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Supporting Dictators is Still Bad Foreign Policy

By Matthew Cameron

What with the recent news about the Pakistani military’s relationship with militant organizations and its apparent role in the assassination of journalists who investigate that relationship, it’s not surprising that commentators and policymakers are arguing for a carrot-and-stick approach to U.S.-Pakistan relations that is designed to either entice the latter’s military leaders with offers of increased aid or coerce them with threats of cutting off the aid they already receive.

Of course, this is pretty much the same policy the U.S. has embraced for the past decade, and it’s not likely to do much good until the threat of withdrawing aid is credible. That would mean reducing the American military’s dependence on supply routes that reach Afghanistan via Pakistan, which in turn would necessitate shifting resupply operations to routes that enter Afghanistan from the north. It’s an idea that sounds good on paper, but it would entail swapping one unsavory and inconsistent ally for a hodgepodge of others who might be even worse. As The Washington Post reported over the weekend:

By shifting the burden to Central Asia, however, the U.S. military has become increasingly reliant on authoritarian countries, prompting criticism from human rights groups that the Obama administration is cozying up to dictators.

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For instance, more than one-third of the northern-route cargo passes through tiny Azerbaijan, a country saddled by “pervasive corruption,” according to the State Department’s annual human rights report. U.S. defense officials also say the northern supply lines would not be possible without the cooperation of Russia. One new route runs through Siberia.

The biggest potential choke point, however, lies in Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic that borders northern Afghanistan. It previously had kicked the U.S. military out of the country after Washington complained about the killing of hundreds of protesters in 2005.

This is a good reminder that it’s impossible to view foreign policy decisions as having discrete consequences. After all, supporting an oppressive but pro-Western shah in Iran made sense within a decision-making framework that only considered the U.S. vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. The problem is that such a mindset failed to consider other actors, specifically aggrieved Iranian citizens whose anger toward the U.S.-backed regime ultimately gave birth to a radically anti-American movement that is still causing problems in the region today. Similarly, it’s not hard to imagine citizens of Central Asia becoming virulently opposed to the U.S. if it continues to support the autocratic regimes that rule in the region. From a strategic perspective focused solely on the war in Afghanistan that might be something U.S. policymakers are willing to tolerate, but it will look awfully foolish if the U.S. finds itself engaged in counterinsurgency warfare in Uzbekistan in 30 years.