Balancing Short-Term Gain and Long-Term Pain
Jeff Goldstein discusses the growing importance of the Northern Distribution Network in Uzbekistan and its influence on U.S. security interests.

September 20, 2011

By Jeff Goldstein

The piece originally appeared in The Hill.

Due to the deteriorating conditions in Pakistan, the Obama Administration has placed a lot of emphasis over the past few years on strengthening the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) as an alternative overland supply route to reach troops in Afghanistan. The NDN runs through Uzbekistan, undeniably one of the most authoritarian countries in the world.

As the NDN grows in importance, the U.S. has become increasingly consumed by the fear that Uzbek strongman Islom Karimov may at some point end his support for NDN, much as he expelled the United States from a strategic airbase in 2005.

This fear is making the U.S. both falter on its principles and put its own long-term security interests at risk. Although the NDN has expanded rapidly over the last two years, the Administration is now seeking favor with Karimov by pressing Congress to lift sanctions that prevent the U.S. from providing Foreign Military Financing or International Military Education and Training assistance to Uzbekistan. Congress imposed these sanctions due to the Uzbek government’s failure to address the country’s abysmal human rights and democracy record.

Ironically, the long-term danger to U.S. interests of becoming too closely linked to foreign dictators is currently on display – yet again – in Egypt, where the first poll conducted after the overthrow of the Mubarak regime showed deep public distrust of the United States.

As President Obama recognized in a speech on the “Arab Spring” earlier this year: “[F]ailure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our own interests at their expense… Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder.”

This argument is not completely lost on U.S. officials in the Uzbekistan case; but they dismiss the long-term danger as yet another cost of fighting a war in a distant, landlocked country surrounded by unsavory neighbors.

But, is the cost really justified? 2007 cables from the U.S. embassy in Tashkent, recently published by Wikileaks, indicate that Karimov himself ordered his government to make an all-out effort to renew ties with the United States, which had gone into a severe decline after Uzbek security forces opened fire indiscriminately on civilians in the provincial city of Andijon in 2005, killing hundreds.

Moreover, Karimov has important reasons of his own for wanting international forces to succeed in Afghanistan and the U.S. to remain engaged in the region. Most importantly, one of the Taliban’s major allies in the fight against coalition forces is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a terrorist organization whose goal is to overthrow Karimov and create an Islamic caliphate in post-Soviet Central Asia.

The NDN has expanded dramatically over the last two years even with Congressional sanctions in place; providing military aid is not essential to ensuring access to the NDN. Meanwhile, the repressive policies of the Karimov regime could actually stoke extremism in Uzbekistan.

As recent dramatic developments across Central Asia and the Middle East demonstrate, being seen as propping up the Karimov dictatorship could wind up badly damaging U.S. interests down the road; it is a red line the U.S. should not cross.

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