The US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, visited Uzbekistan as part of a tour of several Central Asian states during February 17-21. At that time, Holbrooke held talks with Uzbek President, Islam Karimov, regarding the US-led offensive in Afghanistan and related international efforts to promote regional security (www.gazeta.uz, February 19). Reactions during a recent visit by the authors to Uzbekistan in March, following Holbrooke’s trip, demonstrated that Uzbeks are interested in the current state of US-Uzbek relations and the long-term US interests in the region. Based on discussions with government representatives, university professors and students, and journalists, it is clear that the prevailing attitude in Uzbekistan is a genuine curiosity about the US, especially regarding issues of regional importance in Central Asia.
Similar to previous presidential administrations, Obama’s goal for the Central Asian states is stable governments with prosperous economies. Although the US does not have an official policy toward the region, its current relationship with Uzbekistan should be focused on pursuing specific, manageable, and well-defined projects that will further cooperation and strengthen the bilateral partnership between the two countries (www.uznews.net, March 12). There was no specific discussion of the events in Andijan in May 2005, or the subsequent eviction of US forces from the Kharshi-Khanabad base in November of that year, which led to a general “cooling” period in US-Uzbek relations. However, it was agreed that the US and Uzbekistan have both demonstrated a renewed interest in cooperating on regional security issues.
One of the most important recurring issues was the conflict in Afghanistan. Uzbek audiences were eager to discuss the American view of President Karimov’s proposed “6+3” plan, which is based on the concept of cooperation among Afghanistan’s neighbors (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Pakistan, and China), plus the US, Russia, and NATO (which is an addition to the previous “6+2” group in the 1990’s), in order to address the Afghan security situation (Jahon Information Agency, April 3, 2008). However, from the US perspective it is difficult to address issues pertaining to Afghanistan without including representatives of the Afghan government. Regardless of how Afghanistan’s neighbors feel about working with the Karzai administration or Taliban representatives, Afghanistan must be included in any discussions regarding the country’s future.
Most Uzbeks acknowledged that current US interest in Central Asia is due to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. Within the past year, several representatives of the US government have visited Uzbekistan, including General David Petraeus, the Commander of Central Command (CENTCOM) (EDM, February 26, 2009). However, there were many questions and some confusion regarding President Obama’s December 1 announcement at West Point that the US will begin withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan in July 2011 (www.newsru.com, December 2, 2009). For example, the Uzbeks questioned whether or not Obama actually intends to proceed with this timetable as planned, and why the new US policy includes sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan as part of a surge strategy, when in theory they should be withdrawn within the following year. The Uzbeks recognize that their country is an important part of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), however, there seems to be a common concern that once the US has completed its mission in Afghanistan, its interest in Central Asia, and Uzbekistan in particular, will cease.
In addition to Afghanistan, the most popular topic of discussion was the US perspective on Tajikistan’s plans to build several dams along the Vakhsh and Amu Darya rivers and the related implications for Uzbekistan, as one of the downstream countries. The point was made repeatedly that, as a matter of international law, Tajikistan has the legal authority to utilize its water supply and related infrastructure as it chooses, including building Rogun and other dams as sources of hydroelectric power (www.times.uz, March 12). However, as a matter of regional politics, it would be in Dushanbe’s interest to consult with the other Central Asian states, because such cooperation would generate necessary political goodwill for this and other projects. Moreover, independent analysis by an international organization could help generate support. Days after these remarks were made, the Asian Development Bank announced its support for the Rogun project, and the World Bank stated that it would provide funding for an environmental feasibility study (www.regnum.ru, March 16). However, controversy remains, especially as Russia and Iran are assisting with the construction of two of the dams –Sangtuda 1 and 2 (Nezavisimaya, July 10, 2007).
In light of Holbrooke’s visit, many Uzbeks wonder how long it will be before another senior US official visits their country and if such a visit could occur for a purpose not related to military and defense issues or the conflict in Afghanistan. Similarly, the arrival of the new Uzbek Ambassador to the United States, Ilkhom Nematov, marks an opportunity for increased engagement (www.centrasia.ru, March 3). If the Obama administration hopes to maintain regional relations once the US is no longer involved in Afghanistan, then now is the time to focus on building stronger bilateral relationships with the Central Asian states.