Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

New US/Uzbek Pact

Uzbekistan may now be linked to the world's most powerful nation, but its defences remain fragile.
By Tulkin Karaev

The United States and Uzbekistan have decided to upgrade their military relationship to a new level in the light of the conflict in Afghanistan.


The growing rapprochement comes at a time when Uzbekistan's conscript army is reported to be facing severe problems of morale and health that could undermine its fighting ability.


In a joint statement published on October 13, the two states said they had "decided to forge a new bond based on their long-term commitment to higher security and stability in the region".


It added the intensification of military cooperation would be marked by a round of immediate bilateral consultations aimed at working out joint measures to deal with any threat to Uzbekistan's national security.


US embassy officials in Tashkent said the two countries aimed to rethink their relationship in terms of long-term cooperation. The basis for this was a bilateral treaty signed on October 7, which defined the extent of US/Uzbek collaboration in the American-led anti-terrorist drive in Afghanistan.


The treaty remains a classified document and the US embassy and the Uzbek defence ministry have not revealed how long the two nations intend to cooperate in their anti-terrorist campaign, or how Washington is obliged to react if Uzbekistan comes under attack.


President Islam Karimov said on October 5 that Washington had assured him the US did not intend to occupy anyone's territory. At the same time, Karimov did not specify the duration of the US military presence in Uzbekistan, saying the issue had not yet been resolved.


Officials in Tashkent have reported that the air base in Khanabad, 400 kilometres southwest of Tashkent, has been placed at US disposal for reconnaissance, rescue and humanitarian operations in Afghanistan.


Sources at the Khanabad airfield said US special forces had been deployed there.


But in spite of the fact that Uzbekistan is now formally linked to the world's most powerful nation, the country's defences remain fragile.


The deployment of US military units at Khanabad and the Taleban's threat to launch a jihad against Uzbekistan for collaborating with Washington have presented a set of entirely new challenges to the Uzbek military.


The Tashkent foreign ministry says the Taleban poses no immediate threat. But although Uzbekistan has been placed securely under the patronage of the world's strongest power, questions remain over the overall strength of the Uzbek armed forces and their ability to protect the country from external aggression.


One obvious problem is the generally poor health of the nation's young men, as this is the pool from which the conscript army is drawn.


A top army doctor, Sadyk Khakimov, chief physician on the conscription board in Karshi, southern Uzbekistan, said only four or five recruits out of 30 were fit for service.


"Many of the conscripts are suffering from intestinal or renal problems. Other widespread conditions include enlarged thyroid gland and poor eyesight," he said.


Khakimov said the healthiest recruits were graduates of sports schools and young men from mountain villages but that relatively few men fell into either category.


Alongside the problem of generally poor health, the armed forces suffer from poor discipline and a culture of bullying. One officer based at Mubarek conscription office said the intimidation of new recruits by officers - a practice inherited from the old Soviet army - remains widespread.


The officer said officers frequently extort money from their juniors and cited a shocking report about bullying which had culminated in a soldier's death.


It centred on a lieutenant in the Termez area who ordered soldiers to beat up a conscript he had tried to get money from. "He was subjected to cruel beatings and torture - needles were driven under his fingernails. The soldier had to flee the unit," said the officer. "Villagers found him lying unconscious on the street and took him to a military hospital. The offenders were never punished."


The soldier was transferred to another unit where the beatings and humiliations continued and intensified to the point that he had to be taken to military hospital in Tashkent. He died soon afterwards.


President Karimov has promised to build up a professional army in Uzbekistan, but this clearly won't be easy. Tashkent may have to rely on the protection of affluent, powerful nations like America simply because its own armed forces can no longer guarantee the country's defence.


Tulkin Karaev is an independent journalist in Uzbekistan