Uzbekistan: ‘War on terror’ bears bitter fruit

The crisis shows how America creates its own enemies.

Josie Appleton

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Before 13 May, most people in the West probably would have found it difficult to locate Uzbekistan on a map. Now the media is full of stories about president Islam Karimov’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators in the east of the country. Yet this is very much a crisis of the West’s own making. It is American intervention that has destabilised the region, and unbalanced already shaky states.

Uzbekistan, like many of the former Soviet republics, is a state without a reason to exist. Lacking a unified national elite or national identity, these central Asian states were born by default out of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Karimov was an ex-Communist Party chief who just stayed where he was after the USSR collapsed, attempting to keep control through a Soviet-style apparatus that included a ruthless secret service (1). The country is a hotchpotch of ethnic groups, with more than 60 per cent of people living in densely populated rural communities.

The USA’s ‘war on terror’ is upsetting this already shaky state of affairs, providing illegitimate central Asian leaders with a blank cheque to crack down. After 9/11 the USA was desperate for allies in the region. With its border with Afghanistan, Uzbekistan has become a key location for US air bases, and one of the places America sends al-Qaeda suspects for interrogation. Karimov looked to the Americans to prop up his regime – he hyped up the internal Islamic terrorist threat, and presented every domestic dispute as a case of Islamic extremism. In return, he has received US funding for Uzbek troops, and CIA and MI6 training for the security services (2).

The American eagle hovering over central Asia artificially bolsters particular local elites, and encourages different groups to vie for external favour. There has already been trouble in Kyrgyzstan, and problems threaten in places such as Kazakhstan.

With the might of the world’s superpower behind Karimov, is it any surprise that this tin-pot leader felt free to flex his muscles? The Uzbek president rounded up scores of suspects, claiming that they were sinister Islamic militants. And when an illegitimate leader behaves in this way, is it any wonder that people rebel? Crowds near the eastern town of Andijan freed local prisoners and took over government buildings. The Uzbek military, bolstered by US aid and moral support, apparently had no qualms about opening fire.

In one sense, this scenario is nothing new. Throughout the Cold War, the US supported a string of local hard men, otherwise known as ‘our bastards’. Yet Western intervention today lacks those old certainties of ‘our’ interests, and so it faces problems when things turn nasty. US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was pushed to make mild criticisms of the Uzbek regime, saying that the country needs ‘pressure valves that come from a more open political system’.

The USA seems to have an uncanny habit of breeding enemies for itself today. The very forces that it supports often turn around and bite it – from bin Laden in Afghanistan, to the Mujihadeen in Bosnia. Or, as with figures like Karimov, US support sparks an aggressive opposition. Behind this is the fact that the USA lacks a coherent set of national interests to defend on the international stage. Without the Soviet threat, it’s unclear what American allies are supposed to stand for. They can’t just be anti-communist any more, so they tend to head off on their own trajectory.

US intervention today ends up achieving the opposite to what it intended. If there is an attempt to create a stable state in Iraq or Uzbekistan, the exact opposite results: destablised states, where private militias and other non-state groups can flourish. At every turn, American action creates an undesired reaction. There is potential for a place such as Uzbekistan to turn into a Chechnya.

The effects of American intervention in central Asia are worsened by the intervention of other Western commentators, who have different axes to grind. Journalists use Uzbekistan as a stage for their own moral grandstanding – they compete to paint the most horrendous picture of Uzbek evil. One columnist attacks the ‘vicious, murdering, malevolent despot’, who ‘boils people alive’ – as well as using ‘electrocution, chlorine-filled gas masks, drowning, rape…’ (3). One newspaper printed a report from a UK-based NGO claiming that a truckload of vodka was delivered to the Uzbek military servicemen, who got drunk before firing randomly into the crowd (4).

This media support for the ‘freedom protesters’ mirrors a pattern established in Georgia and the Ukraine. And it adds to the destablising effect of the US war on terror. Support for protesters tends to bolster Western-oriented groups, who work with Western NGOs and organise photogenic protests. Groups can create waves by appealing to the cameras of CNN, rather than by winning popular support.

It’s not even clear what exactly happened in that border region of Uzbekistan – estimates of the numbers of dead range wildly. Yet this doesn’t seem to stop everybody poking their noses in. Even UK foreign minister Jack Straw has had a go, calling the violence a ‘clear abuse of human rights’, and demanding that EU ambassadors and journalists be allowed into Andijon. Straw faced a challenge in his own constituency from the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, who resigned over his comments about human rights. Speaking out allows Straw to win back some moral capital, and also allows him to distance himself from America, a special relationship that has brought the UK government a lot of domestic flak.

It would be better if both Americans and Europeans kept their noses out of the already shaky state of Uzbekistan, and left the people of that region to decide their fate in peace.

(1) ‘Uzbek leader learns from fate of other autocrats’, FT.com, 16 May 2005

(2) ‘Western powers must bear the blame for Uzbekistan crisis’, Daily Telegraph, 17 May 2005

(3) Martin Samuel, in The Times (London), 17 May 2005

(4) ‘Witness says that drunken convoy shot at 15,000 in crowd’, The Times (London), 17 May 2005

(5) Uzbekistan: Western reaction toughens to Andijon Killings, Radio Free Europe, 17 May

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