Getting Ugly in Uzbekistan

by , April 01, 2004

Suicide bombers, pitched battles, and a massive police mobilization over the past three days have thrust the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan into the headlines – and demonstrated why our endless “war on terrorism” is doomed to not only fail, but to create the sort of “blowback” that is a windfall for America’s enemies.

Uzbekistan is a case study in tyranny, generously characterized by the U.S. State Department as “an authoritarian state with limited civil rights.” The absolute ruler of the country is Islam Karimov, an “ex”-Communist strongman who exercises total control over the state. The Uzbek nation became independent of the former Soviet Union in 1991, over Karimov’s objections:

“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.”

Karimov has generated most of that flow: torture is a favorite pastime of his political police, who use the same methods employed during the Communist era to extract “confessions” and other “evidence” of alleged subversion from political dissidents. 7000-plus political prisoners fill Karimov’s jails, imprisoned with false or zero evidence, without trial, subjected to torture, and, all too often, capriciously executed.

“After the fall of the Soviet Union in August 1991,” writes Adolat Ramzieva, a U.S.-based Uzbek journalist, “Uzbekistan’s transition from a Soviet communist republic to non-communist tyranny was extraordinarily smooth.” Seamless is more like it. The Communist Party simply renamed itself the Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, and, after getting rid of Muhammad Salih, his only rival for power by exiling him, engaging in massive election fraud, and banning his Erk (Freedom) party, Karimov, president of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and a Politboro member, seized the reins of power and refused to let go. A completely controlled “referendum,” in 1995, led to an extension of his term in office, and in January, 2002, a similar farce awarded him 92 percent of vote, with nominal opposition. Political parties that aim to “change the established order” are banned, including the “Birlik” Popular Unity movement, which advocates democracy, religious tolerance, and economic liberty, as well as Islamist groups which the Karimov regime blames for the violence.

There are two main groups of Islamic fundamentalists: the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), which professes non-violence, and promotes the establishment of a transnational Islamic “Caliphate” – essentially a restoration of the old Ottoman empire – and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a shadowy outfit said to have links to Al Qaeda. Although these groups have distinctive histories, and important ideological and theological differences, Karimov and his secret police make no distinction between the two: Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists have confined themselves to handing out leaflets and putting up posters, but these are crimes in Uzbekistan, earning the perpetrators long jail sentences.

Aside from the weird personality cult that always envelops these Central Asian “ex”-Communist leaders, the eerie retro-Stalinist atmosphere that suffuses Uzbekistan is amped up by bizarre “hate rallies” called to humiliate overly pious Muslim family members in front of the entire community – much as “deviationists” were paraded around in dunce caps during China’s “cultural revolution” and Stalin’s victims were forced to compose elaborate self-denunciations. Following the explicit dictates of Maximum Leader Karimov, the doctrine of collective punishment is the basis of Uzbekistan’s “criminal justice” system: they don’t just arrest individual suspects, they round up the whole family – including extended family members – and imprison them all.

In the wake of the Tashkent bombings, Karimov was quick to point to the Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the IMU as the culprits. The former denied any connection to the attacks, and Al Qaeda, as of this writing, has yet to claim credit, while some analysts say this may be the beginning of a popular uprising by a previously unknown indigenous group. Whatever the case may turn out to be, of one thing we can be absolutely certain: the government of Uzbekistan is not a credible source of information.

There is no independent media in Uzbekistan, and whatever “news” comes out of that land-that-time-forgot emerges in spite of the government’s best efforts. Free to torture prisoners, and extract whatever “confessions” are necessary to convince the foreign public of the official story, the Karimov regime is selling a narrative similar to the one created by Israel and its American supporters: your fight is our fight because we battle a common enemy.

Karimov’s brand of neo-Communism has its American defenders, first and foremost Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whose recent Eurasian tour underscored the U.S. commitment to the Uzbek regime. Rummy brushed aside human rights concerns, but was coy about the possibility of establishing a permanent military base in the country, averring that the U.S. sought to maintain its “flexibility” in the region. In the wake of the bombings, one needn’t wonder what direction the DefSec’s flexibility will take him, because it will surely be the wrong one.

