A week ago, after Human Rights Watch issued a statement criticizing the White House for seeking to ease restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan, a State Department spokesperson promised to provide me with more information on what exactly sort of aid was being sought. After repeated inquiries, I still haven't heard anything, so it's safe to assume there will be no information for now. HRW suggested that the aid was to bribe Uzbekistan into greater cooperation with the Northern Distribution Network, the overland supply lines to Afghanistan that pass through Uzbekistan. The spokesperson told me that they had gotten several inquiries, but the only additional information (and it's not much) has come from Steve LeVine, of Foreign Policy, who talked to an unnamed U.S. official:
The senior U.S. official, who asked not to be identified, argued that the U.S. is not bribing the Uzbeks, but "seeking congressional support so small amounts of non-lethal assistance can be provided so Uzbekistan can defend itself against possible retribution from militants who might attack them for supporting NDN." This assistance includes items such as body armor, he said. Regarding Karimov's intolerance of opponents and critics, he said that the U.S. presses Uzbekistan to improve its human rights record and "we have acheived some progress."
Any time the Uzbekistan government justifies something by saying it is needed to protect against militants, we should immediately be skeptical. This is an old trope with them, and there have as yet been no attacks on the NDN in Uzbekistan or anywhere else. What small amount of militant activity used to exist in Uzbekistan has been completely wiped out -- does anyone remember the last time there was any sort of attack there?
The crucial question that Human Rights Watch raised was: Why does the U.S. need these restrictions to be lifted? As they point out, Uzbekistan's government has its own very strong interests in keeping the NDN running. Without more information about what the Pentagon wants to offer Uzbekistan, what they might get in return, or what Uzbekistan might withhold if the U.S. doesn't provide it, it's impossible to judge whether or not this is a good or bad bargain with Tashkent. While HRW is erring on the side of assuming it will be a bad deal, the Washington Post is erring on the side of it being a good deal, taking the military's word for it that whatever they're offering to Uzbekistan is necessary:
Human rights groups are lining up to pressure Congress not to authorize the provision of U.S. military aid to the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan, even though such assistance could prove crucial to getting supplies into and out of Afghanistan....
For Washington, however, the government of Islam Karimov matters more now than perhaps at any other time in the history of their relationship....
[T]here’s little doubt that improved relations with Uzbekistan could assist in the war effort. There’s a vast distribution network to get supplies to troops in Afghanistan, but Uzbekistan just happens to be in the strategically perfect place.
Meanwhile, NPR also happens to have a piece on the NDN today, in which there is no mention of any concern about human rights. The network is afraid, one imagines, of cementing their liberal reputation that has led conservative politicians in the U.S. to try to defund them. But that's another story. As long as the U.S. doesn't explain what it's seeking to do vis-a-vis aid to Uzbekistan, we can only assume it's bad news.
UPDATE: The State Department spokesperson did get back to me on Saturday, and provided me with this statement:
"We are pursuing an active diplomatic effort with Uzbekistan and its neighbors to promote stronger economic ties through South and Central Asia so that goods, capital, and people can flow more easily across borders. We are pursuing these agreements to better support our troops in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan and the United States have a common interest in regional stability."