“He may be a son of a bitch,” a U.S. president is said to have commented about one brutal dictator or another, “but he’s our son of a bitch.” The fact that on the worldwide web the line is attributed to no fewer than five presidents, from Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, speaks volumes about 20th-century U.S. foreign policy.
Over the last decade, a new dictator, Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, has taken the “our son of a bitch” place. U.S. support for this Central Asian tyrant suggests a degree of hypocrisy in a foreign policy that claims democracy, freedom and human rights as its core values. It also invites serious backlash against the United States in the future and has led to immense suffering for the Uzbek people now.
In the heart of Central Asia, due west of the oil- and natural gas-rich Caspian Sea and directly north of Afghanistan, the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan has gained significant strategic importance to the United States in recent years. It is a land with a long and rich history, home to several ancient cities that were once important stops on the famous Silk Road connecting Europe and Asia.
Islam has flourished there since its introduction to the country in the seventh century. Now, nearly 90 percent of Uzbekistan’s 26 million citizens are Muslim. And with such a large population – almost 50 percent of Central Asia’s total – Uzbekistan has become the region’s major power.
The new nation’s recent history has been turbulent. As is the case in many struggling countries, a wealth of natural resources has not translated into prosperity for the majority of the population. In fact, Uzbekistan is one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics, with nearly 80 percent of the population living in poverty, according to Andrew Stroehlien of the International Crisis Group. Uzbekistan can also claim to have the most repressive regime of the former Soviet Union, with the possible exception of Turkmenistan.
President Islam Karimov currently rules over the country with the proverbial iron fist. Karimov first came to power as the leader of the Communist Party in Uzbekistan in 1989, right before the fall of the Soviet Union. At the time, he was adamantly opposed to independence; CNN reported that in 1991 he said, “If we remain part of the Soviet Union, our rivers will flow with milk. If we don’t, our rivers will flow with the blood of our people.”
Despite his efforts to keep the country tied to the collapsing Soviet empire, Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991 and promptly held elections. Karimov was quickly returned to power with 88 percent of the vote in an election that was criticized heavily by foreign observers as not valid. He has since managed to extend his rule through a fraudulent plebiscite in 1995 and another election in 2000 that, according to Human Rights Watch, even U.S. officials admitted was “neither free nor fair and offered Uzbekistan’s voters no true choice.”
If democracy has not fared well in Uzbekistan since its independence, neither have human rights. Throughout the 1990s, both the international human rights community and the U.S. State Department were aware of and reporting on the bleak situation in Uzbekistan. The annual “Report on Human Rights Practices” released by the State Department in 1997 contained an assessment that had become all too common when describing Uzbekistan. During the previous year, it said, the police and security forces “used torture, harassment, and illegal searches and arbitrarily detained or arrested opposition activists on false charges.” The report continued, “The Government severely limits freedom of speech and the press, and freedom of expression is constrained by an atmosphere of repression that makes it difficult to criticize the Government publicly.”
So how did the United States, the self-proclaimed global protector of democracy and human rights, react to those conditions?
By giving the heavy-handed dictator in Uzbekistan a firm pat on the back. Detailed data compiled by the Center for Defense Information reveal that the United States took the occasion to begin giving the country aid for military training through the State Department’s International Military Education and Training program starting in 1995 and grants to buy U.S. equipment with Foreign Military Financing funds beginning in 1997. In a rather extravagant fashion, the United States also participated in the first joint training exercise of the Central Asian Battalion – called CENTRAZBAT – in 1997. According to Kenley Butler from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, for this operation, which was to be the first in a series of joint exercises, 500 soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division did a parachute drop from U.S. Air Force C-17 transport aircraft to train the forces from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and several other countries in the region.
Why would the United States aid such a tyrant militarily, especially on the heels of such a damning report from the State Department? For the same reason members of the Taliban were treated like royalty during a 1997 visit to the United States: Other interests – especially business interests – often trump the stated ideals of U.S. foreign policy. In this case specifically, the U.S. desire for access to and control over regional energy resources took precedence. As Michael Klare pointed out in his recent book Resource Wars, surveys at the time had just discovered “vast reserves of oil and natural gas in the Caspian Sea region.” At the same time, he documents how numerous U.S. officials began talking openly about the strategic importance of these resources and their intimate relationship to U.S. “energy security.”
“CENTRAZBAT 97,” Klare notes, “must be viewed against this backdrop. Having identified the Caspian’s energy supplies as a security interest of the United States, the White House was now demonstrating – in the most conspicuous manner possible – that the United States possessed both the will and the capacity to defend that interest with military force if necessary.”
While military ties with Uzbekistan were initiated during these years and aid began to flow, it still remained relatively limited. This was all to change however, following the attacks of September 11, 2001. In the rush to war, the United States was in need of a great deal of international cooperation, and Karimov sat in the perfect strategic position. Uzbekistan provided critical support for the subsequent attack on Afghanistan by allowing U.S. forces to use Uzbek airspace and the Karshi-Khanabad base, located only about 90 miles north of the Afghan border.
