BACKGROUND: For over a year and a half, Uzbekistan has asked many countries for military assistance, among them Germany, China and the United States, in its armed struggle against militants from the Islamic Movement for Uzbekistan. The militants appear to be composed of both Islamic insurgents and bandits posing as Islamic rebels for their own purposes. These insurgencies began in mid-1999 after an attempt was made on President Islam Karimov's life and shortly following Karimovs withdrawal of Uzbekistan from of the collective security pact of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Karimov then looked to GUAM, the organization made up of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova (now GUUAM with Uzbekistans inclusion) and initiated discussions about their own provision of troops for defense against various threats to their common interests.
Karimovs tactics greatly displeased Moscow and President Putin has consistently sought to bring Uzbekistan back into the CIS system. Russia desires to establish as wide a Central Asian coalition in support of Russias lasting regional military presence in Central Asia as possible. To this end, Putin has invited Uzbekistan to join the Shanghai-Five organization and help Moscow convert it from an organization that implements confidence building measures along the border with China into a functioning regional or collective security organization.
The quest for a lasting military position in Central Asia drives Russian military policy there. Even though Moscow is cutting its armed forces, Defense Minister Sergeyev eagerly sought to send Russian troops to Tashkent to establish a permanent base in Central Asia. Sergeyev tried to influence Putin by claiming that should Russian troops not be sent, America or China might send troops and weaponry to Uzbekistan and gain influence at Russia's expense. For Karimov, however, Russia is clearly the least favorite option to provide military aid and troops to Uzbekistan and to the rest of Central Asia.
IMPLICATIONS: As Moscow tries to restore its regional military position in Central Asia, it will also try to exact Tashkent's submission to Russia in the CIS as well as push Uzbekistan to rejoin both the CIS collective security system and the Shanghai-Five at GUUAM's expense. This is something Karimov is extremely reluctant to do. Instead, Karimov seeks to exploit the rivalry between China and Russia. Although China and Russia are cooperating strongly within the Shanghai-Five, Karimov believes he can both create and exploit rifts between the two powers with impunity. For Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian states, the countries that provide the largest military aid will understandably gain a position of influence that will be difficult to dislodge. Karimov would not like Russia to be in such a position.
Karimov seeks to maintain a free hand and remain the dominant local military power. He is unwilling to surrender too much power to Russia. Karimov has carefully limited existing Russian military aid and cooperation against terrorism even though he went out of his way to identify these interests as being inextricably linked. Yet simultaneously, Karimov has cast around for help from China, Germany, and the United States. He has built up his army to the level that it can threaten or even dominate his Central Asians neighbors. This was demonstrated earlier this year when Uzbek forces unilaterally annexed disputed territories in Kazakhstan.
Karimov's authoritarianism is creating a social basis for increased dissent as economic hardship and political repression drives whatever middle class elements there are into opposition. They are forced to join any resistance organization that can mount an effective counter-movement to Karimovs government. This may be the bandit-like Islamic Movement for Unity (IMU) or other more genuine Islamic insurgent groups. Uzbekistani and other Central Asian armies find it difficult to cooperate against such threats effectively or even to deal with them individually. These insurgencies increasingly look as if they are developing into permanent rebellions that will last many years in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and in regions beyond.
CONCLUSIONS: Uzbekistan now finds itself between two fires. Karimov will not surrender his control over Uzbekistans defense buildup to Russia or unreservedly commit himself to a Russian-led security organization. Although serious political and military issues lie behind Uzbekistans erratic relations with Russia, it is clear that in order to maintain his free hand as a dominant military power in Central Asia, President Karimov is playing off all foreign powers interested in leveraging the influence they can gain from providing military assistance to Uzbekistan. Keeping them all at arm's length, Karimov remains master of the situation there.
Every Central Asian state faces potential insurgencies based in their neighboring territories. Uzbekistan has already given these states ample grounds to fear its regional ambitions. Because the other Central Asian states are essentially unable to defend themselves alone, they will most likely as some point need to call in Russian or Chinese military assistance or even troops to their assistance. In such a way, these other states will be forced to internationalize their major domestic crises. If the current led insurgencies that are led by the Islamic Movement for Uzbekistan continue to threaten Uzbekistans domestic stability and the security of its neighbors, it is likely that they will ignite a huge conflict that will soon become a long-lasting international crisis on a very grand scale.
AUTHOR BIO: Professor Stephen Blank teaches in the Strategic Studies Institute at the United States Army War College located in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. The views expressed here do not in any way represent those of the United States Army, the United States Defense Department, or the United States Government.
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