Europe stoops to conquer the Uzbeks
By M K Bhadrakumar
The worsening Afghan war has brought some good news for Uzbekistan. On Tuesday,
the European Union announced it was lifting a four-year old arms embargo
against Uzbekistan. The EU imposed wide-ranging sanctions in 2005 after Uzbek
troops fired on civilians during an uprising in the city of Andizhan in
Ferghana Valley, and Tashkent rejected calls by Western countries for an
international inquiry into those killings.
Tuesday's decision completes an incremental process stretched over the past
year or so on the EU's part to kiss and make up with Tashkent. The EU officials
justified their decision with Tashkent's recently release of some political
abolishment of the death penalty. Amnesty International has promptly
contradicted the claim with facts and figures.
Aside from the veracity of the EU claim, the reality is that Europe not only
blinked first, it also bent its knees while doing so. Brussels kept a straight
face, though, assuring the world audience that it would "closely and
continuously observe the human-rights situation in Uzbekistan … [and] assess
progress made by the Uzbek authorities."
No more 'regime change' …
All the same, the EU decision is a good thing. It underscores a new degree of
realism often lacking in Western policy towards the strategic Central Asian
region. The West has been far too prescriptive towards a region whose
civilization dates back several centuries further than Europe's. Besides, the
dogma regarding democracy and "regime change" was alien to the steppes and
somewhat irrelevant at this point in time.
Are we seeing the end of the "regime change" ideology? The signals are
tentative. Statements made by United States Vice President Joseph Biden during
his tour this month of Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania, hark back to the
former president George W Bush era. But then, Biden was grandstanding in front
of people upset over President Barack Obama's reversal on the Anti-Ballistic
Missile system deployment in Central Europe.
As one Moscow commentator put it, Biden's mission was to "provide comfort to
the distressed ... to heal the wounds of upset allies", by explaining "that the
US would abandon neither its defense commitments ... nor the strong friendship
… there will just be a political order in which Russia's interests hold more
weight than under the Bush administration".
Indeed, the first detailed articulation of the Obama administration's Central
Asia policy, as available from the major speech made by the US Undersecretary
of State for Political Affairs William Burns in Washington, DC, a fortnight
ago, all but threw the "Great Central Asia strategy" that the Bush
administration proclaimed out of the window. Burns's speech almost made
Tuesday's decision on Uzbekistan at Brussels inevitable.
Burns paid no attention to "regime change" or democratization and instead the
emphasis was on "a focus on mutual interests" with the Central Asian states "in
a spirit of mutual respect, which means that we [the US] won't pretend to have
a monopoly on wisdom, or seek to impose our system or to preach or patronize".
He explained this "blend of mutual interest and mutual respect" in terms of
energy cooperation, increased trade and security ties and "practical
cooperation" was based on the recognition that the countries of the region are
"unique, independent, sovereign states, each with its own distinctive national
cultures, experiences, people and economies".
All the same, Burns stressed the high priority the Obama administration
attaches to the region and revealed that Washington has initiated "an effort to
construct high-level mechanisms with each Central Asian country, featuring a
structured, annual dialogue." True, he sidestepped Biden's combative tone
toward Russia but then he implicitly suggested that the Obama administration
wouldn't accept the thesis of "sphere of influence". Burns made not a single
reference to Russia in his entire speech.
Arguably, therefore, the EU's decision on Uzbekistan has been taken in a
holistic spirit taking into account many factors such as the Obama
administration's new approach to the region, the promise of "reseting"
US-Russia relations, energy security, trade and investment, and China's surge
in Central Asia.
All the same, it should be traced first and foremost to the imperatives of the
Afghan war, and only reminds us how far the war has transformed as a "bleeding
wound" - to borrow former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's unforgiving
... as Afghan war beckons
Germany took the initiative in Brussels to propel the EU toward full
restoration of ties with Uzbekistan. Tashkent's goodwill has assumed the nature
of a strategic asset for Berlin, given its heavy dependence on Uzbek transit
facilities for ferrying supplies to the 4,500-strong German contingent deployed
in the Amu Darya region in northern Afghanistan.
Termez port, on the Uzbek side, has become Germany's gateway to Afghanistan,
and the Freedom Bridge built by the Soviets across the Amu Darya connecting the
Afghan port of Heiraton is today the vital lifeline for the Bundeswehr
No doubt, Uzbekistan's strategic importance has risen manifold for the US and
its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies as a northern supply route for
Afghanistan takes shape. Although Uzbekistan has only a relatively short border
with Afghanistan (in comparison with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan), logistically
its terrain offers the most convenient entry point to the nation. These
considerations weighed heavily in the German mind when it encouraged Washington
to painstakingly rebuild its own ties with Tashkent, while taking the
initiative on lifting the EU sanctions.
The fact that EU was making an exception that it isn't ready to contemplate yet
for China should drive home the fact that the Afghan war is hitting the
European capitals where it hurts.
The EU decision comes at a time when alarm bells are beginning to ring in the
Central Asian capitals regarding the spillover of the Afghan war to the region,
which seems all but certain. The Taliban are strengthening their presence in
northern Afghanistan and it is a matter of time before they threaten the
Central Asian countries with retaliatory action for the latter's association
with the US in Afghanistan.
