New Friends, New Fears in Central Asia

Courtesy Reuters


Since the states of Central Asia broke free from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991, U.S. policy toward the region has been focused on promoting political and economic stability among Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The Clinton administration sought to achieve this goal by fostering regional cooperation, relying on multilateral institutions such as NATO's Partnership for Peace and the Central Asian Economic Community (CAEC). Some critics, however, argued instead for a realpolitik-based approach to stability that would promote Uzbekistan as a regional hegemon. This latter vision has now become reality, because the United States has needed Uzbek bases and transit links to wage the war on terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan. But the Bush administration should proceed with caution: its wartime ally may well worsen the very problems Washington needs to tackle.

To wage its war on al Qaeda and the Taliban, the United States has enlisted the support of Uzbekistan and its authoritarian ruler, Islam Karimov. This new relationship involves a direct exchange of strategic resources. Uzbekistan, which has the best transport facilities, air bases, and military capabilities in the region, has allowed the United States to station troops, airplanes, and helicopters at an Uzbek air base and to use Uzbek territory to launch offensive strikes on Afghanistan. The United States, in return, promptly inserted into the emergency appropriations bill passed by Congress in September 2001 a $25 million grant to Uzbekistan for weapons and other military purchases. Then, in January, Washington announced that Uzbekistan will receive $100 million of the $4 billion Congress has allocated for fighting terrorism. That aid is supposed to eventually extend beyond military and security purposes to help Karimov's government resuscitate its economy, which has been strangled by drought, falling cotton prices, and the lowest level of foreign investment per capita in Central Asia.

The rationale for Washington's marriage of convenience to Tashkent is clear and understandable. But inertia and the logic of events may tempt the Bush administration to let a temporary expedient grow into

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