The Delicate Dance: Uzbekistan and NATO


2012-11-03 by Richard Weitz

Uzbekistan has sought to balance Russia’s military preeminence and China’s emerging economic dominance of Central Asia by cultivating ties with Western countries and institutions such as NATO.

The Alliance had developed some contacts with Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian republics before sending troops to Afghanistan after 2001.

With the exception of Tajikistan, which until 2002 was preoccupied with domestic reconstruction following its civil war, Central Asian representatives have participated in NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) and its related Partnership for Peace (PFP) program since the mid-1990s.

In December 1995, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan formed a Central Asian peacekeeping battalion (CENTRASBAT) under the aegis of NATO and the United Nations. Although Central Asian governments initially expressed interest in participating in international peacekeeping missions, the subsequent increase in local terrorism resulted in their focusing their military resources to counter threats closer to home.

Missouri Air National Guard 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron engine mechanics Tech. Sgt. Noel Cardona and Master Sgt. Joseph Ohmes hook up an engine at Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, Uzbekistan, on May 8, 2005, during Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol

In 1999, Uzbekistan joined a coalition of westward leaning former Soviet republics, identified as the “GUUAM” from the first letter of its member names– Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova. This potentially competing institution never gained much influence and soon fell into disuse, but the September 2001 terrorist attacks resulted in the United States and its NATO allies deploying large numbers of military forces in greater Central Asia.

Uzbekistan proved to be an ardent backer of NATO’s intervention in Afghanistan. Tashkent allowed the United States and other NATO members to establish military bases on its territory.

Two events led to a surge in NATO’s interests and activities in Central Asia during the past decade.

First, the alliance decided on a controversial second wave of expansion to offer membership to several other countries besides Turkey that border the Caucasus/Central Asia—and are therefore very concerned about developments in the area. After most East European countries became NATO members, in effect graduating from PFP, the program shifted focus towards promoting military reform and cooperation in Central Asia and the Caucasus (as well as the western Balkans).

Second, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan resulted in a substantial increase in NATO’s military presence there. When then NATO Secretary General George Robertson visited the region in 2003, he said that the events of September 11, 2001, had led the alliance to appreciate “that our security is linked closely to security in remote areas. Central Asia is now going to be very much part of NATO’s agenda.”

By taking charge of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in August 2003, NATO has become engaged in a protracted project of promoting long-term stability and security in Central Asia. In line with its enhanced role, alliance representatives have sought military transit agreements, secure lines of communication, and other supportive arrangements from the Central Asian governments.

At their June 2004 Istanbul summit, the NATO heads of government affirmed the increased importance of Central Asia by designating it, along with the Caucasus, as an area of “special focus” in their communiqué. They also decided to station a liaison officer there. The primary mission of the first incumbent, Tugay Tunçer, was to improve implementation of NATO’s cooperation and assistance programs in the region.

The decision to locate his headquarters in Almaty signifies the importance NATO governments ascribe to Kazakhstan in their regional strategy.

The summit participants also established a Secretary General Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia. Besides explaining to Central Asian governments what activities and programs NATO has available and how they can best use them, the incumbent, Ambassador Robert F. Simmons, has strived to inform their publics about the alliance’s positive contributions to regional security, such as in Afghanistan.

The disintegration of NATO’s ties with Uzbekistan after the government’s military crackdown at Andijan in May 2005 precipitated a sharp collapse in the alliance’s influence in the region.

NATO’s North Atlantic Council issued a statement condemning “the use of excessive and disproportional force by the Uzbek security forces.”  The alliance also cancelled some cooperative programs with Uzbekistan and scaled back others. In response, the Uzbekistan government told all European NATO members except Germany in late November 2005 to cease using Uzbekistani airspace or territory to support peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan.

Even before Andijan, many Uzbekistani officials had come to see the growing U.S. and Western presence in their region more as a security liability than an enhancement.

Although NATO militaries helped fight terrorist groups active in the region, and the Western presence provided welcome balance to Moscow’s primacy in the region, Western support for colored revolutions in the former Soviet republics—popular protests overthrew the governments of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in the early 2000s—aroused fears in Uzbekistan that their allies’ democracy promotion efforts threatened their rule.

But soon after Andijan, Uzbekistani officials sought to balance their ties with Moscow and Beijing by restoring relations with NATO. Indeed, even after expelling the Pentagon from its territory, they took care to allow Germany to continue using its base in Uzbekistan. Western ties allow Tashkent to balance Moscow, have a greater influence on the Afghan endgame (where NATO remained the dominant security actor), and to receive economic and security benefits from the Western powers.

At the April 2008 NATO heads-of-state summit in Bucharest, President Islam Karimov offered NATO permission to transship goods through Uzbekistan to Afghanistan, which helped launch the process that led to the Northern Distribution Network by which NATO countries and partners send non-lethal supplies through its territory to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan is also now negotiating with NATO how its members can remove its equipment from Afghanistan. The fastest and easiest route would be by rail across the Amu-Darya River separating Afghanistan from Uzbekistan.

Human rights remain an obvious problem in the restored NATO-Uzbekistani partnership. Uzbekistani officials have made clear that they will not change their domestic policies to address Western human rights concerns. NATO and EU officials hope that they can more effectively influence Uzbekistan’s development, including the transition to the country’s first post-Soviet generation of political leaders, through engagement than by isolating Tashkent.

Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian countries had prominent roles at the May 2012 NATO summit in Chicago thanks to the session’s emphasis on Afghanistan and partnerships. On May 22, the Heads of State and Government of Afghanistan and Nations contributing to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) held a special meeting. The three main issues addressed at the meeting were NATO’s plans on ending its combat operations in 2014, ISAF’s support for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in order to enable them to assume this leading military role, and the commitment of the international community to support Afghanistan after 2014.

The 50 nations contributing to ISAF has strongly reaffirmed the importance of Eurasian regional stakeholders such as Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan in Afghanistan’s outcome. All five Central Asian countries took part in the extended ISAF members meeting.

As chairman of the meeting, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen singled out the contributions Uzbekistan—along with Russia, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Kazakhstan–in facilitating the ransit of ISAF cargoes into Afghanistan through the NDN.

Yet, the decision of Central Asian presidents to decline President Barack Obama’s invitation to come to the most important international meeting his home town had ever hosted testifies to the preeminent role Moscow plays in constraining NATO-Central Asian partnerships.

Another factor constraining NATO’s influence in Central Asia is that the alliance’s priorities focus elsewhere (in the Balkans, in managing relations with the EU in the west and Russia in the east, and most recently in North Africa).