Why the US feels at home in Uzbekistan
Matthew Brzesinski explains why the country's Soviet-style leader has been so enthusiastically embraced by the US
Saturday May 10, 2003
Uzbekistan has no oil to speak of, while rampant corruption has kept investors away from the natural gas and mineral reserves buried beneath its deserts and snowcapped mountain ranges. There isn't even a McDonald's to show that American multinationals have planted their flag here.
What Uzbekistan has going for it is real estate - a prime location, right next to Afghanistan ... This remote nation is enjoying its day in the sun as a staging post for US military operations. The 10th Mountain Division, when it is not mopping up pockets of Taliban resistance or setting its sights on Iraq, now calls Uzbekistan home.
All this makes Uzbekistan's once-ostracised leader, Islam Karimov, an indispensable ally in the war on terror - one of the growing number of regional dictators, potentates and warlords who are America's new best friends. Not since the cold war has the US faced such foreign-policy dilemmas and forged alliances with such a strange assortment of bedfellows. The manoeuvring spells a return to realpolitik, post-9/11-style ...
Not surprisingly, not everyone is happy about this. Mr Karimov's style of governance borrows more from Genghis Khan than Thomas Jefferson, and his jails have a well-earned reputation for being among the harshest in the world. Justice in Uzbekistan may be swift, but it is by no means blind.
I had the opportunity to witness the Uzbek version of due process when I attended the trial of a dozen young men accused of trying to overthrow the state ... Their crime was alleged membership of the Hizb ut-Tahrir, a banned Islamic organisation ...
The men were called on to read their confessions, which they had already signed while being interrogated. One defendant, however, deviated from the prepared script. He had been caught in possession of a Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflet. An earnest man in his early 20s, he wore studious, round-rimmed glasses. The left side of his face was purple and swollen. He wasn't a member of the outlawed group, he said, suppressing tears. He had simply picked up the leaflet out of curiosity. The judge appeared unmoved. He sentenced him to 18 years of hard labour ...
Mr Karimov has taken advantage of the global war on terror to round up thousands of people across Uzbekistan under the pretext of making central Asia safe from fundamentalism. How much the crackdown is motivated by his desire to stamp out potential political dissent is difficult to say, since Mr Karimov has a habit of arbitrarily extending his term by postponing national elections.
But there has been nothing ambivalent about the support from Washington, which these days is filled with Karimov aplogists ... The thinking in the state department seems to be that if the people of Uzbekistan have to pay the price for our safety, so be it. It's a surprisingly strong argument, given the current climate in America. At a time when civil liberties are being curtailed on the home front, why should the Bush administration or the American people worry about the plight of pious Muslims on the other side of the globe?
There is only one, equally compelling, response to that question ... By turning a blind eye to religious repression and supporting governments like Mr Karimov's that exploit anti-Islamic sentiment for political ends, could we be contributing to the radicalisation of young Muslim victims of torture and imprisonment? Could we inadvertently be sowing the seeds for a generation of future Bin Ladens?