In his New York Times Op-Ed, “After Afghanistan, a New Great Game,” Columbia University professor Alex Cooley warns of the danger of the U.S. government’s failure to support the goals of good governance and democracy it is fighting for in Afghanistan in the neighboring states of Central Asia. One can hear the demurrals from U.S. officials: yes, these countries are authoritarian and corrupt, but we need them to supply the troops in Afghanistan, especially now given our shaky relations with Pakistan and our growing need not only to move supplies into Afghanistan but to remove the huge amount of equipment that we have built up there as we withdraw.
These are real and legitimate concerns. But they should not serve as an excuse for inaction or a failure to address an equally real threat to long-term U.S. interests. As we have seen most recently in Egypt, U.S. support for geo-strategically important authoritarians has a way of coming back to bite us once those leaders are overthrown. We saw this in Central Asia in 2010, after the fall of Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s authoritarian regime, when the country’s new government expressed extreme unhappiness that the United States had been unwilling to seriously challenge the Bakiyev regime’s assault on democracy and human rights. The United States feared losing access to the important airbase at Manas and had turned a blind eye toward members of Bakiyev’s family enriching themselves through opaque contracts for the base’s fuel supply.
To their credit, U.S. officials drew the appropriate lessons and, among other things, created a website that provides basic information to the public on all contracts related to Manas. Unfortunately, they have not done the same for the even larger contracts related to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), over which supplies are moved through Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Given the corrupt nature of the ruling regimes in all three countries—they rank 120th, 152nd, and 177th respectively out of 183 countries in the most recent Transparency International Corruption Perceptions rankings—locals can’t help but believe that some of this money is enriching key regime insiders. It would behoove the United States, therefore, to start providing greater transparency regarding NDN contracting, just as it already does for Manas.
To take it a step further, the United States should get serious about NDN-related corruption. Last year, when Congress bowed to pressure from the Obama Administration to allow it to resume assistance to the Uzbek government—despite the country’s failure to address long-standing human rights concerns—Congress did require that the executive branch provide regular reports on any indications that this assistance or NDN-related funding were fueling corruption in Uzbekistan. Recently, the administration provided its first report, but classified it and made it unavailable to the public. To assure U.S. taxpayers that their money isn’t being wasted and Uzbek citizens that the United States isn’t covertly paying off key Uzbek officials and their kin, all future versions of this report should be unclassified. The Pentagon should make clear to NDN contractors that they will seriously investigate and, if warranted, prosecute any violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act funded by taxpayer dollars. Moreover, the United States should re-emphasize the fact to regional governments that the NDN should be treated as a project of mutual strategic interest, not a cash cow.
Finally, the United States should focus as much on public diplomacy as it does on government-to-government relations, making clear that we will stand up for our values and the rights of the residents of Central Asia while continuing to engage with the region’s governments. U.S. officials can do this by explaining to Central Asia’s rulers that we want to continue close cooperation in the important areas where we have significant common interests—Afghanistan, counternarcotics, counterterrorism. At the same time, they need to make clear that the United States believes their authoritarian domestic policies are a long-term threat to stability and U.S. strategic interests in the region and that going forward, the United States will be obliged to raise these concerns not only in private conversations but in public as well.