U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visits to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan this past weekend represent a step toward closer U.S. relations with the two former Soviet countries, but they have also highlighted the delicate line Washington is walking between its concerns over human rights abuses and its need for regional alliances as it winds down the war in Afghanistan.
The official reason for Clinton's visits was to thank the two Central Asian countries for their cooperation in neighboring Afghanistan, but it also presented a chance for the United States to press two authoritarian leaders -- Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Uzbek President Islam Karimov -- on their country's abysmal human rights records.
Both countries lie on the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), the Afghan supply route that connects Baltic and Caspian ports with Afghanistan via Central Asia, Russia, and the Caucasus.
U.S. military planners created the NDN in 2008 in response to frequent attacks on Afghan lines and concerns about the reliability of the Pakistan route.
Clinton's visit to Dushanbe and Tashkent came at the end of a weeklong overseas trip that was sharply focused on improving stability and security in Afghanistan, which the last U.S. soldier is set to leave in 2014.
Strained Relations With Pakistan
In Islamabad, Clinton delivered the message that Washington won't accept anything less than full cooperation in the fight against terror.
Her Pakistani counterpart, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, had her own message, which boiled down to: Pakistan will fight terrorism according to its own sovereign interests and its partnership with the United States is "not based on a to-do list."
The strained U.S.-Pakistan relationship is at least one reason for the Obama administration's recent moves toward closer relations with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which the United States imposed sanctions on in 2004 over human rights abuses and a lack of democratic freedoms.
Those sanctions were lifted in September, at the White House's request, in a move that was strongly criticized by rights groups.
The sanctions waiver allows the resumption of U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to Tashkent, and Human Rights Watch -- representing what it called "a broad, international coalition of human rights organizations, labor groups, trade unions, investors, and others, including independent civil society groups based in Uzbekistan," told Clinton in a letter, "Uzbekistan's status as a strategic partner to the United States should not be allowed to eclipse concerns about its appalling human rights record."
Inventory Of Abuses
The State Department's latest report on Uzbekistan lists an inventory of human and civil rights abuses, including: "Instances of torture and mistreatment of detainees by security forces; incommunicado and prolonged detention; arbitrary arrest and detention; denial of due process and fair trial; restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association; governmental control of civil society activity; restrictions on religious freedom including harassment and imprisonment of religious minority group members; and government-compelled forced labor in cotton harvesting."
In Tajikistan, the State Department notes the existence of, "Torture and abuse of detainees and other persons by security forces; impunity for security forces; denial of right to fair trial; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, association, and religion; arbitrary arrest; and trafficking in persons."
So what concerns did Clinton bring up in her meetings with the two leaders?
She told an October 22 news conference in Dushanbe that she "disagreed with" and had "shared [her] concerns" with both presidents 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 raised with Uzbekistan's Karimov.
A State Department official speaking on background said Karimov had repeated previous vows to make reforms. "He said that he wants to leave a legacy for both his kids and his grandchildren. The secretary welcomed that, and said that would help to build a long-term foundation for Uzbekistan but also for our cooperation."
But Clinton's meetings with the two authoritarian rulers have some observers asking whether the United States can maintain its moral status as a defender of human rights if it strikes bargains with governments that abuse them.
"The short answer is 'no'," said Alexander Cooley, an expert on Central Asia and faculty member at Columbia University's Harriman Institute.
"The optics" of the meeting between Clinton and Karimov "look terrible" to those concerned about rights abuses, he said. "The fact of the matter is you still have 10,000 political prisoners in Uzbekistan -- more than the entire rest of the former Soviet space put together."
According to Cooley, even Washington appears unsure of where it stands.
"Right after the proposed waiver on the banned FMS sales (foreign military sales), Assistant Secretary of State [Robert] Blake commented that this did not constitute an endorsement of the human rights situation in Uzbekistan, nor did it mean that [the U.S.] saw visible progress, as if to mean that this was simply a security concession," he said.
"Now with Secretary Clinton, we actually see U.S. officials congratulating Uzbekistan and talking about demonstrable progress in a lot of these values issues.
"So we see real inconsistency on the U.S. side, between sort of the 'We have to hold our nose argument and do this,' and 'Yes, we are seeing concrete progress on the human rights front by Uzbekistan.'"
Rights Issues Ignored By Uzbek Media
Even worse, Cooley said, Clinton's concerns about abuses "were simply cut out by the Uzbek media, so those are never going to be heard."
Indeed, Uzbekistan's National Information Agency and pro-government website Olam.uz, published a report on the Clinton-Karimov meeting that omitted any mention of human rights or discussion of political reform.
Instead, it focused on "the significance of our country in providing security and stability" in Central Asia.
Clinton thanked Karimov for Uzbekistan's help in "settling the Afghan problem and in giving aid for the social and economic restoration of Afghanistan," it said.
The October 22 evening news broadcast on Uzbekistan's state-owned First Channel also highlighted Uzbekistan's cooperation with Washington on Afghan issues.
To others in the region, however, Washington's calculus is clear. Ferghana.ru, a Moscow-based website that covers news from Central Asia, wrote that U.S. concern over safeguarding military operations in Afghanistan "seems to be taking precedence over human rights issues."
In an article headlined, "Islam Karimov Said Exactly What Hillary Clinton Wanted to Hear," the website wrote that the Obama administration simply cannot ignore Uzbekistan's geographical positioning and its convenient networks of highways and railways, no matter how "unpleasant" the country's leader is.
"The need for the alternative 'northern route' -- a supply way for the coalition troops in Afghanistan -- has made these talks with Uzbekistan necessary," it said.
'Always A Clear Limit To Reform'
Kamoliddin Rabimov, a Paris-based Uzbek expert on Tashkent's political affairs, believes that despite Karimov's pledge to Clinton, "there is always a clear limit to what Karimov does when it comes to democratic reforms."
"Karimov can talk about reforms, but he won't implement any true reforms, which in his opinion would undermine his regime, because the situation inside Uzbekistan is quite complicated," he said.
"Although Karimov prepares the legal basis for democracy and liberalization, he is wary of putting them into practice.
"The [Uzbek] regime is afraid that real democracy, liberalization, and the implementation of human rights would put the future of the regime in jeopardy."
And that's a fear that Columbia University's Cooley said Karimov likely brought into his meeting with Clinton.
According to Cooley, Tashkent's value to Washington may now exceed Washington's value to Tashkent, and Karimov believes he has the leverage to keep Western critics at bay.
"One of the things with the Northern Distribution Network that we've seen is that the Uzbek government itself has traded off human rights and security cooperation as being opposed to each other," he said.
"And we know from many of the Wikileaks cables that, in fact, President Karimov in his meetings would dangle cooperation on NDN issues as being jeopardized by Washington pushing Tashkent too hard on human rights and democracy issues."
"The Uzbek government consciously crafts these goals as being in opposition," Cooley added, "and the U.S. government has relented."
with additional reporting by Farangiz Najibullah, RFE/RL's Tajik Service and RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.