Uzbekistan's Not-So-Holy War

In Uzbekistan, if you look a little Muslim, you better watch your back. The 
Uzbek government is waging a Pyrrhic war against its own people and its 
neighbors in hopes of resisting the influx of radical Islamic fundamentalism. 

by Ted Rall 
Sept. 16, 2000 

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan --Mikhail (not his real name) was dropping off a passenger 
from his deathtrap Lada taxi when the first bomb went off. 

"I thought my life was ended," Mikhail remembered. "Two buildings disintegrated 
a few hundred meters ahead of me. Things -- pieces of the buildings, pieces of 
cars -- were falling around me for at least a minute. Everything was on fire." 

Then the second bomb -- actually a set of bombs -- exploded in rapid-fire 
sequence. "One of the ministries fell into the street. I saw the militsia [the 
Uzbek military police] coming. I had a beard; not a long beard but still a 
beard, so I ran away." 

Mikhail wasn't the only Uzbek who narrowly escaped the February 1999 bombing: 
so did President Islam Karimov, the hard-line, pro-Western, anti-fundamentalist 
leader of this former Soviet republic, who was a mere 200 meters away from the 
blast center when the government offices were destroyed. Those bombings in this 
capital city, largely considered to have been an attempt on Karimov's life, 
were the start of the country's counter-jihad that has cost hundreds of lives 
and led to countless border wars, and that threatens to topple a laughably 
fragile balance of power in this, perhaps the world's most volatile region. 

Uzbeks share a Central Asian brand of manifest destiny, believing that their 
country alone is equipped psychologically and militarily to act as Central 
Asia's policemen. "Why do you want to go to Turkmenistan?" the Uzbek consul to 
New York asked me when I applied for my first visas to visit Central Asia, in 
1997. "It's nothing but desert. Kyrgyzstan is nice with the mountains, sure, 
but you see the mountains and then what? Kazakhstan is nothing more than an old 
nuclear-testing ground. Now Uzbekistan, we have 2,500 years of history, all the 
best cities, the best food. You should really just visit Uzbekistan."   

At first glance, Uzbekistan does have the most to offer the few Western 
tourists who make it past its arcane visa application forms, corrupt policemen 
and customs officials, and ocean of chickenshit bureaucracy (in town for more 
than a few hours? Don't forget to register with OVIR -- it used to be called 
the KGB.) The stunning Silk Road cities of Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand offer 
13th century architecture to rival anything in Europe. 

Tashkent, a bleak Soviet sprawl (everything and everyone was destroyed in a 
massive 1966 earthquake) that's home to more than two million souls, is the 
primary transportation link to the outside world -- the local cybercafé doesn't 
actually have a computer, but you can get there by the world's most 
architecturally majestic subway system. The land of 12-cent Cokes and 18-cent 
beers can be pretty pleasant, once you figure out the bizarro currency: The 
black market exchange rate between the US dollar and the Uzbek sum is three 
times higher than the official rate posted at banks, but banks actually 
exchange at the black market rate, which is perfectly legal but only 

As for the food, suffice it to say that a starving wild dog issued a yelp 
before racing away after I threw it my leftover shashlyk (mutton kabob). 

But on this, my third trip to this gerrymandered-by-Stalin conglomeration of 
Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, and Kazakhs straddling the vast wastes of the Kyzylkym 
Desert to the west and the great Asian steppe to the east, it's become 
painfully clear that Uzbek microimperialism has had dire consequences -- mainly 
for the Uzbeks. 

A year and a half after a still-anonymous would-be assassin attempted to kill 
Karimov, fighting raged 30 kilometers east of Tashkent between government 
troops and, well, nobody's sure whom. The Termiz border crossing to Taliban-
held sectors of Afghanistan has been shut since 1998 because local militants 
have taken to sniping at Uzbek troop transports. 

The Uzbek-Tajik border, as my 23 fellow travelers and I were to discover a week 
later, was the scene of ferocious high-altitude fighting between the Kyrgyz 
Army and -- well, nobody really knows whom for certain, but Karimov blames an 
outfit called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which may or may not be 
the same group of guerillas numbering anywhere from 300 to 1,200 (nobody knows 
for sure) that held four Japanese oil company geologists and four mountain 
villages hostage for months late last year. 

To add to the magnificent lack of reliable information, the IMU is said to 
comprise Tajik-based Uzbek Islamic fanatics, Taliban-trained Tajiks, or a 
secular coalition of Taliban, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. Their goal is to overthrow 
Karimov and establish Taliban-style rule in Uzbekistan and then in the other 
Stans, or to keep heroin supply lines open between Afghanistan and Turkey, or 
neither -- again, depending on who's doing the reporting. 

