US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visits to Central Asia in 2011 represent a step toward closer relations with the U.S. with the two former Soviet countries – Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. They have also underlined the delicate line Washington is walking between its concerns over human rights abuses and its need for the regional union as it winds down the war in Afghanistan.
The official cause for Clinton’s trip was to thank Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for their cooperation in neighboring Afghanistan. Furthermore, it also presented a chance for the United States to negotiate with two authoritarian presidents – Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Uzbek President Islam Karimov – on their country’s abysmal human rights records.
Both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan lie on the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), the Afghan supply road that connects Baltic and Caspian ports with Afghanistan via Central Asia, Russia, and the Caucasus.
U.S. military planners made the NDN in 2008 in response to attacks on Afghan soldiers and concerns about the dependence of the Pakistan road.
Clinton visited Dushanbe and Tashkent and came at the end of a weeklong overseas trip that was sharply focused on making better stability and security in Afghanistan, which the last U.S. soldier is set to leave in 2014.
In Tajikistan, the State Department confirmed the existence of, “Torture and abuse of detainees and other people by security forces; impunity for security forces; denial of right to fair court; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, association, and religion; arrest; and trafficking in persons.”
So what concerns did Clinton bring up in her negotiations with the two presidents?
She told an October 22, 2011 news conference in Dushanbe that she “disagreed with” and had “shared [her] concerns” with both leaders over their governments’ restrictions on religious freedom, and said she warned that efforts to regulate religion “could push legitimate religious expression underground, and that could build up a lot of unrest and discontent.”
U.S. officials said religious freedom was one of many concerns that Clinton shared with Uzbekistan’s Karimov.