Uzbekistan: US Asset or Liability?
by Stephen Schwartz
Viewed from afar, a strategic partnership with the former-Soviet republic of Uzbekistan has much to offer the U.S. And since the atrocities of September 11, 2001, and the onset of the Global War on Terror, the country of 27 million, almost 90 percent Muslim, seemed to have successfully positioned itself as a leading American ally in the Islamic world.
Its attractive qualities include:
As soon as news of the September 11 attacks arrived in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, the republic's president, Islom Karimov, was on the telephone to President George W. Bush, offering his country's assistance in the military campaign against terrorism. The Pentagon established a base for U.S. personnel at Karshi-Khanabad, well out of the view of the Uzbek public.
But Uzbekistan also has liabilities. From the political viewpoint, its biggest problem is its bad reputation on human rights. Although Uzbekistan had less than 20 open mosques under Communism, and now has thousands, so-called "independent" preachers of the extremist Wahhabi creed -- independent of Uzbek government control, but dependent on the backing of Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism is the state religion -- complained all too convincingly to Western human rights lobbyists that Uzbekistan denied its citizens freedom of worship. (In reality, apart from its Muslims and Jews, Tashkent also possesses a large and fine Catholic church, serving its Polish community, and Uzbekistan has dozens of Baptist churches attended by former Soviet Koreans, many of whom were sent to Uzbekistan by Stalin. Other Christian denominations also function freely.)
Furthermore, an international, conspiratorial, radical Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) or the "Party of Liberation," which calls for the overthrow of all existing governments in the Muslim world and their replacement by a new khilafah or caliphate, also began pressuring Western human rights observers. HT's argument was novel in the Muslim countries but familiar to lawyers who handle the cases of neo-Nazis and other hatemongers in the West. HT claimed that although it advocated the overturn of existing governments, and engaged in such vile rhetoric as calling for the expulsion of all Jews from Uzbekistan (and labeling president Karimov himself a Jew) it did not actually practice violence or terrorism, and should not be prosecuted for mere advocacy.
Uzbek authorities disagreed, and treated HT cadres harshly. Germany banned HT. Britain, however, refuses to make HT illegal. In a recent visit to Uzbekistan's giant neighbor, Kazakhstan, I was told that HT is now focusing its recruitment efforts on Uzbek minorities in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzia, and Tajikistan, which feel disfranchised.
In the meantime, Uzbekistan also had to contend with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an al-Qaida partner that recruited Uzbeks but did most of its fighting in neighboring Tajikistan, which had undergone a civil war in the early 1990s, and in Afghanistan. The IMU was largely wiped out when the Taliban fell from power in Kabul. Uzbekistan also applied repressive measures against the IMU, although members of both HT and the IMU who had not committed crimes were offered an amnesty by Karimov, and some adherents accepted it.
At the end of March 2004, a new wave of terrorism briefly swept Uzbekistan itself, when a series of confrontations with police, bomb explosions, and terror suicides in Tashkent and near Bukhara left 34 terrorists dead in a week. The Uzbek authorities are preparing to put 85 terror suspects on trial next month. Tashkent sources say the accused were trained in terror methods in Pakistan. But the financing of this new, even amateur terrorist network, its real extent, and its connections with international extremism have yet to be elucidated, or even, it seems, thoroughly and convincingly investigated.
Uzbekistan has other economic and social problems. Unlike Kazakhstan, it has been sluggish in its transition to capitalism; inflation is endemic, and diversification of agriculture, which was concentrated on cotton under the Soviets, has yet to be achieved. Entrepreneurship has lagged, with instability in the development of a local business class. To put it bluntly, the Soviet legacy weighs heavily on Uzbekistan. Civil society and democratic institutions have also been slow to consolidate, and the country gives a strong impression of remaining a party-state, with a local form of "state Islam" -- not the same as an Islamic state by any standard -- replacing Communism as the official ideology.
America needs Muslim allies, even those whose democracies are far from perfect. Egypt is hardly a paragon of Western governance, yet it effectively suppressed the Wahhabi terror movement that produced Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden's second-in-command. Algeria remains a socialist party-state, yet it also crushed a particularly violent and perverse Islamist uprising, with some 150,000 Muslims dead in a civil war. The king of Morocco has had to apply an iron hand to the growth of Wahhabism in that realm, which showed its bloody character in the Madrid metro atrocity as well as bombings in Casablanca. In Turkey, which is an ally of Israel as well as the U.S., the military is generally considered the main bulwark against Islamist radicalism.
And the U.S. conspicuously calls for antiterror help from Saudi Arabia, which coddles Wahhabi terrorists, refusing full cooperation to our government, and even permits clerics to incite jihad in neighboring Iraq -- when the U.S. would better demand that the Saudi monarchy reform itself as an incentive for its people to defeat the extremists. After all, Saudi subjects are likely to remain passive spectators in the face of terrorist atrocities if they believe (as many now do) that the only choice before them is either the existing Wahhabi monarchy or the ultra-Wahhabi alternative embodied in al-Qaida. The current regime forbids women to drive or possess their own identity cards, whips people in the streets for failing to heed the call to prayer, suppresses Shia and non-Wahhabi Sunni Muslims, and prevents thousands upon thousands of Christian, Hindu and Buddhist foreign workers, ranging from highly-paid petroleum-industry technicians to Filipino, Indian, Sri Lankan, and Korean servants, from practicing their faiths. By contrast, and not much of one, the royal admirers of Bin Laden would encourage the religious militia to leave the streets and burst open people's doors, beating them in the privacy of their homes, destroying their personal computers and satellite dishes, and effectively driving the expatriates from the country.
And yet, on July 13, the U.S. State Department, which is extremely reluctant to criticize the Saudi authorities, announced the reduction of foreign aid to Uzbekistan, which will now be denied $18 million. The official reason was the failure of Tashkent to improve its human rights profile. In a development that was genuinely surrealistic in its implications, at least one knowledgeable source described the cut as a reaction against Uzbekistan's decision to bar the Soros Open Society programs from functioning on its territory. If such was indeed the motive for State's sanction, it would be hard to imagine anything more bizarre, since George Soros and his organizations presently inspire a deep loathing in the Bush administration, based on his contributions to the Democratic campaign against the president. But it would not be the first time State has set its own agenda, in defiance of the president and the rest of the cabinet departments.
On September 11, 2001, 15 out of 19 of the suicide hijackers who assaulted America were Saudis. None were Uzbeks. Saudi Arabia has failed to account for this fact, while Uzbekistan has served American interests loyally and unquestioningly. Yet it is obviously easier, and more comfortable, for State to punish the Uzbeks than the Saudis.
The government of Uzbekistan has remained nearly silent about the State Department's negative verdict on its governing habits. Privately, however, Uzbek officials ask how any Muslim country can rally to the U.S. side if its friendship is to be treated so shabbily. Still, in the short term, the ball is in Uzbekistan's court. For their own best interests, the Tashkent authorities must do everything they can to make sure the August trial of terrorists is conducted to a high standard of international legal practice. And if, as the Uzbeks claim, the new terror gang was trained in Pakistan, America should look there for answers, as well as in Riyadh, before further pressing a country less than a decade and a half out of Moscow's crippling grip.