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are particularly vulnerable as their involvement in
the war is much more direct and extensive than Turkmenistan's, which keeps a
discreet, standoffish policy.
The outcome of the military operations in Waziristan on the Afghan-Pakistan
border is viewed with utmost concern both in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. A group
of Central Asian Islamist fighters estimated to be in the hundreds with strong
ties to al-Qaeda is holed up in Waziristan. These fighters are also the
toughest and most battle-hardened "foreign fighters" in the war.
It remains a toss-up whether the 28,000-strong Pakistani army units can
vanquish the estimated 10,000-15,000 Taliban militants in Waziristan. Expert
opinion says Pakistan needs 10 times its present force strength to establish
control. The Central Asians will be keeping their fingers crossed for another
few anxious weeks before the winter sets in, as the Pakistani army cannot
sustain the momentum of even its current level of operations.
In the event of the Pakistani army driving the "foreign fighters" out of
Waziristan altogether, these militants may move up north. Tajikistan had sent
troops into the Rasht Valley bordering Afghanistan earlier this year on the
basis of reports that militants were transiting through Tajikistan towards the
Ferghana Valley, which has been historically a hotbed of radical Islam and
General David Petraeus, the Central Command (CENTCOM) chief, who visited the
Tajik capital of Dushanbe on Monday, acknowledged the problem when he told
reporters, "First of all let me say that we are very sensitive to the movement
of extremists in response to our operation. One reason we have worked with all
of the countries to the north of Afghanistan to help with their borders and
customs and special operation forces is to ensure that they have the capacity
if required to combat extremism."
Great game simmers
Commenting on Petraeus' consultations with Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon and
Tajik military officials, the US embassy spokeswoman in Dushanbe said the
discussions touched on "joint operation in promoting stability in Afghanistan.
They are going to be talking about combating drug trafficking, preventing
terrorism and ... border security", apart from the transit deal for NATO cargo
Conceivably, the EU hopes to play an active role in the emergent scenario.
Petraeus' visit to Dushanbe itself took place just four days after Rakhmon's
visit to Moscow, which was billed by the Kremlin as a "special occasion". The
Joint Declaration issued in Moscow said, "Russia and Tajikistan perceive the
difficult situation in Afghanistan and the threats originating from Afghan
territory in exactly the same way." It identified "specific steps to strengthen
cooperation between the two countries in military and military-technical
Considering the deterioration of the war, Washington should have been pleased
that Moscow was prepared to boost security on the Tajik-Afghan border. But the
contrary seems to be happening. The US prefers to cherry pick from the Russian
offers of help:
"A transit route for NATO cargo through Russian territory?" "Yes, that'll be
"A waiver of charges for using Russian airspace [estimated fee of US$1.2
billion annually]?' "Of course, yes."
"Russia providing training and equipping the Afghan army [which is used to
Soviet standards and weapons]?" "Maybe, we'll discuss."
"But, how about a role for the Collective Security Treaty Organization [CSTO]
in the war?" Mum's the word.
"A coordinated war effort between NATO and CSTO?" Pin-drop silence.
Meanwhile, according to reports, the US is deploying its special forces in
Smoke and mirrors
The Central Asians comprehend what is going on. They know that while the US
keeps Russia out, NATO will never have the capacity to deploy in Afghanistan at
the level of the Red Army in the 1980s. They also know that raising an Afghan
army - "Afghanization" - is vacuous talk. They see an indefinite Western
military presence in Afghanistan as the only way out, but the political will is
lacking in European capitals for that to happen.
However, the dilemma of the elites in Tashkent and Dushanbe is that while they
accept that Moscow is genuinely concerned about the escalating security threat
to the region from Afghanistan, and may ultimately be compelled to seek Russian
protection, they would rather not do so if they have a choice. Like Afghan
President Hamid Karzai wanting to demarcate a "cultural gap" vis-a-vis the US,
they too would consider it prudent to distance themselves from Russia and
consolidate their position as national leaders and as "good Muslims" to brace
for a possible Taliban victory.
Like Karzai, they too would be increasingly skeptical about the ability of the
Western powers or Russia to avert a Taliban victory. Equally, they too would be
mindful of the very real possibility bordering on probability that neither the
US nor Russia will hesitate in the ultimate analysis to strike a deal with the
Taliban in its interests, leaving fellow travelers and comrades-in-arms in the
To quote a Central Asia scholar, "Increasingly, they [elites in Tashkent or
Dushanbe] ask for assurance that they will not be left in the cold, or [they]
demonstrate their independence from both Russia and the West so as to ensure
their support domestically and possibly among the very same Islamists against
whom they supposedly engage in the war."
Clearly, no story quite ends in the Central Asian steppes. There is always a
sub-plot, often more than one. It is against this complex backdrop that the
uniqueness of Uzbekistan - a cradle of Islamic culture and civilization - needs
to be grasped. The West learned the hard way that the pre-requisite of an
effective engagement in Central Asia is a full-fledged relationship with the
regime in Tashkent.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.