These attacks are a windfall for Karimov, politically and financially: terror in Tashkent, whatever its source, means more “foreign aid” dollars, the near certainty of increased direct U.S. military intervention, and a full-fledged, fully-funded marriage-of-convenience between Lady Liberty and one of the last Stalinist despots on earth. The dowry should eventually be worth billions.

By the way, this weird alliance of the reds with the red-white-and-blue is not an Uzbek anomaly: the Iraqi Communist Party is one of the biggest supporters of the American occupation, in spite of their pro forma opposition to the invasion. It makes a twisted kind of sense that we would make common cause with militant secularists, particularly Commies, in what amounts to a vast social engineering scheme to “transform” the Middle East and eliminate the supposed “root causes” of Islamist radicalism.

Karimov’s American supporters – yes, incredibly, he has them! – have been singing his praises for months, the most vocal being ex-leftist Stephen Schwartz, fired from the Voice of America for his nutty views, formerly with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and now, seemingly, a full-time publicist for one of the most un-democratic and flamboyantly repugnant regimes in the world. In his new role as attorney for the Karimov regime, Schwartz writes:

“Since September 11, the United States no longer accepts the claim that the free exercise of terrorist agitation, incitement, and organization outweighs the benefits of legal sanction. Here, the “fallacy of prior restraint” has been replaced by a reliance on the doctrines of “probable cause” and “preemption.” That is, extremist rhetoric provides sufficient probable cause to take preemptive action to prevent bloodshed.”

Karimov is justified in cracking down on Hizb-ut-Tahrir, interrogating and jailing Muslims who grow beards or wear the veil, closing mosques, and outlawing opposition political parties, because, as The Schwartz puts it,

“By their radicalism, groups like HT that do not presently carry out acts of violence nonetheless prepare an environment conducive to violence.”

If the neocons can’t quite yet implement this new principle of intellectual “prior restraint” in the U.S., Schwartz and his fellow neo-authoritarians are glad to see it being given a dry run in Uzbekistan. For the author of The Two Faces of Islam, a book that posits Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist sect as the epicenter of world evil, Uzbekistan, which bans all expressions of Wahhabism, is a kind of utopia. He has recently traveled there and now regales his readers with tales of Karimov’s Orwellian domain as an "aspiring democracy,” a “transitional” society, and, anyway, he grandly announces, “Uzbekistan cannot afford to assure liberty for the enemies of liberty.” Human rights advocates who criticize the modern-day Tamerlane are “na├»ve,” says Schwartz: “In the struggle to liberate Islam from the grip of the Wahhabi-Saudi mafia, Karimov should have our backing.”

He wants us to back this, and this, and this – not just with rhetoric, but with American tax dollars There is only one possible response to such a moral obscenity: Ugh!

My longtime readers won’t be too shocked to learn about the Karimov-neocon connection: I first exposed it in January 2001. Even less surprising are the corporate connections, particularly to Big Oil, which figure greatly in determining U.S. policy in Uzbekistan. Nor is this strictly a Republican agenda. The Clinton administration set up a whole new government agency, and a Cabinet-level position – the Special Advisor to the U.S. President and Secretary of State for Caspian Basin Energy Diplomacy – to make sure American companies get in on the Great Silk Road to oil riches.

U.S. intervention in Uzbekistan on behalf of a ruthless dictator: it’s good for corporate America, good for the War Party, but is it in our national interest?As Richard Clarke quipped in his best-selling book:

“It was as if Usama bin Laden, hidden in some high mountain redoubt, were engaging in long-range mind control of George Bush, chanting ‘Invade Iraq, you must invade Iraq.'”

Can’t you hear it, now, that same familiar refrain, over the din of reports from the latest front in our endless “war on terrorism”? “Invade Uzbekistan! You must invade Uzbekistan!”

But of course we have already invaded Uzbekistan, and set up a base likely to become permanent, aligning ourselves with a neo-Communist tyrant who imagines he can contest Russia’s traditional sphere of influence by signing on as an American protectorate, and even dreams of a “Greater Uzbekistan.” If U.S. policy continues along these lines, and the only alternative to Bin Laden is Karimov, then Uzbekistan is soon going to be exporting a new item, aside from oil and rugs: a fresh generation of terrorists.

Read more by Justin Raimondo