Lessons from Uzbekistan
Nov 24, 2011

Lessons from Uzbekistan

The Central Asian states such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan often don't get too much attention in the west. However, the region is both important from a geostrategic perspective as well as having its tumultuous recent history providing many important insights for western policy in Asia and many other regions. Previously, I looked at Kyrgyzstan and the lessons that could be drawn from that country. In this post I do the same for its neighbor Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan Overview:
Uzbekistan is a hopelessly corrupt and autocratic ex-Soviet state, mired in a tragic history of human rights violations. Its current President, Kamirov, is the only President the country has ever had since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, getting reelected in sham elections whose only purpose is to give the illusion of legitimacy. Uzbekistan is caught in the intersection of influence between Russia, the United States, and, recently, China which competes with Russia to project economic influence due to Uzbekistan's vast gas and other mineral reserves. Uzbekistan is also the most important of the five Central Asian ex-Soviet states with considerable influence itself in the other more minor players in the region.

Much like Kyrgyzstan, the US very rapidly built a military relationship with Uzbekistan post 9/11 to prepare for the war in Afghanistan that had five major facets:

  • There was the massive Karshi-Kanabad (K2) Airbase which was critical for the US supplying the war in Afghanistan. 
  • One faction of the Northern Alliance (which did much of the ground fighting for the US during the Afghanistan war) were ethnic Uzbeks and were based in Uzbekistan after being driven from Afghanistan by the Taliban. Recruiting, financing and arming of these militias, through the CIA, occured in Uzbekistan much as it did for Tajikstan and these groups were critical in the ground war in Afghanistan. 
  • Uzbekistan was a crucial member of the US's program of extraordinary rendition where combatants from Afghanistan would be secretly sent to Uzbekistan to be tortured for information and subsequently detained. 
  • The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is allied to elements within Afghanistan against the Northern Alliance and would cause terrorist attacks against the secular Karimov regime in Uzbekistan. The US worked with Uzbekistan to combat this group. 
  • The US worked to boost the Uzbekistan state, partially with financing and devlopment assistance but primarily through military training, financing and supplies.
The Andijan massacre:
In 2005, Uzbekistan experienced a populist regional uprising in the city of Andijan. The result was a state led massacre, with perhaps 1500 largely unarmed civilians mowed down by the state forces and then more killed by border guards as people tried to flee into Krygyzstan. Ahmed Rashid, an excellent and important author, describes it as follows: "no government in recent memory had carried out such a wanton and deliberate act of killing so many of its own people".

The United States was initially silent until it became clear the entire world was condemning the events. The Bush administration was divided along the same lines that divided it on so many issues in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Colin Powell and the State Department wanted to provide at least a token condemnation and other actions such as an investigations in tandem with Human Rights Watch against the gross human rights violations perpetrated by Uzbekistan. Donald Rumsfeld and the Department of Defence refused to do this blocking NATO efforts to give a condemnation and in fact extended financial military support to the regime. However, when the State Department gave asylum to various refugees and flew them from Krygyzstan to the US and Canada, Kamirov had enough and kicked the US out of its all important K2 military base, so crucial to supplying the war effort in Afghanistan. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) was now dead.

Lessons from Uzbekistan:
There are several lessons we can draw from this. Firstly, and most importantly, it is a stain on our consciousness that such an appalling tragedy can occur in a country being so extensively backed militarily by the US. More can, and must, be done to provide disincentives and deterrents for countries - particularly those we are allied with - from committing such atrocities. 

From the perspective of the US's military interests, we can see why there is a legitimate reason they are so hesitant to condemn the state perpetrated violence by corrupt, western-backed dictators in some of remaining Arab Spring countries like Yemen and Bahain. When even mild condemnation of atrocities from otherwise closely allied dictators could result in a serious dent to military capacity as occured in Uzbekistan, then if one is interested in protecting US military hegemony it stands to reason that one would not want to make any such steps, human rights and democractic freedoms be damned.

