US steps up its Central Asian tango
With the signing of military agreement between the United States and Uzbekistan at Tashkent last Thursday by the US Central Command chief General David Petraeus and Uzbek Defense Minister Kabul Berdiyev, Uzbekistan's geopolitical positioning has phenomenally shifted.
The agreement envisages "a program of military contacts, including carrying out educational exchanges and training in the future", according to the terse American Embassy statement. The embassy sidestepped Russian press reports that the US was seeking military bases in Uzbekistan, saying the information regarding "discussions on a military base does not correspond with reality". But speculation continues, especially as Petraeus held a meaningful discussion with Uzbek President Islam Karimov on "key regional issues" focusing on the situation in Afghanistan.
Karimov, who is careful with what he conveys, gave an upbeat account of his meeting: "Uzbekistan attaches great importance to further development of relations with the United States and is ready to expand constructive bilateral and multilateral cooperation based on mutual respect and equal partnership ... Relations between our countries are developing in an upward direction. The fact we are meeting again [second time in six months] shows that both sides are interested in strengthening the ties." (Emphasis added.)
According to Karimov's spokesperson, "Petraeus told Karimov that the current US administration is interested in cooperation with Uzbekistan in several areas. During the conversation, the sides exchanged opinions on perspectives for Uzbek-US relations, and also on other issues of mutual interest."
It is tempting to view the development as Tashkent's swift response to the Russian move to establish a second military base in Kyrgyzstan close to Ferghana Valley. But Uzbek foreign policy moves take place with deliberation. Quite clearly, when Tashkent aims at a military relationship with the US as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it is more than a knee-jerk reaction.
There is growing disquiet in Tashkent that in the race for regional leadership, Kazakhstan has been upstaging Uzbekistan. Tashkent is also wary that Russia is strengthening its military presence in Central Asia. Meanwhile, the Central Asia policy of the Barack Obama administration has crystallized as a resolute agenda to roll back Russia's regional influence. Indeed, the US has repeatedly assured that it will not pursue intrusive policies regarding Uzbek internal affairs.
Tashkent sizes up the Taliban surge
Tashkent has factored in all this. Yet the crucial salient is the Afghan situation. Tashkent needs to quickly prepare itself to deal with the Taliban's reappearance in the Amu Darya region.
A situation comparable with 10 years ago is arising. Once again, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is based in Afghanistan and armed and trained by the Taliban reportedly, is making incursions into Central Asia. Rashid Dostum used to act as the frontier guard of the Amu Darya until 1998. Tashkent funded him, equipped him and pampered him. But then in October 1998, when the Taliban marched into the Amu Darya region, he fled. Karimov never forgave him for the dereliction of duty. Dostum had to take shelter in Turkey.
Besides, there is the "Tajik factor". There are more Tajiks within Afghanistan than in Tajikistan. Tajik nationalism always worries Tashkent. Dostum used to keep the Tajik factor at bay. Occasionally, he interfered within Tajikistan, with Tashkent's covert support, to keep leaders in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe rattled. Tashkent also used to shelter the ethnic Uzbek rebel Mahmud Khudaberdiyev from Tajikistan and deploy him for cross-border attacks. But the Russian military presence in Tajikistan since April 1998 prevented Tashkent from bullying the neighboring country.
Thus, there is a sea-change today in the Amu Daya region. Essentially, Tashkent has to depend on NATO contingents to act as a buffer between the Taliban and Uzbek territory, which is not realistic. The German contingents of NATO, which are deployed in the Amu Darya region, operate within so-called "caveats". The futility of their presence is obvious from the fact that the Taliban have consolidated their presence in Kunduz province.
Above all, the Ferghana Valley is on the boil. But given the perceived Russia-Tajikistan nexus and the underlying tensions of the unresolved Uzbek-Tajik nationality question - Joseph Stalin's legacy - Tashkent cannot trust Moscow as the arbiter of regional stability. Also, Moscow supports Dushanbe in the latter's dispute with Tashkent on the sharing of water originating from the Pamir glaciers, which is an issue waiting to explode, fraught with immense consequences for regional security.
Tashkent's Timurid legacy
In the second half of 1999, when Tashkent began making peace with the Taliban regime in Kabul, diplomatic observers were taken by surprise - even as Uzbek rhetoric transformed from characterizing the Taliban as the "main source of fanaticism and extremism in the region" to "a partner in the struggle for regional peace" and Karimov began suggesting that recognizing the Taliban regime was worth considering.
Tashkent's volte face then and now bear striking parallels. In 1999, too, Karimov factored in that the Taliban were the lesser of the two evils threatening the Uzbek vision of Central Asia, in comparison with a strengthened Russian military presence. Ten years ago, in analogous circumstances, Moscow began robustly moving to tighten collective security between Russia and the Central Asian states.
In October 1999, Moscow signed a formal pact with several Central Asian states for rapid troop deployment, strikingly similar to the current Russian initiative of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) forming a rapid reaction force. Tashkent opted out of the collective security agreement under Russian leadership. By October 1999, Tashkent had already commenced talks with the Taliban.
