Uzbekistan as a U.S. Ally?
by Stephen Schwartz
The Obama administration, in its squirming attempts to project an effective strategy against radical Islam in Afghanistan, has committed itself to a series of dangerous illusions. These have included continuing efforts to find allegedly moderate Taliban - a nonexistent phenomenon - as partners for the legitimate government in Kabul. Such attempts have accompanied a larger and more fundamental American error: apathy regarding Pakistan as the determining factor in the Afghan conflict.
The battle for South Asia is not limited to the Afghan backwater. Extremist Islamist forces in the region aim at control of nuclear-armed Pakistan, seizure of the whole of Kashmir, further disruption in India, and penetration of Bangladesh. Destructive elements in this panorama include the clerical dictatorship in Iran as well as the fundamentalist Deobandi sect, represented by the Taliban, and aggressive Pakistani jihadist movements.
Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi Muslims, whose religious legacy was influenced by Persian more than Arabic Islam, are Sunnis, but the armed fanatics among them, although financed and encouraged by Saudi Wahhabism, are less fearful of Iran than are the Arab powers. The Pashtun ethnic group that comprises the main component of the Taliban speaks an Iranian language. Pashtuns and Tajiks, the main Afghan ethnic groups, although long-term rivals, are, at least in linguistic terms, cousins: Tajik is also an Iranian idiom.
The Islamist terror, now washing Afghanistan and Pakistan with blood and flooding India and Bangladesh with the money typically needed to recruit new jihadist cadres, has a Central Asian as well as a South Asian orientation. Prior to September 11, 2001, Al-Qaida supported the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which sought to mobilize Uzbeks, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group widely distributed in the region, for Wahhabi-inspired jihad. Islamist ideology never attracted significant support among the populace within Uzbekistan, but IMU footsoldiers joined the combat to fortify the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Central Asian commentators and experts long emphasized the covetous eye Al-Qaida turned toward Uzbekistan and other former Soviet Central Asian republics, including Kazakhstan, which once had significant military nuclear resources. From 1992 to 1997, the IMU also intervened in a civil war in Tajikistan.
After 9/11, Uzbekistan, oppressed since 1990 with the post-Soviet dictatorship of former Communist functionary Islom Karimov, became an asset for the U.S.-led coalition that intervened in Afghanistan. For its supply train, the anti-terror alliance used the short common border and transport and communications facilities that link Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Karimov bragged that he had been the first foreign leader to endorse America's position after the 2001 assault on New York and Washington - within twenty minutes of the attacks themselves, he claimed - and also said that he had offered an airbase at Karshi-Khanabad in his country for permanent U.S. use, without asking for payment.
But the Karimov regime had never completely cut its ties with Moscow, and failed to alter its style of governance from that of an exceptionally repressive dictatorship. By early 2004, then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld privately declared his dissatisfaction with Karimov and said he wished to move American logistical operations out of Uzbekistan. The clarifying moment came in spring 2005 when Karimov's police massacred at least 1,000 peaceful demonstrators in Andijon, a trading center in the Ferghana Valley. Like a finger penetrating Kyrgyz territory, the Ferghana Valley had grown comparatively rich on international commerce, much of it cheap Chinese consumer goods.
Karimov and his representatives claimed that the Andijon carnage was caused by Muslim radicals, but the allegation was not believed by local democratic dissidents and knowledgeable Westerners. Washington expressed its objection to free-handed mass murder by the Uzbek tyrant, who announced almost immediately that he wanted the U.S. out of the Karshi-Khanabad base. Additionally, for the facilities that had been offered ostensibly for free in perpetuity, Karimov presented America a bill. Eventually, even Karimov himself admitted that the Andijon bloodshed represented an incompetent state response to local discontent over lack of economic development. Rumsfeld's instincts proved correct, and Uzbekistan tightened its relations with Moscow, under the rule of the antidemocratic Vladimir Putin, and China. Putin did not immediately seek the reabsorption of Uzbekistan into the Russian empire, as he has attempted to regain direct control over Georgia and Ukraine. Rather, Moscow aimed in Central Asia to block Western influence emanating from Afghanistan. The U.S. transferred its base to Kyrgyzstan, which slid from the euphoria of its pro-democracy Tulip Revolution of 2005 into Putin's arms, and in 2009 the Kyrgyz government also asked the U.S. to depart.
Since the Andijon tragedy, the U.S. has kept Karimov and Uzbekistan at a distance. In December 2009, the Uzbek authorities held the latest in a series of manipulated "elections," that, like preceding such affairs, resulted in a predictable victory for Karimov. But the Obama administration has begun attempts at conciliation with Karimov, impelled by the pretext of Uzbek strategic assistance in the Afghan war. These gestures toward a brutal dictatorship follow in line with Obama's flirtations with Iran, even while Tehran faces an unprecedented mass upheaval against its clerical misrulers, as well as with Putin's Russia.
Uzbekistan and Karimov are bloodstained exemplars of unreformed totalitarianism in the former Soviet empire and the Muslim lands. They are unfit allies for the U.S. The administration should turn away from any such compromise with evil in pursuit of victory in South Asia. If we need help from Uzbekistan, it should be predicated on a thorough political and human rights reform in that distant and scarred country.