France is finding it difficult these days to get its troops to and from the fight in Afghanistan. In an interview with L'Orient-Le Jour, the French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet says that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan via Uzbekistan and the rest of the Northern Distribution Network is "too costly." From RFE/RL, which cited the interview:
Longuet said the route was "not optimal" for withdrawing NATO forces but conceded the better option -- via Pakistan -- was currently more complicated due to "spoiled relations" between NATO countries, particularly the U.S., and the Pakistani government.
That chill in ties followed a November 26 NATO air strike that hit Pakistani troops on Pakistan's side of the Afghan border, killing 26 soldiers.
The interview doesn't give any indication of how France intends to deal with that dilemma. France, of course, just announced that it is withdrawing from Afghanistan a year earlier than planned, after four of its troops were killed by a rogue Afghanistan government soldier. That, too, could be pinned on the Americans; the killer allegedly attacked the French because he was angry about a video showing U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban members.
NATO and Russia are working on an agreement to set up a multi-modal transport hub in Ulyanovsk, in Russia's Volga region, to assist the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, reports the Russian newspaper Kommersant, citing Russian diplomats. Via Johnson's Russia List:
Talks on establishing a NATO logistics base in central Russia started one-and-a-half years ago. A source from the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the United States proposed a Russian city where "cargo from Afghanistan could be airlifted and then forwarded by rail to Latvia or Estonia." After discussing several locations, both parties agreed to set up the hub in Ulyanovsk because its airport is best suited to the task in that region due to the proximity of railway lines.
Russian Railways and Volga-Dnieper Airlines, which are already involved in delivering NATO cargo from Afghanistan to Europe, are expected to benefit, as the project will increase cargo traffic considerably.
The report adds that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will soon sign an agreement on the proposal.
Intriguingly, one of the reasons that the facility at Ulyanovsk will be needed is because Uzbekistan is wary of the reverse transit, specifically about the possibility of drugs or arms being smuggled in along with it:
[The Ulyanovsk hub] is also important because of Uzbekistan, whose territory is currently used for the supply of goods to Afghanistan, does not want to allow them in the opposite direction.
"The Uzbeks are afraid of the importation of drugs and weapons. It's not so easy to check whole trainloads of military equipment," says the diplomat.
Uzbekistan is slated to get some new night vision goggles, bulletproof vests and GPS equipment from the U.S., a State Department official has said. A couple of weeks ago, the U.S. formally notified Congress that it intends to again start giving Uzbekistan military aid, which had been halted since 2002 because of concerns about human rights. At the time it wasn't clear what exactly would be given to Tashkent under the waiver, but now the State Department has described in a little more detail what is under discussion here. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, at a press conference on February 1:
Examples of the kinds of things that this waiver was given for – this will enhance the Uzbeks’ ability to counteract transnational terrorism and all – things like night vision goggles, personal protection equipment, global positioning systems. It’s defensive in nature, and it’s also supportive of their ability to secure the routes in and out of Afghanistan.
It's not clear that there is in fact any significant threat to the NDN in Uzbekistan. The closest thing so far, initially called a "terror" attack by the Uzbek authorities, appears more and more to be looking like an inside job. More likely, this is the pretext that the Uzbekistan government is using to justify the aid, knowing that that will resonate with U.S. policymakers; their real interest is likely geopolitical, that is showing Russia that they have other options for security other than Moscow and the CSTO.