Unfortunately, there are often not easy answers. The US lost its airbase in Uzbekistan for entirely different reasons than it is losing its base in Kyrgyzstan. In the latter country, support for a corrupt regime allowed populist sentiment to galvanize against it and when democratic elections occured, the US lost their base. In the former, the US lost its base for not quite supporting enough a horribly corrupt regime as it slaughtered its own civilians and it was the tacit commitment to human rights that caused the problem.

If democracy occurring is seemingly bad for US interests, and if pushing for democracy and free societies to occur in autocratic countries is bad for US interests, it almost makes a perverse kind of sense why the US is so easily willing to unconditionally support these kinds of regimes. People are often quite shocked to find out about the extent of the support the US gave for the dictators in Arab Spring countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain - not to mention Saudi Arbia which despite largely escaping popular uprisings is the major US ally perhaps most antithetical to its claimed liberal values. But if one is determined to maintain a military empire of over eight hundred military bases arround the world than the experience of Uzbekistan would indicate that working closely with dictators and placating their every whim - no matter how egregious their transgressions - would be the only option.

There have been two major phases in US interest in central Asian "-stan" states, the nineties after the breakup of the Soviet Union up to 9/11, and then after 9/11 until present. It is beyond the scope of this post, but there is a strong case made by many people that there was an enormous amount of lost opportunities taken by mismanaging the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Issues like promoting an economic shock doctrine of rapid privatizing and neoliberalizing over a very small timespan that essentially turned a large number of countries into individual autocracies which dictators or a few oligarchs owning the assets of the previous state and having only the thinnest veil of democracy or a liberal society. For the most part, they were simply ignored. Promotion of liberalism - both politically and economically - was undertaken by the west largely as a way to detract form the power of Russia and was consequentially ineffective. So there is some responsibility to be taken for the state of these countries when 9/11 occured.

The Afghanistan War lens:
Whatever might have been done instead, when 9/11 occured and the US and the west decided to massively expand its presence militaristically in Central Asia, it was faced with a host of corrupt and unappetizing states to work with. There was an opportunity, of sorts, after 9/11 when these countries were now in the spotlight of western attention and much could have been done to promote economic and political prosperity in these countries. Instead, all intereractions with these countries was done through the lens of the war effort in Afghanistan. An action was taken, or not taken, in accordance with if it helped the war and there was no room for other considerations. 80% of aid to Uzbekistan, for instance, was military aid and not for economic development. It was because of this myopic focus that the US found itself supporting the autocratic, corrupt, and immoral regime of a dictator who used US trained, equipped and financed soldiers to massacre its own people protesting at Andijan.

The principle lesson is that our focus must be widened. We must aggressively pursue political, social and economic freedoms and wellbeing in the countries we interact with. We can't just pay lip service to these ideals. I don't deny that sometimes a cost benefit analysis needs to be performed and some interactions with unpalatable regimes must be taken. But our cost benefit analysis has to include all these other costs and cannot just be considered with respect to a certain war or projection of military power. It is precisely in genuinely taking this wider perspective that we gain the moral authority to act.

Even if we don't care about these other values - something that deprives us, I think, of any claim to moral authority - there is still a strong utilitarian arguement for taking a wider view. Namely, that there is immense amounts of blowback that occurs from taking - and from only taking - military actions in various countries. Ultimately it hurts the security of the US - as we infamously saw in 9/11 - to maintain such massive military empires arround the world. The willingness of people to fight against the imposed hegemony of others should never be underestimated, regardless of how good our intentions are or are not.

Whether it is kicking out US airbases in Krygzystan, whether it is the rise of al Shabab after the US annihilated the ICU in Somalia, whether it is the rise of the Taliban after the US abandoned Afghanistan after the proxy war their against the Soviets in the eighties, the story is the same. We have to take a broader view than simply whatever helps or hinders a particular war effort otherwise these problems come back to haunt us. We should care about democracy, human rights, economic and political freedom, and other liberal values for their own sake, but even if we set that aside, we should care about them because at the end of the day promoting these values is the only route to a safer, more peaceful and more prosperous world.

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