Perhaps the biggest success at the NATO summit in Bucharest was an under-the-radar development, in which Uzbekistan consented to giving NATO forces an overland re-supply route to Afghanistan. But Tashkent's acceptance comes with a potentially problematic catch for the United States.
Capping a period of intensive diplomacy, Pamela Spratlen, the acting US deputy secretary of state for Central and South Asian affairs, spent five days in Uzbekistan, from March 27-April 1, meeting with top Uzbek leaders. The mission was shrouded in secrecy -- a fact underscored by a statement issued April 1 by the US embassy in Tashkent that described Spratlen's extended tour in Uzbekistan only as "a useful visit."
Prior to the NATO conclave in Bucharest on April 2-4, Russia signaled that it would facilitate a transit corridor. Attending the discussions on April 4, Uzbek President Islam Karimov also formally endorsed the plan. An overland route may prove a particular boost to reconstruction assistance bound for Afghanistan.
"We in Uzbekistan are acutely aware that the decisive factor for security is the attainment of peace and stability in Afghanistan," Karimov said in an address to the assembled heads of state. Karimov added that Afghanistan's stabilization would create "big opportunities for the resolution of vitally important problems of the stable socio-economic development of the entire Central Asian region."
Karimov indicated that Tashkent was agreeing to a transit corridor -- in which the Uzbek border city of Termez would serve as the hub -- mainly out of a desire to keep NATO engaged in Afghanistan. During the run-up to the Bucharest summit, some NATO member states indicated that they might consider pulling their troop contingents out of Afghanistan if no steps were taken to reinforce the war effort. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"There is no alternative here, since the aggravation of the confrontation … represents a serious challenge to global security and international stability,” Karimov said.
While US officials could applaud Karimov’s decision on the transit corridor, the Uzbek leader made a proposal in Bucharest sure to give Washington pause. Specifically, he called for the revival of the so-called 6 + 2 stabilization process. The 6 +2 formula, which functioned from 1997 up until the September 11 terrorist tragedy, brought together the United States and Russia, along with Afghanistan’s six neighboring states -- China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- in efforts to promote Afghan stabilization.
In Bucharest, Karimov proposed expanding the format to 6 + 3 with the inclusion of NATO as a new participant. Russia appeared to give a rapid endorsement to Karimov’s suggestion. But the United States, which wields the most outside influence over stabilization operations, seems certain to resist such a plan, given that it would seem to give nations with interests that diverge drastically from Washington’s agenda a license to meddle in Afghanistan.
Aside from the 6 +3 proposal, there is plentiful evidence to suggest that while Uzbekistan is again willing to work with the United States, Tashkent is not necessarily Washington’s friend. During Spratlen’s visit to Tashkent, for example, the Uzbek senate formally ratified the Collective Security Treaty, a Central Asian security arrangement that is dominated by Moscow. The timing of the move seemed to reaffirm Tashkent’s commitment to close strategic cooperation with Russia.
In his Bucharest speech, Karimov made several other points that could make policy makers in Washington uncomfortable. For example, he urged that the international community “respect and support the traditional religious, national, cultural values and customs of the multinational people of Afghanistan.” While on the surface, such an appeal has self-evident merits, examined within the Central Asian context of authoritarianism, it sounds like a call to jettison the democratization process in Afghanistan.
Likewise, Karimov urged joint efforts involving Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan to address the issue of lawlessness in Pakistani tribal areas. Islamic militant groups, including those comprising Uzbek fighters, have used the tribal areas as safe havens as they went about reviving the insurgent operations in Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf, who retains the support of the Bush administration, but who is struggling to survive politically at home, has been reluctant to crack down on the tribal areas. Even if Musharraf did have the political will to do so at this stage, it’s unclear whether he retains sufficient authority to carry out an anti-militant sweep of the tribal areas.
Karimov wasn’t the only Central Asian leader attending the Bucharest summit. Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov also participated. He reportedly pushed a pipeline plan that would connect Turkmenistan to South Asia via Afghanistan, touting it as a way to speed the strife-torn country’s economic revival.
Berdymukhamedov was also treated to a side meeting with US President George W. Bush, whose administration is a strong supporter of a plan to build a trans-Caspian Sea natural gas pipeline, which would transport Turkmen energy to Western European markets. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Berdymukhamedov has long expressed interest in the trans-Caspian project, but has consistently refrained from making a specific commitment. It was much the same story in Bucharest. “Turkmenistan … remains committed to its strategy of diversifying export routes on the global market,” Berdymukhamedov told Bush, according to a report distributed by the state-controlled Khabarlary news agency.