War Stories

Why Are We in Uzbekistan?

It’s time to end our association with Islam Karimov.

With friends like this …

Let’s just get out of Uzbekistan.

President Bill Clinton struck up a relationship with Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov to stave off the common threat from Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban. After Sept. 11, President Bush tightened the alliance. Karimov supplied the CIA and the Pentagon with an air base, which served as the staging area for the invasion of neighboring Afghanistan. During that war, he also allowed the United States to set up listening posts and to launch Predator drones from Uzbek territory.

All this was justifiable, in the interests of national security, despite Karimov’s dreadful human rights record. Now the cost-benefit balance has shifted. The air base remains useful for the continuing operations in Afghanistan, but it’s not essential; bases elsewhere in the region (for instance, in the slightly less deplorable Kyrgyzstan) would be suitable, if not quite as convenient. The only other element of our “strategic partnership” with Karimov is the use of his prisons as outsourced detention camps, where torture can be inflicted without direct U.S. involvement; but this is a loathsome business that should be stopped in any event. (Or, if you think it is necessary, some other friendly tyrant could take up the slack—and, who knows, might already have done so.)

Meanwhile, Karimov’s crackdown last week on anti-government demonstrators—in which his police fired into crowds and killed well over 100 unarmed people, several of them women and children—is the latest sign that this is a regime unworthy of American support or friendship.

President Bush has declared repeatedly that U.S. policy toward foreign governments will be shaped, above all else, by their fealty to freedom and democracy. If he continues to treat the Uzbek government—which wantonly shoots its own people—as a special American ally when U.S. interests no longer require such favor, then his declarations will be increasingly seen as insincere, and other nasty regimes, which he may try to pressure into reform, will learn not to take his words seriously.

That is the global danger of continuing to coddle Karimov. (And it is a danger; whether Bush means what he says or not, some of the world’s autocrats—most notably in Egypt and Syria—are now taking his pressure quite seriously.)

There are local and regional dangers, too. Karimov’s regime may be teetering; he probably wouldn’t feel the need to lash out so spasmodically if it weren’t in some degree of danger. If he falls, it would be good for U.S. interests—for our image in that part of the world and for our security—if we cut our ties before the toppling.

It is worth emphasizing here that Muslims comprise 88 percent of Uzbekistan’s population. Some of them are fundamentalists in league with the likes of al-Qaida. (During the time of the Taliban, they crossed the border to attend Bin Laden’s training camps.) Karimov has used the threat from such groups as an excuse for his crackdowns; he has cited the crackdowns as evidence of his key role in the war on terrorism and, thus, as justification for requests of U.S. assistance. The threat is neither new nor entirely contrived. Even during Soviet days, Moscow’s overarching policy toward Uzbekistan—and the other predominantly Muslim republics in central Asia—was to snuff out the slightest reawakening of Islamic consciousness. Karimov rules by the same fear, and not without reason; not long ago, he was nearly assassinated by Islamist radicals. But, as his regime has dragged on, and as its corruption and cruelty have grown, he has come to label all opponents, critics, or potential sources of independent power as terrorists—and treated them accordingly.

What does this have to do with U.S. interests? Most Uzbek Muslims are not nascent terrorists. If Karimov’s regime collapses, it would be good if they had no additional cause—beyond those they already perceive—to hate Americans everywhere. One such additional cause might be the record of active U.S. support for Karimov. So, this is yet another good reason to stop supporting him now.

This suggestion in no way constitutes “appeasement.” Karimov is not a good ally. Besides, even if Bush continued to support him, and if U.S. forces continued to operate the Uzbek air base, it is extremely doubtful that he (or any other American president) would come to Karimov’s aid—would provide military support—in the event of a revolution or coup. So, given the lack of any other solid reason, why stay in Karimov’s corner?

One more reason to shrug and go: Karimov himself has begun to turn against us. On May 5, Uzbekistan withdrew from GUUAM, a regional group of five former Soviet republics complaining that some of the group’s members—namely, the new regimes in Ukraine and Georgia—were using the organization as a pro-Western, anti-Russian front. According to a dispatch on the Web site EurasiaNet.org—a superb source of seasoned analysis and on-the-ground reporting—this move “confirms a geopolitical turn … away from the United States towards Russia.” The story continues: “Karimov has lost interest in Uzbekistan’s alliance with the United States, apparently reaching the conclusion that Washington cannot or will not provide a solid guarantee for the preservation of his regime.”

Karimov is right—and so it should be. Russian President Vladimir Putin still defends Karimov’s actions (he remains a more stalwart friend than Bush or Clinton ever was). Yet Putin too has recently approached Karimov and expressed worries that the violence in Uzbekistan might destabilize the entire region.

On one level, it’s tempting to leave that worry to Putin. Then again, depending on the course of this destabilization (say, if a Taliban-like group comes to power in the heart of central Asia), it might become our worry, too. This probably won’t happen. Putin has a record of ruthlessness at dealing with such threats (look at Chechnya). Karimov is no pushover either. There are no organized dissident groups in Uzbekistan, no politicians offering alternatives (as Boris Yeltsin did in Russia or Viktor Yushchenko did in Ukraine), mainly because Karimov has not let them come into being. Just because demonstrators rally in a public square, as Uzbeks did in Tashkent last week, doesn’t mean an Orange Revolution comes next.

Still, who knows? When such revolts spiral, they tend to do so very quickly. And it’s unpredictable who might grab power.

With this in mind, there is one scenario that might—might—justify maintaining a U.S. presence in Uzbekistan. Given the growing fear of instability, some analysts wonder if Karimov’s lieutenants—say, Interior Minister Zokir Almatov or secret police chief Rustam Inoyatov—might be itching to step in. One can imagine U.S. intelligence agents in Uzbekistan (and it’s naive to think there aren’t any) approaching such figures and offering them a deal: We will help you topple Karimov, and help you stay in power, if you promise to institute real reforms.

Such a plot—like most plots that big powers have helped foment—would be risky. Karimov pledged reforms several times and never followed through. A prospective successor could do the same; these lieutenants seem to be no less nasty than their boss, after all. In that case, we would wind up in the same boat—and be seen as responsible for the outcome. It would be better, of course, if we could somehow help the leader of an Uzbek democratic movement rise to power, but there seems to be no such entity.

This scenario is, admittedly, fanciful. Bush and his team may have no appetite or opportunity for it. In that case, they should explain their appetite for staying in Uzbekistan and associating with Karimov—or leave as soon as possible.