Tashkent has always been wary of Russia's motives and its military presence in Central Asia, which, it believes, undermines Uzbekistan's position as the region's sole military power. Thus, all said, it shouldn't come as surprise that Tashkent decided it's best to make some political capital by resuscitating relations with the US.
Tashkent feels more threatened by the IMU than by the Taliban. Put another way, Tashkent wouldn't want to make an enemy of the Taliban. In 1999, Tashkent offered diplomatic recognition of the Taliban regime as a quid pro quo for the latter's renunciation of the IMU.
The Uzbeks harbor a historical sense of being the inheritors of Tamerlane's legacy. Reconciliation with the Taliban enables Tashkent to realize the ambitious goals of being the principal architect of peace in the region; of ejecting the Russian military presence in Central Asia; and of advancing Uzbek standing as the regional hegemon.
The complex Uzbek mindset offers productive opportunities for US regional policies. No doubt, the US will manipulate in the coming weeks the creation of a power equation in Kabul, which is completely amenable to Washington's agenda of reconciliation with the Taliban. As British Foreign Secretary David Miliband underscored in his recent speech at NATO headquarters in Brussels, the US and Britain are today open-minded about reconciling with the Taliban - even allowing Taliban cadres to retain weapons.
However, the Taliban's regional acceptability remains a contentious issue. There has to be a broad regional acceptability of the Taliban. This is where Tashkent's volte face becomes a strategic asset for Washington. Apart from Pakistan, which roots for the Taliban's reconciliation, Washington can now count on Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to acquiesce with the process.
Amu Darya region in flux
Uzbekistan is a key player in the Amu Darya region - no less than Pakistan in the Pashtun heartlands. An axis with Tashkent in northern Afghanistan and with Islamabad in south and southeastern Afghanistan will be the matrix the US needs as it addresses the Taliban's reconciliation and return to mainstream political life in Afghanistan.
Ideally, Washington would have wrapped up a similar axis with Dushanbe as well, but the Russian presence in Tajikistan precluded it. On the other hand, the US can derive comfort that the Afghan Tajiks are today a divided lot and the US has successfully kept the "Panjshiri" factions from uniting.
If the US manages to get Abdullah Abdullah elected to succeed President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, it will immensely help shackle irrendist elements fueling Tajik nationalism. But if Karzai gets elected, the US faces a potential challenger in Mohammed Fahim, his vice presidential nominee. Fahim, unlike Abdullah, who is a public relations man, has extensive intelligence and military background. Actually, Fahim and Dostum are the two "spoilers" that the US is most nervous about as it prepares to commence the reconciliation process with the Taliban.
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - and China - had dealings with the Taliban in the 1990s and would have no qualms about reviving such dealings today if that would stabilize Afghanistan. China, in particular, has huge stakes in the opening up of Afghanistan as a transit route to world markets.
The robust US regional diplomacy in Central Asia has succeeded in weaning away Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan from Russian influence. Washington has negotiated transit corridor agreements with them and begun stationing military personnel in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat. (The deputy chief of general staff of the British armed forces, Jeff Mason, is currently visiting Ashgabat.) The US is promoting Turkmen-Uzbek amity (Karimov is preparing to visit Ashgabat). Washington has held out economic and business opportunities in the Afghan reconstruction. Last but not the least, the US is fostering NATO's ties with these countries.
It is a remarkable tally. The US can now work on a transit corridor for Afghanistan from Georgia and Azerbaijan via Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan that bypasses Russian territory. Writing for the New York Times, Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently underscored that skepticism of Russian intentions - "how much Russia wants to see the US succeed in Afghanistan" - runs high in Washington.
Iran a game changer
In our recent discussions in Tashkent with very high-level Uzbek government officials, this question came up repeatedly, and the answers we got were not reassuring ... Uzbek officials are deeply skeptical of Moscow. They believe the Russians see their interests best served by continued instability in Afghanistan. Instability will increase both the terrorist threat to Central Asia as well as the flow of drugs, and serve to justify a heightened Russian military presence in the region ...
Tashkent views the growing Russian military presence in the region as a security threat ... Uzbek skepticism about Russian goals is so deep that several key figures intimated that when it comes to Afghanistan, Iran would be a more reliable partner for Washington than Moscow.
Surely, the best means of tackling the "Tajik factor" in Afghanistan will be through Washington's engagement of Tehran. Iranian ambassador in Kabul, Fada Hossein Maleki, was quoted as saying last week that Tehran was prepared for talks with the US on Afghanistan provided Washington eschewed interference in Iran's internal affairs. Maleki said:
What was mentioned by Mr Obama after his election indicated a change of idiom in comparison with the previous US president. Unfortunately, after the victory of President Mahmud Ahmedinejad, we saw inconsiderate interferences by the Americans [in Iran's domestic affairs]. It is natural that if a unified and single approach is adopted, our officials would review it and there are many issues in Afghanistan on which we can cooperate with other countries.
Iran can be a game-changer. But it takes two to tango. The big question on the Afghan chessboard today is whether Obama will sidestep the pro-Israeli lobby within his administration and the US Congress and reach for the door that opens into vistas of engagement with Maleki's superiors in Tehran. Maybe Obama should pluck a leaf out of Karimov's chronicle.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.