Balancing short-term gain and long-term pain

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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.

Goldstein is Senior Policy Analyst at the Open Society Policy Center