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The Obama Administration Is Gifting War Machines to a Murderous Dictator

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Uzbekistan, the scorched, double-landlocked nation in central Asia, stands known mainly for three things: boiling its dissidents, encouraging child slavery, and authoring the largest government-led massacre of the former Soviet space. The country is one of Freedom House’s 10 “Worst of the Worst” regimes and has been led since independence by President Islam Karimov, 77, who recently announced he’d be standing for yet another term. The regime’s designation and brutality are unlikely to improve anytime soon.

Nor does Tashkent feel pressure to. Last month, it was announced that Uzbekistan will receive the largest single military donation the United States has ever bestowed on central Asia. Dan Rosenblum, the deputy assistant secretary of state for central Asia, recently told Voice of America the United States has begun shipping Uzbekistan more than 300 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles and 20 Armored Recovery Vehicles (ARV). As Voice of America noted, each new MRAP costs $1 million, while the ARVs come in at $2 million apiece. These wheeled rhinoceroses were emblems of government overreaction during the Ferguson protests.

At first blush, the vehicles changing hands could appear to be excess materiel from the war in Afghanistan, set for repurposing in a neighboring nation rather than shipped to U.S. police departments. But as Rosenblum clarified, “These are not coming from Afghanistan. They are coming from other places.” Rosenblum did not specify the current locations of the MRAPs and ARVs—“some were in the United States and some were in overseas locations”—but he noted that deliveries had begun in December, and would continue over the coming months. As to the costs, Rosenblum only said that Uzbekistan would pay for the shipping costs.

Why would the Obama administration proffer hundreds of war machines to a regime responsible for perhaps the greatest civilian massacre since Tiananmen Square? Rosenblum's answer: “Our determination was that Uzbekistan required these vehicles and they made the case, of course, to support their efforts at counterterrorism and counternarcotics.” To be fair, Uzbekistan does maintain a narrow border with northern Afghanistan, in addition to a discernible history of Islamic extremism. And central Asia is a major opium-trafficking corridor. 

But these MRAPs and ARVs won't be strictly used for, as Rosenblum believes, the “inherently defensive” purposes he maintains. The magnitude of this giveaway far outstrips the threat from Islamic militants (the worst the Islamic State has done in the country, contrary to certain claims, was a misspelled sign hung on a bridge). And it's simply the wrong tool for disrupting the drug smuggling that's enmeshed in the state apparatus. These vehicles do, however, have a proven history of confronting crowds of people.

On a spring afternoon in May 2005, Uzbekistan shattered. Fearing a potential reprise of the revolution that had just toppled nearby Kyrgyzstan, Karimov’s forces aimed their weaponry at anti-government protesters gathering in the city of Andijan. Hundreds of civilians were killed—upwards of 1,500, according to a former major in the Uzbek state security service. Karimov’s grip firmed, and he became one of the world’s most notorious dictators. When the United States, led by the State Department, criticized the slaughter, Uzbekistan forced the Americans out of the Karshi-Khanabad base that had provided one of the main entry points for U.S. forces into Afghanistan. Karimov’s regime entrenched further, ushering in a dark normalcy of pariah status and human rights horrors.

In 2012, Washington quietly opted to lift a ban on military aid to Karimov that had been in place for nearly a decade—a move the Obama administration supported. Geopolitical realities had shifted. Russia and its military stood resurgent in the region, while the United States was growing more dependent on central Asia for Afghanistan access—thanks to inflamed tensions with Pakistan—as it lost standing in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. That Kyrgyz toehold is now gone, a casualty of blowback against American support for Kyrgyzstan’s now-ousted autocratic regime. With this latest donation, it appears the United States is trying to maintain leverage in a region that has been shopping Moscow and Beijing for patronage.

But this isn’t 2002. The United States doesn’t need to buy off regional pariah regimes, swapping goods for access to Afghanistan. “The timing of this is shocking,” Luca Anceschi, a lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow, told me. “It shows [the administration] has no regional sensitivity.… I can’t see why they’re doing this now. It absolutely makes no sense to me.”

Steve Swerdlow, a regional researcher with Human Rights Watch, was even blunter. “Perhaps worse than equipping a government so well-known for abuses against its own people and for its defiance of international norms with such powerful military equipment," Swerdlow told me, "is the message that the Obama administration is sending the people of Uzbekistan: that Islam Karimov has gotten away with it.… The timing of this deal could not have been worse.”

The move is downright damning when viewed beside a pair of larger trends within the Obama administration.

For years, U.S. policy in the region has been mired in visceral inertia. The administration has continued backing projects that are either empty-shell attempts at relevancy or large-scale pushes that are dead on arrival: wastes of time, energy, resources, and reputation. The MRAP and ARV donations confirm that the United States has exhausted any diplomatic creativity it once brought to the region. “[The donation] shows how U.S. policy in the region, especially in the security realm, is still incoherent and unpredictable,” Erica Marat, a regional expert and assistant professor at the National Defense University, told me. In addition to his domestic repression, Karimov—who notably threatened war with neighbors over water access—stands as the most belligerent international actor in the region. Washington just upped his arsenal. “The repercussions are really uncertain,” Marat added, noting this decision will almost certainly result in “more distrust between central Asia and the U.S.”

This donation fits within a second, broader theme, which the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt recently sketched out: the Obama administration’s sudden reliance on dictators to push counterterrorism efforts, catalyzed by growing fears over the Islamic State. Hiatt and others have called out Washington's newfound aversion to criticize government-led crackdowns in Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. But this under-examined deal with Karimov epitomizes Obama’s lurch. Instead of pegging the donation to any humanitarian or democratization concerns, Washington wilted—having learned apparently nothing from its prior dealings with Karimov or Kyrgyzstan, both of which ended up booting American forces anyway.

The move plays directly into Karimov’s bloodied hands. Not only does it exacerbate tensions in the region, it raises the likelihood of another Andijan. This cannot be America's approach to the long drawdown of our forever war.