The head of United States Central Command has visited Uzbekistan as the U.S. works to "rebalance" its policies toward Central Asia, a policy which officials increasingly admit has been excessively focused on security.
General Lloyd Austin, head of CENTCOM, visited Uzbekistan and met with President Islam Karimov among other officials. There was no official word on what the visit was about. Voice of America Uzbek service's Navbahor Imamova, who has good sources on these issues, says that her sources say the visit was "purely maintenance" and included "no basing talk."
That didn't convince everyone, and the Uzbekistan news website uzmetronom reported that Austin was in Uzbekistan to negotiate a new U.S. military base there, and that the U.S. was offering Tashkent a billion dollars a year for the privilege, and that Germany was opposing it behind the scenes. That's all pretty unlikely, but it's interesting coming from uzmetronom; the site is well connected to the country's security services and in Uzbekistan there are obviously strict limits on what can be published. Whatever the reason, the report was of course eagerly picked up by the Russian media.
In March, Austin testified to Congress about the U.S. military's posture in the CENTCOM area, and said this about Uzbekistan:
Our relationship with Uzbekistan is advancing in a deliberate, balanced way driven by shared regional security concerns. We have resumed Special Forces training and initiated a non-binding five-year framework plan. Our bilateral training conducted in June 2013 focused on [counterterror and counternarcotics] and renewed collaboration in support of shared interests. The Uzbeks also continue to provide support for operations in Afghanistan, principally by allowing access to [Northern Distribution Network] routes. While the Uzbeks prefer to work bilaterally, we see significant potential in their expressed desire to contribute positively to regional stability. Our security cooperation programs are carefully managed so as not to upset the regional military balance.
The U.S. military's relationship with Uzbekistan has been a fraught one. A wide range of critics have said that the U.S.'s focus on Afghanistan led it to a misbalanced policy in Central Asia, focused heavily on military support of the war in Afghanistan to the detriment of other priorities, most notably promoting political reform. U.S. officials have strongly pushed back against that notion publicly (while occasionally acknowledging it in private).
But lately U.S. officials, including Austin, have been admitting in public that the relationship was skewed by the requirements of Afghanistan. In his March testimony, Austin suggested that U.S. aid to Central Asian countries would now be less "transactional" and more based on regional threats: "Going forward, initiatives will be tailored to transform our current limited transactional-based relationships into more constructive cooperative exchanges based on common interests and focused on training and equipping them to conduct more effective [counterterror, counterproliferation, and counternarcotics] operations."
And in an interview last week with Imamova, the White House's top official dealing with Central Asia, Celeste Wallander, talked about her recent trip through the region, and also acknowledged that now the U.S. was looking at rebalancing to not focus so heavily on security: ""So much of our focus has been on security, because that was necessary because of the Afghanistan mission. During my trip I had a very strong view that that was important and that the security cooperation needs to continue. But now we have an opportunity with this transition to have more of a balance and support the engagement of all our partners more broadly in the economic, political, and social spheres."
These criticisms of the former policy of military-driven compromise, gentle as they may be, are a pretty good indication that U.S. policy toward Central Asia really is changing as the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan.