No Comment — March 5, 2012, 11:48 am

Uzbekistan as a Values Challenge for NATO

This post is based on remarks delivered at a hearing in Berlin on March 1, 2012, entitled “From the Uzbek Cotton Fields to the Termez Military Base.”

NATO is not just another military alliance. It must be counted as something unique and important in human history—an alliance of democratic states committed not merely to mutual defense but also to the promotion of core democratic values. This commitment was always at the heart of the North Atlantic alliance, even when it was betrayed by an embrace of dictatorial regimes within NATO itself, such as Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal. Over time, and with the end of the Cold War, the political ideal within NATO has grown stronger and more convincing.

The military operations in Afghanistan represent a first for NATO in many ways. They occur far from the alliance’s usual theater of action, for example, and they arise from security concerns that are highly attenuated from the perspective of most members. These operations are redefining NATO. At the same time they present a challenge to NATO’s political promise, one that has been inadequately explored.

Many people today, when confronted with this issue, point out that only two more years remain on NATO’s commitment. “Why bother?” they ask. But engaging this issue is critical to NATO’s self-understanding and to the legacy that the Afghanistan operation will leave. The challenge goes to NATO’s democratic values, and it focuses on the logistical aspect of the current operations. In sum, to supply a mission in Afghanistan aimed at democracy promotion, NATO—and specifically Germany—has pursued a special relationship with Uzbekistan, one of the most brutal and abusive dictatorships on earth.

Democratic states may well feel compelled to make compromises in wartime. They may even align themselves for security purposes with an authoritarian state that abuses human rights. It would be naive for us to suppose otherwise. But a democracy that undertakes such an alliance should calculate very carefully the cost of its compromises, and act to minimize them.

NATO’s dealings with Uzbekistan require some careful and critical thought. We must respect the real needs of the Afghanistan mission, and we must keep in mind the alliance’s obligations to citizen soldiers dispatched halfway around the world to a hostile environment. That is not a trivial concern, and may justify certain compromises. But what does it mean then, when a nation goes on a mission to build democratic values in Afghanistan and pursues this by coddling a dictatorship in Uzbekistan? This presents the specter of mission-defeating compromise.

As the situation in Pakistan continues to deteriorate, the significance of the northern supply corridor in general and Uzbekistan in particular has grown. The question then is not whether to engage with Uzbekistan, because that has become an imperative. The question is how to engage. We need to start the process with a hard-nosed assessment of Uzbekistan as a state and of the true nature of its leadership.

I have a very high opinion of the Uzbek people and of the country’s potential. They are motivated, diligent, and well-educated. Unfortunately the Uzbeks now suffer under a benighted, corrupt, and brutal regime. Ambassador Craig Murray calls it a totalitarian regime. There’s little doubt that it aspires to be just that. But I think it would be more fitting to call it the world’s largest family-owned business. Uzbekistan is a classic post-Soviet kleptocracy—though it is a far nastier place than its siblings. It is run by President Islam Karimov, his two daughters and their inner circle—collectively referred to by many Uzbeks as “the family.” The value of this business is in the billions of dollars. Family members can manipulate the machinery of government at will. Convincing evidence that has been introduced in international commercial arbitrations and litigations shows that they have dictated court decisions to the judges who rendered them, directed police raids on businesses they felt encroached on their economic space, and ordered arrests, beatings, and assassinations. The Uzbek people have a good sense of this, and it helps us understand why a U.S. embassy cable recently described one of president Karimov’s daughters as the “single most hated person in Uzbekistan.”

The family rules Uzbekistan with an iron fist, but it also has a realistic sense of its unpopularity and vulnerability. Over the past decade, the family has been parking enormous sums in offshore bank and investment accounts, and has been acquiring and preparing a series of posh residences to which the family may flee when the time comes. They have also systematically and brutally suppressed all political opposition movements in Uzbekistan, with the result that only underground Islamist groups remain.

What do NATO’s operations in Afghanistan mean to the Karimovs? They have two major interests. The first is in seeing NATO operations target their mortal enemies. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), launched in the nation’s oppressed Ferghana Valley, aligned itself with Al Qaeda, and has thus been a prime target of U.S. and NATO military operations from the beginning of the war. NATO’s drone war, which is effectively an aggressive targeted-killings operation, has also prioritized IMU personnel on Afghan soil and in Waziristan and other parts of Pakistan. It’s likely that these strikes involve considerable dialogue between U.S. drone operators, the CIA and JSOC, and Uzbek intelligence, concerning targeting, strike assessments, and impact. In sum, the U.S. and NATO are fighting Islam Karimov’s war for him, at no expense to him, while wielding weaponry far more sophisticated and lethal than anything that Uzbekistan commands.

The family’s second interest is in identifying business opportunities that will net them foreign currency. Be assured, NATO cannot funnel billions of dollars of matériel through Uzbek territory without the family reaping huge economic benefits. No precautions concerning competitive bidding would stop that.

These two factors suggest that the Karimov clan is deriving enormous gain from NATO operations in Afghanistan and logistical-support operations on their soil. Do they need further incentives? Clearly not, whatever bluster may come from Uzbek representatives.

Germany’s approach is instructive here. Has it made the best available deal for itself, and for NATO, without unnecessarily sacrificing its values? I doubt it, but the German bargain is so enshrouded in secrecy it’s hard to say. A good start would be for the country to be open about its dealings with the Uzbeks, starting with disclosure of its rental arrangements for the base in Termez, one of the most important logistical support points for NATO operations in Afghanistan. What does Germany pay for the base, and to whom, exactly? Other support arrangements in Uzbekistan should be made public along the same lines. On this point, the people of Germany and the people of Uzbekistan have the same interest.

NATO should be honest about Islam Karimov’s Uzbekistan—indeed, honesty presents cost-cutting opportunities. There is no need for such sycophantic conduct as receiving Karimov in NATO capitals or airbrushing his dark human rights record. NATO should identify the nation’s key kleptocrats and human rights abusers, and make clear that they are not welcome. But NATO shouldn’t absolutely shun Uzbekistan’s military or security forces; it should interact with them, fully appreciating the regime these people serve. It should not arm or supply Uzbek military or police units. But it should demonstrate its commitment to Uzbek people by providing training to Uzbek officers that focuses not on technical military functions, but on the political values that underlie the North Atlantic alliance. Indeed, a study of NATO’s operations in Libya, which were designed to protect the people against the violent excesses of a dictatorial regime, would be a useful starting point. Islam Karimov won’t live forever—it would be surprising if he were still alive a decade from now, or if his family continued to cling to power. NATO’s operations in Uzbekistan will inevitably benefit him and the family—this is an unavoidable truth—but in the future it will be important to be able to demonstrate that the relationship built with Tashkent was based on respect not for the kleptocrats who presently rule there, but for the Uzbek people. And in this way, NATO will be true to itself and to the values it espouses.


UPDATE: I discussed this post in an interview with former CIA case officer (and Uzbekistan veteran) Jack Rice on KNTF AM950 Minneapolis. You can access the interview in two segments here and here.

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