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US-Uzbekistan Ties Against Afghanistan Backdrop – Interview

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By Ekaterina Kudashkina

Interview with Annette Bohr, Fellow with the Russia-Eurasia program at the Chatham House in London, U.K.

As far as I understand, this must have been a difficult decision?

You are absolutely right. There has been much discussion on the issue for quite a while and weighting that against protests regarding Uzbekistan human rights violations. But now that the United States has indeed temporarily waived the ban on providing military assistance to Uzbekistan, primarily because of the country’s crucial role in transit of supplies to forces in Afghanistan through the Northern distribution network. Washington banned military aid to Tashkent in 2003 amid concern over human rights abuses. Now that ban has been officially listed as of January 18, but it concerned supplying the Uzbek government with non-lethal items such as night vision goggles and GPS systems, that sort of things. But there is still a banned on lethal materials. So, the clearance there is that it is connected with the U.S. dependence on Uzbekistan for the transports of goods. But just how dependent the U.S. has become is a matter of debate. Some reports say that an estimated 70% of cargo transit in the NDN, that is in Northern Distribution Network, enters via Uzbekistan’s Hairaton Gate; other experts say that figure’s too low, than again one takes into account the fact that all roots pass through Kazakhstan, the real gate keeper in fact.

Could we expand a little bit on the role of Uzbekistan in the situation around Afghanistan?

I think here we should just go straight to the heart of the matter and really discuss a statement that president Karimov made very recently – two weeks ago and obviously that he is terribly concerned about the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, or rather the International Security Assistance Force in 2014 and the fact that it could increase threat of the expansion of terrorist extremist activities. Now, one has to look at this from several points of view. First of all, Karimov in his recent statements pointed out in particular that this withdrawal of U.S. troops will require reforms to Uzbekistan’s armed forces and in particular he noted that the changed conditions and nature of modern military operations require the use of small mobile units and non-contact forms and methods of warfare when it comes to information. Clearly the U.S. would be the best prepared to help Uzbekistan in this respect, and so Uzbekistan is trying to use the fact that the U.S. is currently dependent on it for the NDN, also to its own strategic advantage. And the second component that one needs to look at is that not only is Uzbekistan concerned about Islamism that perhaps it is even more concerned about no longer having a buffer from Russian pressure. It’s been full of twists and turns, as we know, and we know about the force withdrawal of America from the Uzbek airbase in Karshi-Khanabad in 2005 after the incidents in Andizhan, Uzbekistan crack down on unarmed protesters. So the relationship wanes and waxes in relation to Uzbekistan’s current set of affairs with Russia and it basically tries to play one power off of the other in terms of its understanding that it does need, to a certain extent, outsource its security.

And referring to security situation in Uzbekistan, do I get it right that there are several organizations that are considered by some powers like the United States as terrorist organizations?

If we look at it a little bit more closely, the last real attacks within Uzbekistan from either the IMU or offshoot groups, such as the Islamist Jihad Union, were in 2004 within Uzbekistan proper. The concern is more that this threat again comes to the fore once the U.S. troops leave. But the question that I was putting forward before is whether or not Uzbekistan and president Karimov in particular is flagging the Islamist threat once again as a byword for another major concern, perhaps even greater concern, that is potential pressure from Russia and no longer having the U.S. to operate as a buffer from Russian pressure. As you know it’s been a very reluctant member in the CSTO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

What could be the implications of lifting the arms sales ban in Uzbekistan?

There aren’t many. The ramifications of lifting, the arms sales per se, are not terribly significant. Yes, they currently will be allowed to transit non-lethal materials to Afghanistan. The implications might more ensue from that will there be more help coming from the United States in terms of reforming Uzbekistan’s own military, to what degree will the U.S. provide some sort of security guarantee to Uzbekistan once it withdraws the ISAF in 2014 – these are the real questions.

Mrs. Bohr, thank you very much.

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VOR, or the Voice of Russia, was the Russian government's international radio broadcasting service from 1993 until 2014, when it was reorganised as Radio Sputnik.

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