The U.S.'s top diplomat responsible for Central Asia just finished a trip to Uzbekistan, amid increasing speculation that the two countries are seeking to upgrade their relationship, in particular their military cooperation.
Robert Blake, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, visited Tashkent from August 15-18. His visit came after an eventful summer: in June, Uzbekistan suspended its membership in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Many observers interpreted the move as motivated by Uzbekistan's intention to allow the U.S. to set up some sort of military base in the country. The CSTO requires members to get permission from other members before allowing foreign military bases; i.e., Russia gets a veto. Leaving the CSTO could free Uzbekistan up to allow a U.S. base. But then, earlier this month, Uzbekistan's parliament passed a new law forbidding foreign military bases.
That didn't stop many from continuing to speculate that the purpose of Blake's visit to Uzbekistan was to set up a military base. Most notably, the Kazakhstan newspaper Liter, an organ of the ruling Nur Otan party, reported that "We can dare to suggest that Robert Blake's visit will result in signing an agreement on deploying US troops on Uzbek soil." Blake, of course, denied that was on the agenda. And at a press conference in Almaty just before his trip to Tashkent, he said that while the U.S. will be leaving Uzbekistan some lefover military equipment after it leaves Afghanistan, that equipment likely won't include lethal weapons:
With respect to Uzbekistan, I do not think there will be any lethal weapons of any kind that will be offered. I think most of the kind of things that will be on offer will be military vehicles, Humvees, those kind of things. It is in our interests to provide those kinds of equipment. Uzbekistan has been a strong supporter of the NDN. That has in turn raised their profile with international terrorist organizations, who may want to target Uzbekistan in retribution. So, it is very much in our interest to help Uzbekistan defend itself against such attacks.
We are certainly prepared to think about how we can do that. I myself have been engaged over the last year in the U.S. Congress to get a waiver so that we can provide non-lethal military assistance to Uzbekistan, even though they have not met a lot of the human rights conditions that would allow for more regular military assistance. That waiver has been approved. We are providing non-lethal military assistance now and will continue to do so, and the EDA process will be one way that we could help.
Anyway, the Kazakh newspaper report might be seen in terms of Kazakhstan's rivarly with Uzbekistan; the Kazakhstan government has barely disguised its jealousy as the U.S. gets closer to Uzbekistan. That perception certainly wasn't helped by Blake's unexplained* decision to cut short his time in Kazakhstan, canceling an event to present the U.S.'s New Silk Road strategy in Almaty, doing it in Tashkent instead.
Interestingly, the Uzbek state television report on Blake's visit didn't mention the NDN at all, and only briefly referred to security issues, according to BBC Monitoring:
They also exchanged views on the situation in Afghanistan and in Central Asia in terms of ensuring security and stability, and also discussed some other problems concerning the two countries.
The bulk ot the Uzbek report focused on the U.S. business delegation that went along with Blake. Of course it's not surprising that the Uzbekistan government would want to frame its cooperation with the U.S. in terms of economic benefits rather than the war effort in Afghanistan; it's hard to imagine what benefit the average Uzbek would see in his country's participation in that conflict.
While a base per se may not have been on the agenda, Blake was certainly interested in understanding Uzbekistan's motivations for its recent moves, said regional analyst Bruce Pannier, speaking to Trend.az:
Blake would probably be interested in hearing Uzbek officials, President Karimov first of all, explain the motive or logic from withdrawing from the CSTO again, Pannier said.
Uzbekistan already did so in 1999, and then it returned back.
"And the big question is what this new policy means for the base the Germans use at Termez and the Navoi airport the U.S. uses to refuel as well as the Northern Distribution Network into Afghanistan," he added.
And Roman Muzalevsky, in an analysis for Eurasia Daily Monitor, astutely notes that the recent moves have strengthened Tashkent's bargaining position with Washington:
The timing of the consultations, Uzbekistan’s decision to pull-out of the CSTO, and the ban on military bases as part of the national security strategy bill suggests that Tashkent may be bargaining to get the most out of the talks with Washington, which relies heavily on Tashkent’s role in the NDN.
Blake's boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is reportedly planning to visit Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in October.*
*UPDATE: A State Department spokesperson got in touch to make a couple of clarifications:
“Secretary Clinton currently has no plans to visit Central Asia. Assistant Secretary Blake recently enjoyed a trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, despite issues with flight delays that caused him to have to drop a planned stop in Astana. In both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan Assistant Secretary Blake met with a broad cross-section of government officials and civil society representatives to discuss a wide range of regional and bilateral issues.”