An interesting announcement last week underscores how the Pentagon is continuing to take steps to reduce the risk of terrorists or criminal actors acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related materials in Central Asia.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), operating through the US Department of Defense, has announced the opening of two biodefence facilities in Uzbekistan aimed at increasing the country’s capacity to detect and prevent the potential proliferation and theft of hazardous pathogens. To date, DTRA has spent $1.3 million on the construction of the two laboratories, which are housed in Andijan and the Fergana Valley.
The announcement is a test case for biodefence activities in the Central Asian nation.
Despite the positive efforts of Central Asian nations to adequately secure WMD and related materials within their borders, the United States and other partners have remained concerned that these sensitive sites and materials remain vulnerable to theft. Uzbekistan was one of several states that inherited WMD programmes on acquiring independence after the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991. In addition to nuclear reactors containing highly enriched uranium (HEU) and a chemical weapons facility, Uzbekistan also inherited a number of former Soviet biological weapons facilities.
Shortly after independence, the Uzbek government declared its intention to forgo the programmes, and the United States and Russia assisted Tashkent through the Cooperation Threat Reduction (CTR) programme. CTR removed most of the HEU from Uzbekistan and dismantled the country’s chemical weapons capacity. Biological weapons facilities were also destroyed, while contaminated areas were cleaned up as a result as part of the programme.
Yet while these strides were impressive, biological facilities—while not weapons programmes by design—remain throughout the country and the issue of dual use combined with poor security infrastructure shows that work still needs to be done.
Uzbekistan, as well as other Central Asian nations, lack adequate technological capacity and the training to detect, destroy and interdict at border crossings and in remote regions within their borders. The United States is particularly concerned that terrorist organizations within Uzbekistan might exploit these security gaps and divert materials in these facilities for nefarious purposes.
The US State Department has listed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) as a designated terrorist organization and the US intelligence community has expressed concern regarding previous linkages between the IMU and al-Qaeda. An additional concern is the potential that Uzbekistan could serve as a safe haven for terrorist organizations or ‘middle men’ who wish to transport WMD or related materials to interested actors in the region.
Uzbekistan’s authoritarian President Islam Karimov continues an uneasy partnership with the United States, complicated by his regime’s draconian approach to human rights and other individual freedoms. Despite this, the Karimov government recognizes that a strategic partnership with Washington serves as a positive hedge when balancing influence from Russia. Karimov is also cognizant of the fact that US-Uzbek relations are cemented around counterterrorism cooperation.
Unless the relationship deteriorates significantly, therefore, expect Karimov to continue accepting programmes like DTRA.