Karimov clamped down on the Uzbek media, turning local newspapers into 
hilariously inane party organs ("Karimov announces all things better," one 
daily blared upon my arrival at the brand-new Sheraton Tashkent.) More 
disturbingly, Karimov is so pissed off at nearly having been killed in the 
February 1999 bombings that he's not letting his own lack of information stand 
in the way of state-ordered repression, especially targeting men who are or 
appear to be Muslim in order to stamp out what he suspects is radical Islamic 

As 1999 wore on, scores of suspects were rounded up and hung, some of them 
charged with no more than membership in militant Islamic organizations or 
mosques -- often on evidence no more compelling than a long beard. Male 
residents of Tashkent have recently turned to a crisp, clean-cut look as a 
result. The executed have included men with disparate, and according to 
international observers, occasionally nonexistent ties to the Chechen 
resistance, Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and Central Asia's favorite bogeymen, the 

During last year's Kyrgyz hostage crisis, Karimov decided to take unilateral 
action against the Uzbek militants holed up along the A372 highway from Sary 
Tash to Dushanbe by asking the Kyrgyz to bomb the IMU-held villages. The 
Japanese government threatened to pull its fiscal aid if its four geologists 
stationed there were further endangered by bombing, so the Kyrgyz decided to 
try to starve the hostage-takers out. Ultimately, Karimov took bold and 
decisive action and called out an Uzbek air strike anyway against his 
neighbor's territory. 

Unfortunately, the Uzbek air force bombed the wrong villages, killing anywhere 
from a few dozen to hundreds of people -- not even the Kyrgyz know for sure 
because the region is so remote, even by local standards. The Kyrgyz reacted by 
closing the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border and severing diplomatic ties. On their second 
sortie, the intrepid Uzbek pilots bombed the wrong towns again -- this time on 
the Tajik side of the border. Fortunately for the Uzbeks, Tajikistan doesn't 
have enough of an actual government to have a Tashkent embassy to close in the 
first place. In the end, the IMU fighters left of their own accord after the 
Kyrgyz promised them safe passage back to their bases in anarchic Tajikistan. 

As might be expected from a man facing three simultaneous invasions by 
surrealistically anonymous ground forces, countless alleged assassination plots 
and his own narrow escape from Central Asia's answer to the Oklahoma City 
bombing, Karimov sees himself as a man both personally and politically under 
siege. The Uzbek government sees an Afghanistan to the south full of training 
camps for young jihad fanatics who want to spread the Taliban's brand of purist 
Islam (no music, no movies, no chicks). Tajikistan has no government worth 
mentioning, and its border with Uzbekistan is a constant battleground. 
Uzbekistan considers its other neighbors weak (Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, 
Kazakhstan) or untrustworthy (Russia). 

Needless to say (but let's anyway), everyone else finds the Uzbeks presumptuous 
and annoying. 

When there's an unpleasant job to do, you'd best do it yourself, so Karimov 
says Uzbekistan will chase down and "crush and kill" radical Muslims wherever 
they go -- without worrying about minor details like borders. In June, Russia's 
Vladimir Putin accused Afghanistan of training and supplying the Chechen 
resistance; Uzbekistan not only offered safe passage to Russian bombers but 
asked for permission to send in its own ground troops. (The saber-rattling 
ended without comment in late July.) 

It's an old historical lesson, but the oppression of fringe movements often 
radicalizes people who would otherwise consider themselves moderate. A bus ride 
from Bukhara to Tashkent -- normally a two-day ordeal of dusty, cramped seats, 
blaring Thai kickboxing movie soundtracks, and caged birds at the doors of 
death -- can take four or five days thanks to an endless series of police 
checkpoints. AK47-toting kids in berets toss bags, demand bribes, and arrest 
anyone who kinda sorta looks Muslim -- which is roughly a third of the 

Ugly allegations have surfaced about the fates of the arrested, thousands of 
whom have disappeared without a trace. 

"Someday they'll find the bodies," an elderly woman moneychanger whispered to 
me in Samarkand's bazaar at the foot of the majestic Registan mosque as a $50 
bill bought sheaves of notes thicker than the Manhattan phone directories, 
white and yellow combined. "Everyone knows they kill them out in the desert." 

Checkpoints take anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours to clear, and they 
occur roughly every 30 miles. At first, my fellow travelers dealt with each new 
checkpoint with customary American good cheer, shouting out "Checkpoint!" to 
get everyone to sit down and assume the traditional Central Asian posture of 
glum fear the police expect from their subjects while they're gleefully shaking 
them down. But suffering through that ritual dozens of times eventually made 
the glumness real. Uzbekistan has become a huge pain in the ass, even for the 
militantly anti-Muslim. 

The vast majority of Uzbekistan's Muslims want what people in Central Asia have 
always wanted: to be left the hell alone, to work and pray as they see fit. But 
faith has been politically polarized, and you're either on one team or the 
other -- and both sides have very, very big guns


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