Central Asia is shaping up to be an early test of Barack Obama's foreign policy, as the increased demands of the war in Afghanistan force his administration to decide how far to accommodate or to pressure the region's autocratic governments.
These questions have become more pressing in recent weeks, with news of the closing of the U.S. airbase in Kyrgyzstan and the continued insecurity of the NATO supply route through Pakistan leading the U.S. to consider reestablishing a security relationship with Uzbekistan, a former ally in the war on terror and notorious human rights violator.
In a broader sense, the course the Obama administration chooses in Central Asia may provide clues as to the overall tenor of its foreign policy. Issues at stake include how the administration will balance liberal internationalist concerns about democracy and human rights with a realist desire to maintain useful alliances, what sacrifices it will make to further its goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and what stance it will take towards Russian influence in the former Soviet bloc.
At present, over three-quarters of U.S. supplies to Afghanistan pass through Karachi, Pakistan, before traveling through the treacherous Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. The supply line has been the target of frequent attacks, and its insecurity was highlighted in early February when the Taliban choked off supplies by blowing up a bridge in the Khyber Pass.
In the final days of the George W. Bush administration, U.S. Central Command head Gen. David Petraeus, the military commander overseeing Afghanistan and Pakistan, traveled throughout Central Asia to work out a deal allowing U.S. supplies to pass through the region.
The U.S. position in Afghanistan grew still more precarious on Feb. 3 when the government of Kyrgyzstan announced the eviction of the U.S. military from Manas Air Base, a key transit point for the Afghan theatre. The announcement came shortly after Russia agreed to provide Kyrgyzstan with over 2 billion dollars in loans and aid, leading to widespread suspicions that Russian pressure was responsible for the base closure.
These developments come at an inconvenient time for President Obama, who has made Afghanistan the centerpiece of his foreign policy and pledged to increase the U.S. military presence there.
The U.S. has not announced how it intends to deal with the loss of Manas Air Base, presuming Kyrgyzstan follows through its promise to close the base. As for alternate supply routes, the specifics of any deal have yet to be announced, but the most likely route would pass through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
The increasing centrality of the Central Asian states to the war in Afghanistan is likely to force the new administration to reach an accommodation with Russia, which is likely to demand concessions on NATO expansion and missile defense in exchange for a deal on supply lines. But it has also raised questions about how the administration intends to deal with the authoritarian governments of the former Soviet republics, all of which have come under fire from human rights groups.
The question of how far to push these governments on political reform and human rights issues may prove to be a source of tension between the State Department, which has traditionally taken the lead on such issues, and the Pentagon, which is expected to resist any move that might complicate the mission in Afghanistan – as well as between liberal internationalists and realists within the administration.
Given the Obama administration's intense focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan, it also remains to be seen whether the administration will be willing to expend any diplomatic capital on human rights issues in Central Asia, or whether it will view such concerns as a distraction.
Finally, some analysts question whether the U.S. has any real leverage to push for reform, or whether pressure will simply cause the former Soviet republics to move more firmly into the Russian or Chinese camps.
Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, resisted this last view. "We should avoid making the knee-jerk assumption that pursuing human rights means that these governments close the door on the U.S. and turn to China instead," Denber said. "These governments have an interest in having diversified foreign relations."
Denber cautioned that it is far too early to know how the Obama administration will deal with human rights issues in the region. But she suggested that the U.S. has more leverage than is often assumed and should be creative in using it.
Uzbekistan has emerged as the focal point of these debates, both because of its strategic importance and because of its human rights violations, which are severe even by the standards of the region.
President Islam Karimov's regime has been attacked by rights groups for its brutal repression of Muslim groups, its estimated 10,000 political prisoners, and its widespread use of torture.
Nevertheless, in the years after Sep. 11, 2001, the Bush administration made Uzbekistan a key partner in the war on terror. The regime permitted U.S. airbases on its territory, and allegedly became the CIA's favorite target for the rendition and torture of prisoners captured in Afghanistan.
While the State Department argued that the U.S. should exert more pressure on Karimov regarding reform and rights, these efforts were largely stifled by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld – a possible preview of political fault lines in the Obama administration. In March 2002, Karimov made a widely-criticized visit to the White House to meet with Bush.
After the government massacred hundreds of protesters in Andijan in May 2005, the Bush administration finally stepped up its criticisms of the Karimov regime. In response, Uzbekistan ejected U.S. troops from the country and cut off military ties.
The U.S. currently insists that it has no intention of reestablishing a military presence in the country, and that any relationship will be solely centered on supplies. Still, the likelihood of renewed ties with Uzbekistan has left many human rights activists leery, and the administration has taken pains to insist that it intends to use any engagement to press for improvements in the regime's record.
"Engagement is getting us further both on Afghanistan and on human rights than efforts to sanction and isolate" the regime, U.S. ambassador Richard Norland told the Christian Science Monitor on Feb. 4.
But Martha Brill Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggested that the U.S. should focus primarily on military reform rather than political and human rights improvements, at least in the short term.
"[I]ncreasing the military's adherence to the rule of law should make it easier to pursue political reform more broadly," Olcott wrote in a report published Wednesday. "Closer U.S. military engagement with Tashkent is critical to NATO success in Afghanistan."
For the moment, rights groups can only hope that Olcott is right, and that the goals of military cooperation and political reform prove to be complementary rather than contradictory – in Uzbekistan and throughout Central Asia.
(Inter Press Service)