Initiatives from NATO’s Partners for Peace (PFP) during the NATO summit in Bucharest from April 2 to 4 tended to be eclipsed by the alliance’s preoccupation with enlargement. Afghanistan was, and will remain for some time, the critical test for the long-term credibility of NATO Yet as this was being addressed among its members, Russia and Uzbekistan made offers of potentially far-reaching significance, the importance of which may be lost in the early stages of consideration among key NATO members, as national planning staffs grapple with a range of interrelated issues involving engagement with both these states. President Putin’s offer of a humanitarian land corridor, providing non-military support to the ISAF, not to be confused with the continuing counter-terrorist operations in Afghanistan, was cemented on April 4 with an agreement signed between NATO and Russia and with an additional re-commitment to the relevance of NATO’s Russia Council in promoting discussion and finding possible solutions to problems.
Uzbekistan’s President Islom Karimov arguably presented the most practical offer to come from Central Asia in the past few years for cooperation with the alliance on Afghanistan. The offer of increased cooperation with the West must be considered as a result of a careful, painstaking Uzbek assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan and the weaknesses of the existing approaches of multilateral structures, which need to be revitalized and to find new ways of practical cooperation over Afghanistan. President Karimov offered several related initiatives to NATO in the areas of defense, security, ecological and humanitarian matters. He emphasized a broad range of security challenges from non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), to terrorism and drug trafficking. Specifically, Karimov offered to use the existing bilateral Uzbek-German agreement for the transit of humanitarian supplies through the strategically important border junction at Termez and transform this into an additional agreement with NATO. His speech contained, however, a crucial caveat: “At the same time, the sovereign interests in maintaining the security and legislation of our country must be observed” (www.uzreport.com, Tashkent, April 3).
Karimov said that stabilization of Afghanistan was fundamental for Central Asia, both socially and economically. He elaborated a series of factors necessary for improving the security situation in Afghanistan: resolving social and economic problems, promoting trust on the part of locals towards the international coalition forces, stemming the supply of drugs, respecting traditional religious and cultural values including those of national minorities, minimizing attacks on Islam, consistently implementing reforms, and promoting cross-border cooperation with Pakistan. He called for reestablishing the 6+2 contact group on Afghanistan, which included the representatives of states bordering Afghanistan and the US and Russia but which fell into disuse after 2001. Karimov suggested this could be transformed into a 6+3 configuration, involving NATO in its consultations (www.uzreport.com, Tashkent, April 3; IHT, Washington, April 4).
Tashkent recognizes that stabilization in Afghanistan is not likely to happen soon and will require consistent commitment to a gradual process that emphasizes demilitarization, re-orientating people to a peaceful way of life, solving social and economic problems and gradually and effectively implementing reforms (Uzbek National News Agency, Tashkent, April 3). Western interest in Karimov’s offer relates to the possible extension of the transit corridor into Afghanistan, based on the existing agreement with Berlin. It should, however, be noted that with Karimov’s offer of cooperation with NATO and his readiness to reciprocate NATO’s renewed interest in Uzbekistan, was an offer to promote discussions, which could include more practical security cooperation.
There are problems, of course, in the West. Any efforts toward reengagement with Uzbekistan will inevitably bring to the surface those who want political issues high on the agenda, from human rights issues to the promotion of Western-style democracy. It is no secret that they will use such topics to reinforce skepticism about Tashkent, thus making the prospect of such cooperation less likely. If NATO responds positively to Karimov’s offer, it will open the prospect of NATO pursuing an agenda with Uzbekistan that is at odds with or accelerating faster than EU policy, which has diluted sanctions in place on Tashkent. Within the EU there is the prospect of a public split over Uzbekistan.
Karimov’s first visit to Europe since Andijan is not only symbolic, it marks a turning point. Some may describe it as rapprochement with NATO, which, despite contrary ideas and misconceptions, is not entirely out of step with Moscow’s stance. Tashkent would like to facilitate genuine cooperation that promotes real security in Afghanistan and more widely in Central Asia. What many observers have failed to note is the parallel between Moscow’s and Tashkent’s offers of a corridor to NATO. Russia has signed such an agreement with the alliance, which immediately raises the issue with Uzbekistan, since all such cargo would go through Termez. In other words, the workability of the one offer may depend on the other. Tashkent alone holds the key to this issue (AP, Bucharest, April 4).
A new atmosphere of cooperation is possible, though not inevitable at this stage, but nonetheless a window of opportunity has been presented by NATO’s partners (Russia and Uzbekistan). Western coverage of the NATO-Russia transit agreement focused on the continuing differences with Moscow (BBC, London, April 5). In this context, it requires a degree of reassessment on the part of western planning staffs, a new attitude to diplomacy towards this strategically vital part of the world, which has not been the strong point of Western policy over the past few years. Karimov’s offer to the alliance must not be misunderstood, misrepresented, or seen in isolation from the deal with Moscow. Now is not the time for the old cold warriors to bellow and snort. It is more than just Tashkent that will scrutinize the West’s response to such offers.