by Eric Stoner
"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 exposes the 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 is leading 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% of
Uzbekistan’s 26 million citizens are Muslim. And with such a large
population–almost 50% of Central Asia’s total–Uzbekistan has become the
region’s major power.
The new nation’s recent history has been turbulent. As 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% 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, who rules with the proverbial iron fist, first
came to power as 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 maintained power with 88% of the vote in an election that was
criticized heavily by foreign observers. He managed to extend his rule
through 2000 via an apparently fraudulent plebiscite in 1995. He won
another seven-year term in a 2000 election 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 reporting on the
bleak situation in Uzbekistan. The annual State Department "Report on Human
Rights Practices" in 1997 found the police and security forces "used
torture, harassment, and illegal searches and arbitrarily detained or
arrested opposition activists on false charges… 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."
U.S. Rewards Abuse
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 began giving the country military assistance through the
International Military Education and Training program starting in 1995, and
grants to buy U.S. equipment with Foreign Military Financing funds
beginning in 1997. The U.S also participated in the first joint training
exercise of the multinational Central Asian Battalion–called CENTRAZBAT–in
1997. According to Kenley Butler of 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 Air Force C-17 transport aircraft to train forces from
Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and several other countries in the
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, the U.S.
desire for access to 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." He documents how numerous U.S. officials–up to President Bill
Clinton–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 remained relatively limited. This was all to change
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 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’s
2004 "Background Note" on the country). 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
Karimov seemed to take the administration’s warmth as a sign that he could
do no wrong in its eyes, and-like many other heads of state-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, or IMU, which has claimed several lives in armed attacks-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
The Economist reported in March 2004 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 the UK Guardian of Feb. 13, 2004, 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. Avazov’s mother was sentenced to six years
hard labor in a top-security prison after she complained to authorities
about her son’s death and "incriminating leaflets" were conveniently found
in her apartment.
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 May 26,
2003: "Because of the U.S. help, Karimov is getting richer and stronger."
In the last couple of years, 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 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 the Sunday
Times of London revealed Nov. 14, 2004, 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 Nov. 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-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.’" Bukharbaeva adds: "Political analysts say public
discontent with government policies and the general economic situation in
Uzbekistan is close to boiling point, 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 the U.S. finally did in
Serbia. There Washington provided some $25 million for 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. But given the
strategic stakes in Uzbekistan and the bellicose stance of the Bush
administration, it will probably take significant pressure from the U.S.
public to push their government to pursue such a course.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2005 issue of the Nonviolent
Activist, the magazine of the War Resisters League, New York City:
Center for Defense Information page on U.S. military aid to Uzbekistan:
U.S. State Department Background Note on Uzbekistan:
The Economist on torture in Uzbekistan:
The Guardian on torture:
and on forced labor:
The Sunday Times on "torture flights":
See also WW4 REPORT #97
Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, March. 7, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution