Amid the release of a report detailing the widespread and systematic use of torture in Uzbekistan, the US Defense Department may make a major donation to Tashkent’s security establishment. Under the plan currently being considered, Uzbekistan would obtain equipment that the Pentagon deems redundant or outdated for use by the American military.
The legality of giving Uzbekistan the equipment, categorized as Excess Defense Articles (EDA), seems sketchy. According to Section 7076 of the Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Act 2009, Uzbekistan would be eligible for EDA only if Tashkent makes "substantial and continuing progress" in a variety of areas, including "respect for internationally recognized human rights, establishing a genuine multi-party system, and ensuring free and fair elections, freedom of expression, and the independence of the media."
International watchdog groups generally rank Uzbekistan as one of the most repressive, authoritarian-minded states on earth. The country’s human rights reputation took a battering on December 13, when a report released by Human Rights Watch detailed how Uzbek authorities employ a wide variety of torture techniques against detainees, including beating with rubber truncheons, electric shock and sexual assault. Laws adopted by Uzbekistan supposedly designed to strengthen the administration of justice, including a 2008 measure covering habeas corpus, have gone unimplemented, the HRW report adds.
The restriction on giving EDA items to Uzbekistan could be waived by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, if she determines "that the Government of Uzbekistan has taken concrete and measurable steps to improve respect for internationally recognized human rights."
According to Third Army commander Lt. Gen. Vincent Brooks, who visited Uzbekistan in late November, one of the key issues he discussed with the Uzbek Ministry of Defense was the transfer of military equipment to Uzbekistan from US forces fighting in Afghanistan. "I think that there are ways that the excess equipment could benefit both countries, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, with the excess of US equipment from the war," he was quoted as saying.
Pentagon planners consider Uzbekistan an essential ally in the US-led war effort. Uzbekistan serves as a hub for the Northern Distribution Network, a vital supply line for shipping non-military goods in and out Afghanistan.
State Department diplomats declined to comment on Lt. Gen. Brooks' remarks or the Department's stance on the current restrictions against providing EDA to Uzbekistan. Diplomats referred questions to US Central Command.
Representatives of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) were reticent when asked to elaborate on Brooks’ comments. "What we can tell you is that Lt. Gen. Brooks visited Uzbekistan on a familiarization tour to meet with government officials, as this region falls under his area of responsibility as Commander of the US Army Central Command,” said CENTCOM spokesman Maj. David Nevers. “The general was in Tashkent to discuss cooperation with regards to the drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan.”
Nevers also stressed that the United States is not angling for a long-lasting base in Uzbekistan. “The United States is not interested in a permanent military presence in Afghanistan or Central Asia, and Lt.
Gen. Brooks did not seek any permanent US military presence in Uzbekistan," Nevers said.
Despite ongoing concerns about Uzbekistan's human rights record, the United States has assiduously courted the favor of Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov. A meeting between Clinton and Karimov in Tashkent in October marked a high note. A succession of top ranking US military officers, including Lt. Gen. Brooks, has also passed through the Central Asian state in recent months.
Critics of Pentagon policy in Central Asia warn that plans to grant EDA items to Uzbekistan are "a recipe for disaster." A former OSCE security advisor told EurasiaNet.org that any move to arm, or assist the Uzbek army would be detrimental to US regional interests. "It will provide an adverse reaction in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan,” the source said.
“Why arm up the former Soviet Union state that hates everyone and everyone hates, regularly competes over water rights and is believed to torture their own people?” the source continued. “Stocking up Uzbekistan with munitions will create a dangerous imbalance of power within an already fractious region."
Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asia director for International Crisis Group, said Washington's perception of its security interests appeared flawed. He described US efforts to secure diplomatic ties with Uzbekistan as reckless and shortsighted. "It's always possible that Lt. Gen. Brooks was speaking out of turn, but the mere thought that officials in Washington are ready to consider supplying surplus military equipment to Tashkent is very disturbing. It also smacks of something akin to desperation,” Quinn-Judge said.
Quinn-Judge said there was a considerable danger that any US weapons supplied to the Uzbek military could end up being used against civilians in Uzbekistan, or, one way or another, fall into the hands of Taliban insurgents. “There can be no doubt that Uzbekistan is one of the most brutal and authoritarian regimes in the region. Right now it looks very stable: but so have a lot of other authoritarian friends of the United States in the past year or so,” he said. “You would have thought that Washington would have learned caution, but it seems like barely sublimated anxiety about the situation in Afghanistan is leading them to cling to any leader who expresses support."
In September, the United States took steps to waive sanctions prohibiting Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to Uzbekistan. These sanctions were linked to human rights concerns. EDA, if they are provided to Uzbekistan, could be transferred to Tashkent free of charge, or sold with a minimum 50 percent discount on the original acquisition price under the FMS program.
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.