Last week, while Washington remained locked in a strange political vortex generated by President Donald Trump’s denial of his defeat in the November 4 election by former Vice President Joe Biden, the mundane operations of diplomacy continued below the noise.
With an unlucky timeslot in an unusual year, last week a delegation from Uzbekistan led by Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov popped around Washington for the country’s Annual Bilateral Consultations. The consultations, which have occurred annually since 2009, are an opportunity for the two countries to touch base. As the U.S. State Department put it in 2016, the consultations are “a structured policy dialogue designed to build mutual trust and advance our common agenda and opportunities for cooperation across the full range of bilateral and regional issues.”
Uzbekistan sits quite close to one of the United States’ top regional interests in South and Central Asia: Afghanistan. As the Uzbek delegation was arriving in Washington, the Trump administration announced its intent to draw down U.S. forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 a piece by January 15, 2021. The announcement drew considerable attention, as it firmly marches the U.S. toward a May 2021 deadline for total withdrawal set out in the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban deal. But critics note that the Taliban has not fulfilled its commitments in the deal, namely a pledge to sever ties with Al-Qaida — an assertion backed up by military leaders.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, CNN reported, sent a classified memo to the White House in early November outlining “that it was the unanimous recommendation of the chain of command that the US not draw down its troop presence in Afghanistan any further until conditions were met.” On November 9, Esper was fired by Trump via a Tweet.
On November 19, Kamilov met with Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher C. Miller — only 10 days into Miller’s tenure.
The readout of the meeting is, as to be expected, anodyne. It reaffirms the “strategic security partnership” between the U.S. and Uzbekistan and welcomes Uzbekistan’s efforts to “facilitate intra-Afghan Peace Negotiations, supporting the economic reconstruction of the country, and its integration into the Central Asian region.”
What happens in Afghanistan is a primary concern for Uzbekistan, which not only shares a border with the country but in the last few years has changed dramatically how it thinks about and approaches its neighbor. Far from the days of Islam Karimov, when Afghanistan was seen primarily as a problem and a threat, the Shavkat Mirziyoyev government has reoriented the Uzbek position toward its southern neighbor. Double-landlocked Uzbekistan is keenly interested in Afghanistan as a pathway toward the sea and a conduit for Uzbek goods to access global markets.
In the context of U.S.-Uzbekistan bilateral ties, that shift was momentous.
At the State Department last week, Kamilov met with the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Dean Thompson. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, at the time, was traipsing around the Middle East.
The joint statement issued at the conclusion of the bilateral consultations covers the expected range of topic areas: “Strong momentum in bilateral ties,” regional security and cooperation, economic reforms and investment, and people-to-people ties.
The U.S., the statement notes, reiterated “strong support for Uzbekistan’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity” — the “holy trinity” at the core of the latest U.S. Central Asia Strategy, unveiled in February (it was not a coincidence that Pompeo was in Uzbekistan in February, too, just ahead of the new strategy’s launch).
U.S. assistance to Uzbekistan in what the State Department called a “new era of strategic partnership” amounted to nearly $100 million in 2019, ten times what it was in 2016. The intent is to build on the momentum of a growing relationship. The United States, per the statement, intends to “provide over $9 million in assistance this year to combat transnational organized crime and promote rule-of-law and anti-corruption initiatives.” In the context of the pandemic, the statement notes a “commitment to assist Uzbekistan” as it grapples with the pandemic’s effects.
While the statement is largely as expected, there are a few teasers buried within it. For example, in discussing concrete ways to expand educational and cultural exchanges, the statement notes “plans for the return of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers to Uzbekistan.”
The Peace Corps suspended its Uzbekistan program in 2005 after the visas of its volunteers and director in the country were not renewed. The proverbial kicking-out of the Peace Corps was invariably linked to U.S. criticisms of the Karimov government over the Andijan Massacre. The Peace Corps had operated in Uzbekistan from 1992 to 2001, and then from 2002 to 2005. While the entirely of the Peace Corps’ international programs were suspended in March, efforts are now underway to send volunteers back out into the world. And maybe, it seems, back to Uzbekistan.
The joint statement ends with an illustration of the progress U.S.-Uzbekistan relations have made over the past four years since the death of Islam Karimov. The two sides announced the planned elevation of their annual consultations to a “Strategic Partnership Dialogue” with an inaugural dialogue planned to take place in Tashkent sometime in 2021.
While that dialogue will take place with the United States under new leadership, it seems unlikely that U.S. Central Asia policy will change markedly. That’s good news for Uzbekistan.