At the press conference, Nuland also addressed the question of human rights and this aid:
What's the biggest "threat" emanating from the Caucasus and Central Asia? Every year the head of the U.S. intelligence community is required to give to Congress a "Worldwide Threat Assessment" describing all the things that could go wrong for the U.S. around the world. Yesterday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper submitted this year's version (pdf), and our humble region got four paragraphs in the 30-page report. The facts in the report won't be news to readers of The Bug Pit, but what threats the intelligence community chooses to highlight are worth looking at:
The unresolved conflicts of the Caucasus and the fragility of some Central Asian states represent the most likely flashpoints in the Eurasia region. Moscow‟s occupation and military presence in and expanded political-economic ties to Georgia‟s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia account for some of the tensions. Meanwhile, Tbilisi charged Russia with complicity in a series of bombings in Georgia in 2010 and 2011, while the Kremlin has been suspicious about Georgian engagement with ethnic groups in Russia‟s North Caucasus. Georgia‟s new constitution strengthens the office of the Prime Minister after the 2013 presidential election, leading some to expect that President Saakashvili may seek to stay in power by serving as Prime Minister, which could impact the prospect for reducing tensions.
Earlier this week, the U.S. designated three men as members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), shadowy groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And U.S. agents arrested a fourth man in the U.S., charging him with supporting the IJU.
These moves have prompted skepticism about whether the IMU and IJU are in fact real threats, and questions about whether the U.S. is trumping up these charges -- or even selling out Uzbekistan's dissidents -- for the sake of Tashkent's cooperation on the Northern Distribution Network. These are worthwhile questions to be asking, even while there's still too little information to come to conclusive answers.
But if this is a sort of "payment" by Washington to Tashkent, it wouldn't be the first time. Political scientist Eric McGlinchey, in his new book Chaos, Violence, Dynasty: Politics and Islam in Central Asia, discusses how the IMU got on the State Department's official list of terrorist organizations -- ultimately making this week's arrest and sanctions possible:
Central Asia is chock full of beautiful places, pristine prairies and mountain valleys that look as if they’ve never been touched by mankind. But many spots are well-documented environmental wastelands. How does the damage measure up to the rest of the world?
Radio Free Europe has flagged an interesting new ranking of global environmental performance, which shows Central Asian countries crowding the bottom of the list.
Researchers at Yale and Columbia universities have ranked 132 countries for environmental performance based on 10 categories, such as the effects of water and air pollution on human and environmental health, a country’s approach to managing natural resources, and climate change policy. The sixth annual Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranked Kazakhstan 129th, Uzbekistan 130th and Turkmenistan 131st. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, with the most lackluster economies in the region, fared slightly better at 121 and 101, respectively.
RFE/RL spoke with Angel Hsu, EPI project director at Yale, who said Kazakhstan’s poor performance is explained in part by its emissions record:
"For Kazakhstan, they performed the lowest on climate change and air [quality], and this is due to the fact that they have heavy dependence on coal." According to Hsu, "forty five percent of their carbon dioxide emissions come from the country's coal-fired power plants, and what I found interesting is that they have very little active government policies to expand renewable energy in the electricity sector."
Diversion of rivers and other water management problems – politically-charged issues that plague the region as a whole – also dragged down Kazakhstan's score.
Uzbekistan’s apparatchik-in-chief could still give a Sovietologist pause. Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, President Islam Karimov – an economist by training – continues to stuff his people full of fabulous statistics, records even. But like the excerpts from a Central Committee meeting, something doesn’t quite add up.
No one in Uzbekistan misses the old Soviet Union, Karimov told his nation recently, because life since independence has become even more equitable (his own multi-millionaire daughters aside): “If you recall, back in 1990 from the rostrum I addressed our people, specifically the youth, my children, to say that in the future Uzbekistan, there would be a just state where there would be neither very rich nor very poor people.” How did independent Uzbekistan, rising out of the ashes of that failed utopia, meet these ideals? The answers are in the statistics, which Karimov skims over with alacrity.
From his January 19 speech to the Cabinet of Ministers, marked by a two-hour program on state television the next day (transcription and translation by BBC Monitoring):
Now there are some people nostalgic for the old times. I am sure that there are no such people in Uzbekistan at all. […] One can hear views on TV and through the media that after the collapse of the USSR all went bankrupt. If a person wants to have a personal, independent opinion on this, let him see the figures. Let him comprehend the figures. After this, no propaganda is needed. And there is no need to persuade him or tell lies to him. Everything will be clear to him by comparing the two things.
