Does it matter if the West gives military aid to Uzbekistan?

Whether or not the West provides military aid will make little impact on the hardships that Uzbeks routinely endure.

Islam Karimov
Despite the changing relationship between the West and Uzbekistan, "the brutality of the Karimov government has remained consistent, impervious to Western influence or Western demands" [AP]

On February 16, 2013, the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, a group comprised mainly of exiles from Uzbekistan, posted a petition online to stop the sale of Western military hardware to Uzbekistan. Titled “No More Andijons” – a reference to the 2005 shooting of over 700 protesters by Uzbek state security forces in Andijon, Uzbekistan – the petition warned that Western equipment would be used for the slaughter of civilians.

“The governments of these three countries,” it said, referring to Britain, the United States, and Germany, “have to prioritise human rights concerns when considering the sale of weapons to Uzbekistan’s authoritarian regime, which is known for its dire human rights record and total disregard for the lives of ordinary people.”

I signed this petition because I cannot, in good conscience, support the sale of military equipment to dictatorships that murder their own people. But I signed it knowing that my good conscience is, in the larger scheme of things, a private conceit.

Analysts have long debated the ethical and strategic ramifications of providing Uzbekistan with military equipment – largely unidentified but allegedly non-lethal – in exchange for a transport route to neighbouring Afghanistan. But the heated discussion that has emerged has more to do with the moral anxiety of Westerners than with the rights or safety of Uzbeks. 

What is intended as activism rooted in a critique of Western militarism actually amounts to an endorsement of Western effectiveness, because it rests on the belief that the West has leverage, that our opinion matters, that the fate of nations hinges on us. The hard truth is that in places like Uzbekistan, it does not.

This does not mean that Westerners should not question whether taxpayer money should be used to support violent regimes. But that is one issue, and the welfare of those forced to live under such regimes is another. Conflating the two is a problem, because it distracts from the systematic repression that is carried out in authoritarian states regardless of foreign support. Focusing on military aid turns a complex scenario into a yes or no question, an internal crisis into an external debate. It overstates the influence the West has on foreign governments, and underestimates the capacity of those governments to harm their own people.

Turbulent relationship with West

Uzbekistan and the West have had a turbulent relationship since 2001, the year NATO began using Uzbekistan as a base to launch operations against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Despite a long history of human rights abuses, Uzbekistan became the recipient of considerable foreign aid, as it, along with Pakistan, was an important transit point for NATO troops and equipment. 

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Following international condemnation of the Andijon massacre in 2005, Uzbekistan expelled US forces along with nearly all foreign journalists and NGOs. Soon after, President Islam Karimov released his book The Uzbek People Will Never Depend On Anyone, a propaganda piece that attempted to portray Uzbekistan’s newfound pariah status as proud and voluntary insularity.

In 2011, when Pakistan cut off NATO transit routes following a fallout with the US, the West renewed its military engagement with Uzbekistan through the Northern Distribution Network, a series of transit routes from Europe that terminate in the southern city of Termez on the Afghanistan border. The renewed relationship was criticised by human rights activists, who noted that Uzbekistan had not only failed to meet any of the demands that had led to international sanctions in 2005, but had actually become more oppressive.

A police state backed by the largest and most ruthless internal security service in Central Asia, Uzbekistan is ranked one of the most corrupt nations in the world and denies its citizens free speech, free media and due process in a court of law. It has been this way since 1991, the year it became independent under then and current president Karimov, and remains so today.

And that is the point. Despite the changing relationship between the West and Uzbekistan, the brutality of the Karimov government has remained consistent, impervious to Western influence or Western demands. Uzbekistan’s government will do what it wants regardless of how it hurts itself or others. There is no carrot and no stick, only cruel, cold dismissal.

The debate over military aid arrives among speculation that the departure of NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014 will leave Central Asia in chaos, an outcome predicted by several analysts. This argument assumes that the NATO presence played a significant role in achieving regional stability, a view I disputed in a recent article showing how Central Asian “peace” is structured on citizens’ fear of their own governments.

Analysis of Central Asia often seems mired in “Great Game” paradigms, emphasising the struggle of foreign powers for regional dominance instead of the control mechanisms of individual states. As Central Asia expert Nathan Hamm notes, Central Asia in 2014 is likely to look a lot like Central Asia in 2012, because it was never Western influence that created stability in the first place.

As analysts predict turmoil and human rights activists worry about Western weapons, it is useful to keep in mind that public violence is rare in Uzbekistan. The 2005 Andijon massacre was a tragedy notable not only for its scale, but for its visibility. The shooting of civilians, captured in photographs and documented in interviews, was public proof of the brutality that usually takes place behind closed doors: in prisons, in interrogation centres, in silence.

Surveillance, intimidation, threats, corruption – these are the constant crimes of Uzbekistan, atrocities that require no weaponry, only will. Whether or not the West provides military aid will make little impact on the hardships that Uzbeks routinely endure.

Military aid and Western hypocrisy

That said, there are good reasons to protest the awarding of military aid when it is justified by spurious allegations of instability and terrorism. In a February 27 congressional hearingon Islamist militant threats to Central Asia, Republican congressmen Dana Rohrabacher and Ted Poe argued that Central Asia was in danger of falling to terrorists. 

“Surveillance, intimidation, threats, corruption – these are the constant crimes of Uzbekistan, atrocities that require no weaponry, only will.”

In contrast, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake stated that there is no “imminent Islamist militant threat to Central Asian states”, while analyst Nathan Barrick testified that Islamic radicalism has little appeal to the average Central Asian Muslim.

As this hearing was going on, Uzbekistan’s state press was peddling a different story. On February 27, the state-sponsored outlet reported that 11 members of an Uzbek terrorist cell had been rounded up and brought to justice. The author of the article, a self-proclaimed “philosopher”, argued that the perpetrators “hated our secular way of life, including our bright and lively holidays… and soccer”, and sought to install a caliphate. The name of the group? “Jihadism”.

As someone who has studied Uzbek terrorist groups for years – and debunked the alleged terrorist group accused of instigating the Andijon massacre, “Akromiya”, as a government fabrication – I have doubts that this uncreatively named group exists. It is more likely a product of the Uzbek government’s “war on terror”, one that justifies brutal policies by embellishing Islamist threats.

The credence some Western government officials give the Uzbek government’s claims when justifying the sale of weaponry is as offensive than the sale of weaponry itself. As Joshua Kucera, a journalist covering Central Asia, once noted, “Saying nothing [to justify engagement with Uzbekistan] may be the best way for the US to stay true to what it believes.”

Uzbekistan poses the tough question of what should be done about a country that does not respect international law or its own citizens. There are no easy answers, but one way to start is by acknowledging that the solution does not hinge on Western action, for good or for ill.

Focusing on military aid addresses Western hypocrisy – a subject notable in its own right – but does little to address the everyday challenges Uzbek citizens face. As the issue of Western military aid brings renewed focus on Uzbekistan, we should make sure we do not neglect the quiet, more pervasive forms of violence, the routine brutality that takes place away from foreign eyes.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.

Follow her on Twitter: @sarahkendzior