Central Asian states do not face an “imminent” threat posed by Islamic militants, but they need US assistance to help defend against potential dangers, according to top US diplomats. Such assistance, it appears, may include drone aircraft delivered to Uzbekistan, which democratization watchdogs rank as one of the most repressive states in the world.
“We do not assess that there is an imminent Islamist militant threat to Central Asian states,” said Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, speaking at a hearing held by the US House of Representatives on “Islamist Militant Threats to Eurasia” on February 27.
“The most capable terrorist groups with links to Central Asia, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan [IMU] and the Islamic Jihad Union, [IJU] remain focused on operations in western Pakistan and Afghanistan,” added Justin Siberell, the State Departments deputy coordinator for counterterrorism. “Neither the IMU nor IJU are considered exceedingly powerful individually, and will likely remain focused on operations in this same region, even after 2014.”
The hearing took place as Congress, the State Department and Pentagon discuss expanding military aid to Central Asian countries, in particular Uzbekistan. These countries have cooperated with the United States in establishing transportation routes for US and coalition military cargo to-and-from Afghanistan, a network known as the Northern Distribution Network. Some Central Asian governments are arguing that they need US assistance to protect themselves against Islamist militants following the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.
The threat may not be imminent, but extending security assistance to the Central Asian states is justifiable, Blake maintained.
“Although the threat has been kept at bay, as our forces withdraw from the region we must continue our efforts to help prevent terrorist recruitment and strengthen the Central Asian countries’ [counterterrorism] capacities, so they can defend themselves in a responsible and measured fashion,” Blake said. “With Uzbekistan, we've begun a very careful, calibrated approach to supporting the defensive needs – because they face real threats, not just because of their support to the Northern Distribution Network, but because of groups like the IMU and the IJU are actively targeting them.”
While Islamist threats do exist in Central Asia, they do not necessarily justify expanded US assistance, said Nathan Barrick, a consultant for CLI Solutions, who also testified at the hearing. The threats are likely to be minor, and the security services of Central Asia have proven effective in containing them, he said. “The desire in Central Asia for US assistance in countering Islamist militants is not the same as a 'need' or 'requirement' for US assistance,” he wrote in testimony for the committee.
Stephen Blank, of the US Army War College, said that whatever the terror threats in Central Asia, the US military would probably not be able to do much to counter them. “To bring about good governance that would preclude the outbreak of terrorism in these and other places is probably beyond our capability and resources. … And the US military is no more equipped to undertake those responsibilities than is the rest of the government,” he said in his testimony to the committee. [Editor’s note: Blank is an occasional commentator for Eurasianet.]
Ariel Cohen, of the Heritage Foundation, added that “US assistance must be careful not to strengthen the repressive law enforcement and security services components that the regimes deploy against political opposition.”
The prospect of additional military aid to Uzbekistan has alarmed human rights activists, who assert that Uzbekistan exaggerates the threat of Islamist radicalism to justify its harsh dictatorship. Activists also say US equipment is likely to be used against existing or future political opponents or protesters.
Blake attempted to downplay such concerns, saying he was confident “that the approach we have taken with Central Asia helps proactively strengthen the region’s capacity to combat terrorism and counter extremism, while encouraging democratic reform and respect for human rights.” He also said that Uzbekistan taking steps to improve its respect for human rights “will enable us to do more on the weapons side.”
Some members of Congress did not appear to be so concerned about Uzbekistan's human rights record. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who was recently named chairman of the Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats Subcommittee, returned on February 25 from a trip to Uzbekistan, where he met with President Islam Karimov.
Rohrabacher suggested that the Uzbek government's restrictions on human rights are justified because of the threat of Islamism. “Some of the things that they are being criticized in Uzbekistan for denying religious rights and freedom of speech are basically trying to prevent radical sects of Islam from taking hold,” he said. And he recommended treating Uzbekistan like Saudi Arabia, another country with a poor human rights record to which the United States sells weapons for strategic reasons.
Ted Poe, a Texas Republican and chairman of the subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation, and trade, was in Uzbekistan with Rohrabacher, and said that Karimov's concerns about Islamists were justified. “They [Islamist groups] want to establish Islamic rule in the region, institute sharia law,” he said. “If they had their way they would take over Central Asia just like the Taliban took over Afghanistan. The issue is, can they?”
The particulars of expanded US aid to Uzbekistan remain unclear. The White House agreed last year to reinstate military aid to Uzbekistan after freezing it for several years as a result of human rights concerns.The United States has already said it will provide Uzbekistan with global positioning system equipment, night-vision goggles and body armor. US policymakers are now discussing various proposals for new aid, though few details have emerged.
After the hearing, Blake told reporters that the State Department has formally notified Congress of its intent to supply Uzbekistan with unmanned aerial vehicles, or drone aircraft, but State Department officials declined to provide any details.
Blake told the committee that “his supposition” was that the US aid would not include lethal equipment. “Uzbekistan is not asking for major weapons systems, at least not offensive weapons systems. Their major ask of us these days is to help them defend themselves,” he said.
But Rohrabacher said that in his conversation with Karimov, the president indicated that he wanted dramatically expanded military cooperation with the United States. “They made it clear to us that they would prefer replacing all of their former Soviet equipment … with American equipment,” he said.
The United States is also expanding assistance to Uzbekistan's law enforcement agencies. The FBI, for example, is providing an Automated Fingerprint Information System to Uzbekistan, which “will make it possible for authorities to identify fugitives while still in custody” and for Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to share that information, Siberell said. And the United States and Uzbekistan are in talks about reinstating aid under the State Department's Antiterrorism Assistance program, which aids law-enforcement agencies and which had been suspended as a result of human rights concerns, Blake noted.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC-based writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. He is the editor of EurasiaNet's Bug Pit blog.