Uzbekistan's decision to end U.S. access to an air base in the Central Asian country might appear to end a marriage of convenience born of 9/11. But cutting all ties between the two nations would be a mistake.
Uzbekistan has long been accused of human rights abuses and authoritarianism. U.S. efforts to promote democracy and civil society there were viewed as threatening by the Uzbek regime. In an atmosphere of minimal political opposition, illegal and radical dissent — including that funded by extremist Islamist groups abroad — emerged instead of political pluralism. Without alternative voices, some Uzbeks who are not extremists might see extremist groups as the only available avenue for dissent.
Tension between the United States and Uzbekistan intensified after a jailbreak in Uzbekistan's Andijan Province on May 12 and 13. Armed prisoners took hostages and likely took lives. Unarmed civilians joined in the protest that followed. Uzbek officials say 187 people died, including "armed militants" and government personnel. Other estimates suggest thousands died, mostly civilians. We may never know what the true number was.
Some demonstrators fled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan demanded their extradition. Following pressure from the United States and others, the refugees received safe passage to a third country. U.S. involvement was viewed as meddling by Uzbek opponents of ties with America. U.S. opponents of the relationship didn't want Washington to cozy up to a dictatorship with the blood of its own people on its hands. When Uzbekistan asked the United States to leave the air base at Karshi-Khanabad, many in both countries were pleased.
But with or without U.S. troops based on its territory, Uzbekistan shares important interests with the United States. Common interests are what prompted the Uzbek government to give America access to Karshi-Khanabad in late 2001 to support U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan had long opposed the Taliban and was eager to see it fall. Other shared goals include the fights against terrorism, narcotics-trafficking, other transnational crime and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Uzbekistan's own evolution is no less important to the United States. The country remains a way station for illegal and dangerous trafficking in drugs, weapons and fighters. This has made the Uzbek government a valuable partner in combating those problems. Regardless of whether there was foreign involvement in Andijan, as the Uzbek government asserts, the speed with which the demonstration turned violent bodes ill for future protests and Uzbek government responses.
This means that the United States must seek to maintain security ties with Uzbekistan, and not just because ending ties would hamper existing cooperation. With business contacts shrunk and direct democratization assistance refused, cessation of what remains would close off Uzbekistan entirely. The U.S. record of bringing democracy to the less-democratic countries it cooperates with — and there are many besides Uzbekistan — is mixed. America's record of democratizing countries with which it has no ties, however, is nonexistent.
Moreover, U.S. security contacts with Uzbekistan can advance democratic goals. Such ties can demonstrate to Uzbek security personnel that respect for human rights is not incompatible with security. Contacts also maintain U.S. links with more-moderate elements within the Uzbek government and might embolden them. The contacts also provide an awareness of developments and links to nongovernmental types. Thus, they might help prevent future Andijans.
Although its communiqué instructing the United States to vacate Karshi-Khanabad cited a desire for continued cooperation, Uzbekistan might choose to cut contacts. But as long as the United States has the option, it should identify what aspects of cooperation with Uzbekistan advance its policy goals and work to maintain those ties.
This is in the interests of both countries.
Olga Oliker is a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in Baltimore Sun on September 6, 2005. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.