Compare or not, despite promises the USSR is dead and buried, Karimov moves on to sound eerily like a commissar:
The government of Uzbekistan continues to deny basic human rights to its citizens, torturing detainees, persecuting the faithful, and forcing children to labor in the cotton fields, Human Rights Watch says in its World Report 2012. In essence, the New York-based watchdog says, nothing has changed and Uzbekistan’s record “remains appalling.”
The charges are nothing new to readers of this blog, but for the record:
Uzbek authorities regularly threaten, imprison, ill-treat, and torture human rights defenders and other peaceful civil society activists. In 2011 the Uzbek government continued to harass activists and interfere with independent civil society.
The Uzbek government holds at least 13 human rights defenders in prison, and has brought charges against others, because of their human rights work. They are: Solijon Abdurakhmanov, Azam Formonov, Nosim Isakov, Gaibullo Jalilov, Alisher Karamatov, Jamshid Karimov, Norboi Kholjigitov, Abdurasul Khudainasarov, Ganihon Mamatkhanov, Habibulla Okpulatov, Yuldash Rasulov, Dilmurod Saidov, and Akzam Turgunov.
Several are in very poor health and at least seven have been ill-treated or tortured in custody. For example, relatives of imprisoned rights defender Gaibullo Jalilov reported after a January 2011 visit that he had been repeatedly tortured, including being beaten with a stick that left him nearly deaf in both ears.
On the 2005 Andijan massacre:
The Uzbek government also continued to intimidate families of Andijan survivors who have sought refuge abroad. Police subject them to constant surveillance, call them for questioning, and threaten them with criminal charges or home confiscation.
Uzbekistan may be trying to improve its reputation among cat lovers.
A court in Tashkent has begun hearings on the murder of a domestic cat, the Uznews.net website reports. The cat was killed on January 7, allegedly shot by one Alisher Shukurov with an air rifle in the Mirzo-Ulugbek district of Tashkent. Animal rights activists at the January 19 hearing presented evidence including a bullet taken from the cat's skull and video footage of the execution.
But the trial has been postponed because, according to the report, a man admitted guilt in place of Shukurov, the son of a former police official who had been convicted for abuse of power: “Witnesses believe the young man is either a relative of the Shukurovs or a hired worker forced ‘to play the role of the culprit.’”
Ailurophiles may recall with horror the violent raid on the Tashkent home of Vladimir Kravchenko by health inspectors last July. The officials allegedly poisoned two of Kravchenko’s beloved cats on the spot and seized another before a fourth could jump to its death out the fourth-floor apartment window. Later, Kravchenko received anonymous calls taunting him with news the seized cat’s kittens would be fed to other animals at the zoo.
Cats are not uniformly hated in Uzbekistan, however, as evidenced by the popularity of a patriotic Uzbek version of the Nyan Cat meme on YouTube.
The defense bill that President Obama signed into law on December 31 contained a provision by which the U.S. could again start providing military aid to Uzbekistan, if the Secretary of State certifies that there is a national security reason for doing so. It also requires the State Department to provide an assessment of the progress that Uzbekistan has made in human rights.
Today, the State Department for the first time used that waiver, State Department officials tell The Bug Pit. And they sent along the language of the human rights assessment, which will likely warm the hearts of human rights groups: despite several recent statements by U.S. diplomats suggesting that Uzbekistan's human rights situation might be improving, there is no such implication in this document. (Of course, this is also probably why the State Department volunteered to send the document along.) The entire assessment is below, and it summarizes the woeful state of political, religious and media freedom; prison conditions; torture; child and forced labor; and the lack of an independent investigation into the notorious Andijan "events."
I wasn't told what aid specifically the State Department was seeking to provide via this waiver, but presumably it is the $100,000 in border guard training that has been already discussed. Anyway, the takeaway here appears to be that the U.S. can provide military aid to Uzbekistan without saying silly things about human rights there.