The sight of the bloodied corpse of an overthrown dictator being beamed around the world might give US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pause for thought as she heads to Uzbekistan this weekend.
The dictator in question is, of course, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, whose demise on October 20 Clinton said would give Libyans a fresh start. And the dictator Clinton is going to meet is Islam Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan who has been in power for 20 years.
So why is Clinton (who will also visit Tajikistan’s strongman during the trip) cozying up to Uzbekistan, a country which (like Gaddafi’s Libya, Mubarak’s Egypt and Ben Ali’s Tunisia) rigs elections, muzzles the media, holds thousands of people in jail for their political and religious beliefs, and has been known to fire on demonstrators?
The answer is Afghanistan: Washington is wooing Tashkent to secure the Northern Distribution Network, which supplies non-lethal cargo to the US-led coalition in Afghanistan. This alternative to the violence-plagued Pakistan route already supplies over half the cargo going in by land. Washington wants to raise that to three-quarters by the end of the year.
To keep Tashkent sweet, the United States has moved to lift a longstanding restriction on military aid to Uzbekistan, and forged close contacts with senior regime officials. Barack Obama called Karimov on September 28 to congratulate him on Uzbekistan’s 20th anniversary of independence – a few weeks late – when he conveyed the “gratitude of the United States government for Uzbekistan’s support in tackling the Afghan crisis,” Karimov’s press service reported.
The very next day Clinton welcomed Uzbek Foreign Minister Elyor Ganiyev to Washington to discuss, as she put it, “matters of importance between our two nations.”
There is a heated debate about what works better when it comes to pushing for improvements in Uzbekistan’s deplorable human rights: engagement or isolation. That’s an argument that can go round in circles, but one thing is certain: Washington is currently opting for engagement.