After Karimov’s cooperation with the invasion, any pretense that human rights were a priority of U.S. policy toward Uzbekistan was quickly abandoned, and relations “flourished,” according to the State Department. U.S. aid to Uzbekistan almost quadrupled over the next year – from $85 million in 2001 to nearly $300 million in 2002. The Uzbek dictator was even honored with an invitation to the White House; in March 2002, during their 45-minute meeting, Karimov and President Bush signed a declaration on the strategic partnership between their two countries. The horrifying stories of repression and abuse that continued to emanate from Uzbekistan apparently had no affect on this budding friendship.
Karimov seemed to take the administration’s warmth as a sign that he could do no wrong in its eyes, and, as other heads of state were doing, began using the new “war on terror” as a cover to silence his political opponents. In the name of fighting Islamic fundamentalism – namely the outlawed nonviolent Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) and the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, called the IMU – his government imprisoned an estimated 7,000 people. According to a 319-page report released last March by Human Rights Watch, independent Muslims accused of being fundamentalists have been “arrested, tried in grossly unfair proceedings, and receive sentences of up to twenty years in prison. Those targeted for arrest include people whom the state deems as ‘too pious,’ including those who pray at home or wear a beard – which is a sign of piety.”
The Economist reported that after a 2002 visit to Uzbekistan, Theo van Boven, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, called torture there “institutionalized, systematic and rampant.” In one particularly grotesque example, according to England’s The Guardian, a forensic report commissioned by the British Embassy revealed that one Muzafar Avazov died in an Uzbek prison in August 2002 after being “immersed” in boiling water. This evidently constituted significant improvement to Washington, as the State Department continued every six months to certify U.S. aid to Uzbekistan, which was conditioned on “substantial and continuing progress” in addressing human rights. The effect of this aid was predictable. As Hakimjon Noredinov, a 68-year-old human rights activist whose son was nearly beaten to death by the security service, told the Guardian, “Because of the U.S. help, Karimov is getting richer and stronger.”
In the last couple of years however, U.S. aid to Karimov has slowed significantly. This summer, for the first time, the United States decided to withhold $18 million in military and economic aid because of Uzbekistan’s lack of progress. Interestingly though, it was not a lack of progress in human rights that led to Secretary of State Colin Powell to decertify Uzbekistan, but rather the, “lack of progress on democratic reform and restrictions put on U.S. assistance partners on the ground.” In a press statement announcing the secretary’s decision, the State Department was quick to emphasize that the country remains, “an important partner in the war on terror,” and that the decision to cut aid by no means meant that “our desire for continued cooperation with Uzbekistan has changed.”
But in fact the administration is not merely unconcerned about torture and human rights – in Uzbekistan or anywhere else for that matter. As a journalist for the Sunday Times of London recently uncovered, U.S. officials have actually found torture useful for their own purposes. The Times’ Stephen Grey obtained evidence that agents of the U.S. Defense Department and the CIA have leased a Gulfstream 5 jet to take suspected terrorists – reportedly bound, gagged and sedated – to prisons in countries that are notorious for torture, including at least seven trips to Uzbekistan.
This U.S. policy and the brutality of Karimov’s regime have led to the inevitable. As a report released last March by the International Crisis Group stated, “Evidence suggests that Islamic radicalism is still on the rise in Uzbekistan, and shifting from dissatisfaction with President Karimov to wider dissatisfaction with the West’s support for his regime.” This past November 1, in the town of Kokand, between 5,000 and 10,000 people took to the streets in protest against new government restrictions on the market traders, making it the largest demonstration against Karimov’s government in a decade. According to Galima Bukharbaeva of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the demonstrators were actually protesting more than just the new restrictions: They also “called on officials to rein in the police, often criticized for excessively repressive behavior, and to ‘free Muslims from jail.'” “Political analysts say public discontent with government policies and the general economic situation in Uzbekistan is close to boiling point,” writes Bukharbaeva, “creating the potential for protests on a wider scale, and further violence.”
So the United States will have to choose. Will it side with the dictator or the people? Will this country stick by Karimov until the bitter end, as it did, for example, with the Shah of Iran? Or will it turn on Karimov and invade his country once he outlives his usefulness or ceases to follow the U.S. line, as successive U.S. administrations did with Manuel Noriega in Panama or Saddam Hussein in Iraq?
Or will we choose yet another path? We could, for instance, live up to our ideals and play a more constructive role, as we did in Serbia. There the United States provided some $25 million and nonviolence training to Otpor, the nonviolent student-led movement, and other groups that ousted Slobodan Milosevic in the fall of 2000. It was one time when the U.S. government assisted in bringing down a dictator and giving new hope to a people who for too long had lived under the dark cloud of repression. Given the fact that this government has rarely if ever taken such action on its own, it will probably take significant pressure from the U.S. public to push it to pursue such a course.