Deeper US Engagement with Uzbekistan Stymied by Changing US Priorities, Russian Wariness
After a long hiatus, Uzbekistan is back on U.S. radar screens following visits by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, a Congressional delegation and various Defense Department officials to Tashkent. These officials have been engaged in discussions about the pressing need for American “eyes and ears” on the ground to conduct counter-terrorism operations in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Longtime observers of Central Asia can be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu, as U.S. interest in the region waxes and wanes in response to geopolitical developments. The current moment resembles the period after 9/11, when the U.S. opened military bases in Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz Republic to support operations in Afghanistan. However, much has changed since the Karshi-Khanabad air base in Uzbekistan was shut down in 2005. Despite its geographic centrality, Uzbekistan is not considered by U.S. policy makers as vital to American interests, and deeper engagement is limited by changing U.S. priorities and Russian wariness.
The Biden Administration presented a clear rationale for the military withdrawal from Afghanistan: that American interests were limited to preventing terror attacks on U.S. soil and did not extend to peacekeeping or humanitarian considerations. Yet the recent attacks by Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) and the possible resurgence of al-Qaida in Afghanistan in the absence of a U.S. presence pose serious challenges to that overriding priority. “Over-the-horizon” drone operations conducted without intelligence assets on the ground impede the identification of actual threats while risking killing civilians, as the Aug. 29 attack in Kabul tragically demonstrated. A second-best solution might involve reconnaissance and special forces troops located in the vicinity. This is where Uzbekistan enters the picture.
The prospect of renewed military cooperation is intuitively appealing to both sides. When the Bush administration collaborated on counter-terrorism with then-President Islam Karimov in the early 2000s, including the rendering of suspected al-Qaida members on Uzbek soil, the U.S. was criticized for supporting a repressive regime with a dismal human rights record. The Karimov regime banned independent political activity, imprisoned religious believers and frequently resorted to torture. Uzbekistan under Karimov’s successor, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, puts forward a friendlier face. While democracy is still lacking, Mirziyoyev, who was just re-elected to a new five-year term with 80% of the vote in a pro forma election Oct. 24, has sanded down the rougher edges from the Karimov era and made Uzbekistan into a more conventional authoritarian regime typical of the post-Soviet region. The most optimistic scenarios envision American engagement as a spur for further reform within Uzbekistan.
From the Uzbek side, renewed cooperation with the U.S. brings clear advantages. Mirziyoyev has established closer relations with Russia than his predecessor, but this tighter embrace comes with drawbacks. In the past few years, Russia has sought to lock Uzbekistan more closely into its political and economic orbit, seeing China as its main competitor in the region. Uzbekistan’s government believes, as it did during the “war on terror,” that it would benefit from deeper military—and more hopefully, economic and diplomatic—ties with the U.S., providing leverage to balance against more proximate great powers.
Yet the barriers to such engagement are formidable. The primary reason is that Russia has a de-facto veto. On the surface, Russia and the U.S. have common interests in Afghanistan. In fact, Russia has much to lose from renewed militancy in Afghanistan that could destabilize Central Asian regimes and inspire Islamist opposition within Russia. Recent meetings between Pentagon and Russian officials in Helsinki have addressed this threat. Even limited cooperation on regional security can be an important palliative to an increasingly hostile relationship, evidenced most recently by Russia’s closure of its diplomatic mission to NATO. Such an opening might be beneficial for further engagement on important issues involving high stakes for both countries, not least on policies to address climate change.
Yet whatever common interests the two countries may share, they are superseded by Russia’s enduring resistance to an American military presence in the region. Two decades have passed since Russian President Vladimir Putin granted the U.S. consent to operate from Central Asian soil so that the U.S. and its allies could send cargo and personnel via the so-called Northern Distribution Network to Afghanistan. Russian officials are prone to seeing an American footprint in the region—however temporary it may be intended at first—as a greater threat to sovereignty than the uncertain possibility of future instability in Afghanistan. The notion of “spillover” violence remains hypothetical, and Central Asia has built dominant defenses against such an incursion. Russia proved itself able to deal with the threat of ISIS militancy in 2015 through savvy diplomacy, state surveillance and its heavy-handed intervention in Syria. As such, any Russian acquiescence to a U.S. military presence would be severely limited. An agreement in which U.S. forces operate from Russian bases in the region would ensure the latter’s close oversight and physical control over U.S. maneuvers, which the U.S. would likely consider unacceptably intrusive.
Even if the rivals somehow reach an agreement on basing, sustained U.S. engagement in Central Asia’s most populous country with the region’s second largest economy is unlikely (see Table 1). Although Central Asia has never played a significant role in U.S. policy, past disappointments and new priorities have made the region even less worthy of attention today than in the early 2000s. Washington has de-emphasized democratization as a foreign policy goal, supplanted by a bipartisan realist focus on regime stability and the need to balance against rivals to American primacy.
One consideration that has gained currency in Washington in the past is the prospect of state failure in Uzbekistan stemming from violent Islamist opposition. Playing on this concern, the Uzbek government since the early 1990s and through the “war on terror” would emphasize its stability and secular nature to maintain international support. Yet over the past 25 years, the government of Uzbekistan has endured owing to a combination of mass surveillance, targeted repression, control over the media and public fear. There is no reason to believe regime change in Afghanistan has materially hindered the ability of the Mirziyoyev regime to sustain its rule.
In the larger scheme, the Biden administration’s Afghan withdrawal was part of a larger effort to extricate the U.S. from the Middle East, in order to realize the “pivot” to Asia that began in the Obama era. Insofar as Central Asia may fit into this agenda, it would be as part of the military and economic containment of China. Yet although Central Asia has benefited from Chinese investment through the so-called Belt and Road Initiative, U.S. resources to counter China are being most heavily deployed in the Pacific rather than in Central Asia. In the past, Uzbekistan was able to leverage its strategic location and the threat of jihadism to its advantage. But although Afghanistan again looms as a potential exporter of instability, times—and the global balance of power—have changed. Any U.S. reengagement with Uzbekistan, if it occurs, is likely to be short-lived and superficial.
Scott Radnitz is the Herbert J. Ellison Associate Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His most recent book is “Revealing Schemes: The Politics of Conspiracy in Russia and the Post-Soviet Region.”
U.S. Embassy Tashkent photo by Haqyor Haydarov shared in the public domain. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.