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Uzbekistan is quietly mounting an aggressive outreach campaign to U.S. officials in hopes of creating tighter links between Washington and Tashkent — and it seems to be working.
Pentagon officials are participating in a delegation this month to Uzbekistan to discuss ongoing security cooperation efforts, a defense official and a congressional official briefed on the trip told our own LARA SELIGMAN. Top of the agenda will be the possibility of housing “over the horizon” counterterrorism forces, an arrangement that would allow the U.S. military to more easily surveil and strike targets in Afghanistan.
The Biden administration has been in discussions with Uzbekistan and other countries that border the Taliban-controlled nation for months now, with little to show for it.
This comes as Uzbekistan has welcomed many U.S. officials in recent days.
Last week, four House Republicans traveled to Uzbekistan on Tashkent’s dime to meet with top officials, including chatting for over two hours with President SHAVKAT MIRZIYOYEV. “I was impressed by him,” Rep. DON BACON (R-Neb.), a member of the Uzbekistan Caucus and House Armed Services Committee who went on the trip, told NatSec Daily. After speaking with Mirziyoyev, Bacon said he believes Uzbekistan can “grow into a democratic nation that turns into a protector of human rights” — despite credible reports the president is rigging an upcoming election. “I think they’re on a positive journey of reform, but there’s more to do,” Bacon said.
And on Tuesday, a group led by House Foreign Affairs Chair GREGORY MEEKS (D-N.Y.) returned from their own, separate trip to Uzbekistan. Per a news release, “the delegation met with Uzbek government leaders to convey their appreciation for the support Uzbekistan provided to the U.S.-led evacuation efforts from Afghanistan and discuss regional security challenges.”
Why so much attention? U.S. officials say Uzbekistan moved up on the priority list after the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The two countries neighbor each other and Tashkent was open to discussions about bringing in refugees and hosting American troops, though it so far has disappointed on both fronts. Still, some lawmakers see Uzbekistan as a country uniquely positioned to help the U.S. secure regional interests down the line.
“I’m concerned about the notion that the U.S. can keep eyes and ears inside Afghanistan now that we’re outside,” Rep. AUGUST PFLUGER (R-Texas), a House Foreign Affairs Committee member who went on the trip, told us. “Having a friend in the region in geographic proximity to that potential terrorist safe haven is important tactically and strategically.”
But it’s not just happenstance: The Uzbek Embassy in Washington, D.C., has worked overtime to meet and build relationships with lawmakers and administration aides. “They are in the top one, two or three in reaching out to our office,” Bacon said, “and they’re one of the most proactive embassies I’ve seen.” JOSEPH MERANTE, executive director of The Humpty Dumpty Institute, which handled logistics for the House Republican trip, noted the “Uzbek Embassy is one of most professional and active embassies with which we have worked.”
It looks like their efforts are paying off. Uzbekistan’s foreign minister already held meetings with Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN and Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN, and Tashkent’s promises to reform have won over many on the right.
Bacon told us he will push to remove trade barriers between the U.S. and Uzbekistan, and is working to host a delegation in Nebraska to discuss agricultural cooperation and other issues. He also hopes to build a sister-city relationship between a Nebraskan and Uzbek urban center. Pfluger added the U.S. can help Uzbekistan with its water scarcity problem, adding that his district in West Texas knows a lot about how to deal with that dilemma.
Uzbekistan’s embassy and government, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, still has its work cut out for it. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom today released a new report estimating that the country has imprisoned 2,000 individuals for their religious beliefs. And even pro-Uzbekistan lawmakers admit media and political freedoms in the Central Asian nation are under threat.
But Uzbekistan’s relentless drive has on the whole boosted its image in official Washington — yet another testament to the power of facetime and money in this town.