It's no secret that Western countries involved in Central Asia tend to pursue security and energy, not democratic governance and human rights. Almost every analyst of the region and local policymaker agrees; it seems the only ones of a different opinion about this are (quite naturally) officials in service of the U.S. government or the EU. Details about Western interests in Central Asia’s oil and gas resources are relatively well-known; this is less the case when it comes to Western military and security cooperation with Central Asian governments.
Three papers published recently by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the Open Society Foundations Central Eurasia Project provide essential background knowledge on the topic. Using rich data previously hidden in the depths of open-source materials, the papers offer a rare glimpse into the landscape of U.S. and EU military and security dealings in the region.
Here are six of the biggest takeaways:
- The U.S. spends about six times more money on military and security aid in Central Asia than it spends on promoting human rights, rule of law, and democratic governance. Military aid accounts for nearly half of the total aid that the U.S. government gave to Central Asia.
- Despite a cut-off of military aid programs in 2004, Uzbekistan was able to purchase more than $50 million worth of training and equipment directly from U.S. companies and over $12 million more through U.S. government channels. The military aid programs were stopped in 2004 because the State Department could not certify progress on human rights in Uzbekistan. The cut-off was criticized at that time by U.S. military officials as “short sighted” and “not productive.” Less than nine months after these statements, Uzbek troops opened fire on crowds in Andijan, killing several hundreds of unarmed civilians.
- Germany and Austria seem to have flouted the EU arms embargo against Uzbekistan (established after the Andijan events in 2005 and lifted in 2009 despite the fact that key demands had not been met) by delivering arms and training to Uzbekistan while the sanctions were in force. Austria reportedly granted export licenses worth almost €1 million of small arms in 2006, while Germany seems to have continued a military training program for Uzbek officers even after the embargo was imposed.
- The Pentagon plays a dominant role in defining U.S. policy regarding Central Asia. Department of Defense funding to Central Asian military forces dwarfs those administered by the State Department by a 3-to-1 ratio. This means that most military aid funds are spent at the discretion of the Pentagon, in this case more specifically of U.S. Central Command.
- Transparency of military spending is an issue. U.S. figures are based on one-time reporting requirements and are valid only for the year 2007. However, it's very likely that military spending is actually much higher, as details of some Pentagon grants programs are not public.
- While much of the aid provided by the U.S. and the EU does not directly lead to the deterioration of the human rights situation on the ground, it's still debatable whether equipping and training military forces in the region is a good idea. In various instances—e.g., Andijan 2005, southern Kyrgyzstan 2010—security forces in the region have been more than willing to turn their guns and tanks on their own citizens.
There is one thing that all the reports demonstrate: When it comes to Western military and security cooperation with Central Asia, there's clearly a lot more that we don’t know than what we do know.