touting his indifference to “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan,” American diplomats and military leaders are in fact making the pilgrimage to Tashkent to pay homage to the president Cain proudly can’t name, Islam Karimov. Their purpose is plain enough: during the war in Afghanistan, American matériel has typically wound its way upland from Pakistan’s deepwater ports, through perilous mountain passes, to the troops. With relations between the United States and Pakistan in freefall, and with supply shipments increasingly menaced by terrorist attacks and banditry, American military planners are scrambling for an alternative. At the outset of the war, they secured a toehold in Kyrgyzstan, which provided a much-needed northern alternative, but it is essentially only an air bridge, and shipping supplies by air is costly. Uzbekistan is the only meaningful alternative to Pakistan, potentially offering air, truck, and rail corridors.
Still, the overture to Karimov is fraught with problems. His regime is one of the most repressive to arise out of the former Soviet Union. It is also a model kleptocracy, with all important businesses (particularly ones that generate foreign currency) dominated by Karimov’s inner circle, notably his wannabe glamour-girl daughter, Gulnora. Karimov’s Uzbekistan makes Mubarak’s Egypt and Ben Ali’s Tunisia look like welcoming oases of capitalism by comparison. Do American diplomats really appreciate what they’re dealing with?
One of them certainly doesn’t. I was struck to read these pronouncements by an unidentified “senior State Department official” (who sounds suspiciously like assistant secretary Robert O. Blake), in connection with Hillary Clinton’s visit to Tashkent:
Q: [O]n human rights in general, was there anything that came up here in Uzbekistan? [S]pecifically —
A: Yeah. I mean, I think I already described that.
Q: I know you did, but — how did [Karimov] respond to that? When this comes up, does he just blow it off? Does he —
A: No, no. Not at all.
Q: He wants to live [sic] a legacy for his kids and grandkids you just said.
A: Exactly. He wasn’t defensive at all.
Q: But do you believe this?
A: Yeah. I do believe him.
One can search in vain through the State Department’s meticulously prepared human-rights reports on Uzbekistan for evidence that Karimov, one of the world’s most callous dictators, is committed to democracy and human rights. The legacy he is committed to leaving for his kids and grandkids is best measured, rather, by the vast wealth his family has amassed during his rule.
This highlights the key problem with turning Uzbekistan into a new military-logistics hub: It requires us to retreat from our principles by coddling dictators and blathering inanities about them. Doubtless, the needs of U.S. and allied soldiers in Afghanistan will take precedence, and the U.S. will bend in Tashkent’s direction to meet its needs. But one can fairly question whether the United States has to take leave of its senses in the process. The bargain is not only morally but tactically questionable.
Karimov’s repression of Uzbeks has created a climate in which just the sort of Islamist terrorism that now plagues Afghanistan can flourish. Indeed, Uzbek militants have already claimed responsibility for a number of bold attacks in Afghanistan, including the May 2010 suicide attack on Bagram Air Base. The war the U.S. is fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan is therefore also a war against Karimov’s foes — and in fact, Uzbek units allied with the Taliban and Al Qaeda have been priority targets for U.S. forces. The United States has additionally passed the Uzbeks vital intelligence and shared prisoners with them, despite their almost theatrical proclivity for torture. And if U.S. supplies flow through Uzbekistan, Karimov and his clan will surely profit handsomely at American taxpayers’ expense.
American diplomats do themselves and their country no service by waiting for Tinkerbell in Tashkent. They need to keep their distance from Uzbekistan’s kleptocrats, and maintain their commitment to building democracy and establishing the rule of law, which, in theory at least, are what its mission in Central Asia is about. A moment for democratic reform and human rights will come to Uzbekistan, but not until the Karimovs have departed.