Since the Andijan massacre in May 2005, Uzbekistan has made little headway with its recent attempts to use pro-Western contacts to establish a way forward for its military and security agencies. Now Uzbekistan’s armed forces are the subject of widespread Soviet-style efforts to prop up morale and deflect domestic criticism.
Following 9/11, Uzbek President Islam Karimov temporarily gained greater levels of Western investment and assistance in the ongoing program of modernizing the Uzbek armed forces, but the downturn in security relations with the United States and NATO that developed rapidly after international condemnation of the use of Uzbek security forces to fire on civilians in the spring of 2005 left a chasm in the regime’s security reform strategy. Quite apart from the renewed relationship with Moscow and near constant emphasis on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Uzbek Ministry of Defense has sought to raise confidence in the future of the armed forces and to seek assistance programs that come with little pressure to reform the political regime.
Among the myriad priorities for reforming the Uzbek armed forces, Tashkent has placed a special emphasis on improving its anti-terrorist forces, which had been receiving near constant input from the U.S. and NATO partners before the rift in 2005. Tashkent had reached agreements with the Indian government to assist in this area, plans that have now taken on new importance as Tashkent seeks to develop longer lasting foreign assistance programs that do not come with political strings attached.
A select group of Uzbek troops will receive training at the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare (CIJW) School in India. The authorities in Uzbekistan confirmed that around 30 soldiers, including three officers from Army Special Forces, have now arrived at the CIJW School for training scheduled for January 11-13. The CIJW School itself has an international reputation for effective training in this specialized field. Uzbek personnel are clearly interested in this realm, which could be utilized to improve the counter-terrorist capabilities of the country’s security agencies — or be misused by the incumbent regime (UzReport.com, January 3).
An international delegation of officers from the Israeli and British armies is expected to observe the training of the Uzbek personnel. Officials within the Ministry of Defense in Tashkent hope that not only will such training herald a deeper security relationship with India, but will also remind Western observers of the needs still facing the Uzbek security structures, as well as conveying the political message that Tashkent can secure alternative sources of security assistance.
However much these needs are felt in the power circles in Tashkent, much of the internal publicity regarding the armed forces appears carefully crafted to reinforce failing public confidence in the shaken prestige of the military. Ahead of Motherland Defenders’ Day on January 14, a vigorous campaign has been launched throughout the country aimed at promoting an image of patriotic youth keen to serve the regime. In Namangan in eastern Uzbekistan, military personnel and veterans are being dispatched to schools and colleges in order to press home the patriotic message. Widespread publicity has been afforded to the Chortog sergeants training school and the increasing number of sergeants successfully graduating there, eschewing any mention of Western involvement in setting up and sustaining such centers (Uzbek Namangan TV, December 28).
As the emphasis placed on patriotism is driven through every media outlet, reassuring the public that the regime remains in control and positively regarded within the region, incremental improvements to border security are gaining attention. A group of border security officers and contract servicemen from a military unit in the town of Termez recently received keys to specially built apartments during a ceremony that belabored the point. A total of 196 million soms (about $160,000) was spent building the modern two-story building outfitted with “all conveniences.” In a clearly rehearsed manner, the border guards lavished praise on the Karimov government for “caring” for them in this way (Narodnoye slovo, January 1).
President Karimov, in his national New Year address, spoke at length concerning a “difficult year” counseling the public to remain vigilant. He went on to attack his opponents, saying, “We have had to stop treacherous terrorist sorties that were arranged to achieve evil objectives, and we have had to experience an attack, defamation, and slander against our country from abroad” (Uzbek TV First Channel, Tashkent December 31).
Yet the regime needs to diversify and leave doors open both to new as well as traditional sources of security assistance. This will involve maximizing its links with India and probably China through the SCO, while consolidating its rapprochement with Russia. The Karimov regime has damaged its international reputation, though it recognizes that aspects of military reform were propelled forward only by Western help; now it portrays Delhi as a plausible source of conducting internal security reform and meeting training requirements. Combined with a tightly controlled state media broadcasting patriotic images, projecting advancement within the armed forces, and ignoring the Western role in achieving these goals, Karimov limps on wounded and diminished as a credible Western partner.