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Washington Warned Against Lifting Aid Curbs

Jim Lobe and Amanda Wilson

WASHINGTON, Sep 8 2011 (IPS) - As a high-ranking Uzbek delegation wound up talks with senior U.S. officials here Wednesday, human rights groups urged the administration of President Barack Obama not to lift seven- year-old restrictions on Washington’s aid to Tashkent in exchange for a new agreement on using Uzbek territory to transport “non-lethal” supplies to and from Afghanistan.

“For the U.S. to lift its restrictions now would be an enormous gift to one of the most repressive governments in Central Asia,” said Hugh Williamson, head of Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Europe and Central Asia division.

“In the midst of the Arab Spring, the administration should have learned that downplaying human rights with abusive allies is not only harmful for the population affected, but damages the United States’ interests and reputation over the long term,” he added.

This week’s meetings, the latest in a series of semi-annual bilateral consultations, came as the administration is pressing Congress to lift human rights restrictions on U.S. aid to the government of President Islam Karimov in order to secure an expansion of an accord that permits Washington and its NATO allies to ship supplies and equipment to their forces fighting in Afghanistan through Uzbekistan.

With Obama committed to withdrawing 30,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer and NATO planning to withdraw all its forces by 2014, the Pentagon wants to ensure that Uzbekistan will permit supply lines to run through its territory in both directions.

“The two-way transit (accord) is under discussion, but there’s not yet agreement on it,” a senior administration official told IPS after Wednesday’s talks, which, according to the official, addressed a variety of other issues, including Uzbekistan’s human rights performance.

Uzbekistan is a key hub in the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a set of commercial agreements between the NATO members and countries of the former Soviet Union to ship supplies overland to Afghanistan. As with all host governments, Uzbekistan is paid transit fees, while local contractors – some of which are reportedly linked to senior government officials or their families – are paid to provide logistical and other services.

Both Uzbekistan and the NDN have become increasingly important to Washington and its NATO allies as an alternative supply route to Pakistan. About 40 percent of all external supplies for NATO troops are now shipped via the NDN.

Growing tension between Washington and Islamabad over U.S. covert activities in Pakistan – especially since the May assassination of Al- Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad – has raised new questions about the stability of the Pakistan route, making the NDN potentially more important than ever in sustaining NATO operations in Afghanistan.

Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron hand since even before the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, has reportedly been pressing hard for the lifting of sanctions, notably strict limits on training of Uzbek military officers and an outright ban on funding for arms transfers. They were imposed by Congress in 2004 in reaction to his failure to comply with commitments he made in a bilateral “Strategic Partnership” agreement he signed with President George W. Bush at the White House in March 2002.

Under that agreement, which came several months after Tashkent granted the U.S. access to its Karshi-Khanabad (K2) air base for use in the war in Afghanistan, Karimov pledged, among other things, to promote a strong and open civil society, ensure respect for human rights, guarantee the independence of the media and the courts, and establish a multi-party system with free and fair elections.

The 2004 legislation provided that the secretary of state must certify that the Uzbek government was making “substantial and continuing progress” in meeting those commitments before the aid restrictions could be lifted.

But given Karimov’s record of repression – which includes the systematic use of torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners, the harassment of civil society groups, and the persecution of thousands of Muslims who practice their faith outside state controls, as well as the massacre of hundreds of unarmed protestors in Andijan in 2005 for which no one has yet been made accountable – no secretary of state, including Hillary Clinton, who met with Karimov in Tashkent last December, has made such a certification.

Nor do U.S. officials appear prepared to make that case now. “I think there has been some improvement,” Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake, who led the U.S. side in this week’s talks, told IPS, noting, among other things, the release over the past year of “some very high-profile dissidents”.

“We’ve been very clear with the government of Uzbekistan that there is great room for improvement on their human rights issues,” he said. “We’re not making the case (to Congress) on the basis that improvements have been so great that restrictions should be lifted. We’re saying they should be lifted because this is an important way to support our troops.”

Whether that argument will win the day on Capitol Hill remains to be seen.

“The law seeks to hold the Uzbeks to commitments they already made, and then reneged on. So the administration is in a bind,” noted one key Senate staffer. “I don’t know how this is going to get resolved. It’s not black and white. There are competing equities.”

But HRW thinks that’s a bad bargain. “Providing aid concessions in the absence of measurable progress on human rights would send a troubling message to the people of Uzbekistan that Washington values short-term gains above the long-term promotion of fundamental rights,” according to Williamson.

Some Central Asia specialists agree, arguing in any event that the Washington’s hand in dealing with Karimov is much stronger than the administration is letting on.

“The Uzbeks need the U.S. militarily,” said Steve Swerdlow, who headed HRW’s office in Tashkent until the government ordered it closed earlier this year. “Karimov is very worried that once the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, his regime will be more vulnerable to the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). So we have leverage.”

The notion that Karimov needs Washington more than the other way around is shared by other Central Asia experts.

“You have to wonder whether there really is a serious risk that Karimov would in fact reduce his cooperation on the NDN and whether that risk would justify the risk faced by the U.S. in being perceived by the Uzbek population as doing whatever it took to get back in Karimov’s good graces,” said Jeff Goldstein, a Central Asia expert at the Open Society Institute (OSI), which was expelled from Uzbekistan in 2004.

“The Uzbek government already makes a lot money off the NDN,” added Alexander Cooley, a Central Asia expert at Barnard College. “I simply don’t buy this threat that it’s somehow going to shut down the entire NDN because of (these aid restrictions). If the U.S. does give in, it sends a terrible message that it can essentially be blackmailed into providing military aid.”

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