Uzbekistan presents one of the clearest examples of the paradox confronting the United States in its war on terror: As it pursues Islamist extremists around the world, it sides with a repressive despot out of what is perceived as military necessity.
Uzbekistan is a country run by a dictator. Despite that, the Central Asian state, which borders Afghanistan to the south and has a Muslim population of 24 million out of 27 million, was an early ally in the U.S.-led war on terror. The former Soviet state is also a place where a poor human rights record didn’t stop the U.S. government from providing it with nearly $100 million in military aid in the three years following September 11, 2001, a 1,000 percent increase over previous U.S. military assistance, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ database of U.S. military aid.
American largesse helped secure access to a crucial former Soviet air base, Karshi-Khanabad, or “K2,” from which the U.S. military could support its forces deployed in Afghanistan.
The strange tale of U.S.-Uzbek cooperation began just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, when a U.S.-Uzbek “status of forces” agreement was signed on October 7, 2001. That same day, the air campaign against Afghanistan began. Through the agreement, the U.S. was formally allowed to place troops on the ground in Uzbekistan and to use the K2 air base in the eastern part of the country for combat and humanitarian missions.
The U.S. also provided security guarantees to Uzbekistan in exchange for use of the base, including an agreement to target fighters belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Afghanistan, an armed group opposed to the Uzbek government and designated by the State Department in 2000 as a terrorist organization. The U.S. also agreed to pay base-leasing fees, expenses that ultimately amounted to $38.7 million paid for by Coalition Support Funds, a post-9/11 Defense Department program that reimburses costs to allies cooperating with the U.S. in the global war on terror.
But in May 2005, a brutal massacre by Uzbek security forces in the eastern town of Andijon killed an estimated hundreds of innocent civilian protesters and finally compelled the U.S. government to cut off military assistance to Uzbekistan’s military and security forces. Within months of the U.S. siding with European allies in calling for an investigation into the killings, Uzbekistan issued a formal eviction notice for U.S. forces at K2.
Dr. Andrea Berg, Human Rights Watch’s researcher in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, told ICIJ in an interview that “Uzbekistan was the first country in Central Asia to join the anti-terror alliance.” Referring to President Islom Karimov, she said he “was happy that he could transfer his inner fight against independent Muslims against a global problem. He got backing from the U.S. and could say to rivals, ‘I was right … with all I have done.’ This gave him a lot of additional standing.”
Karimov, a former official in the Soviet Communist Party, was declared president of the independent Uzbekistan in 1991 in what was recognized around the world as a highly flawed election.
Karimov was reelected in 2000 with 91.9 percent of the vote. James Rubin, the spokesman for the State Department at the time, noted that his only opponent announced during the campaign that he, too, intended to vote for Karimov.
Reports of repression and human rights abuses persist, and Karimov continues to be accused of unfairly monitoring the more devout Muslim sectors of the Uzbek community.
Berg said that the U.S.-led war on terror is a concept that is being used against the Uzbeks by their own government. “Internally, there is a crackdown. Use of the word ‘terrorist’ is so widespread and [the government] use[s] it for everything. Everyone is a terrorist.”
Torture, extraordinary rendition and loose nukes
During the post-9/11 period of U.S. military support to Uzbekistan, human rights groups and international media continued to report cases of torture in Uzbekistan and allegations of “extraordinary rendition” there.
Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, wrote in a July 2004 telegram to British diplomatic missions around the world: “We receive intelligence obtained under torture from the Uzbek intelligence services, via the US. We should stop. It is bad information anyway. Tortured dupes are forced to sign up to confessions showing what the Uzbek government wants the US and UK to believe, that they and we are fighting the same war on terror.”
Shortly thereafter, Murray was suspended from his post.
While he was ambassador, Murray confirmed that he saw evidence that prisoners captured in Afghanistan were handed over to Uzbek forces, but he assumed they were Uzbek nationals. Murray writes on his personal Web site that this may have been a “false presumption.” They may have been “rendered” (detained outside of the rule of law and then transported to a third country) and sent to Uzbek jails. In his book Ghost Plane, which systematically tracked alleged CIA renditions flights, author Stephen Grey identified several CIA-operated flights that flew in and out of Tashkent from October 2001 to June 2005.
It is not as though the U.S. did not know about the government with which it was dealing. The State Department has repeatedly recognized Uzbekistan’s weak record on human rights. Despite that record, U.S. officials have found it difficult to walk away completely from the Karimov government. An important example of this was the U.S. government’s approach to weapons of mass destruction left behind in Uzbekistan when the Soviet Union collapsed. The U.S. decided to waive human rights certification under the Nunn-Lugar program, which funds destruction and deactivation of such weapons in former Soviet states.
In January 2007, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., proposed a permanent repeal of human rights restrictions associated with the Nunn-Lugar program, citing concerns that such restrictions would inhibit legitimate national security needs associated with securing weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union. Andy Fisher, Lugar’s press secretary, told ICIJ in written responses to questions, “It continues to be most imperative that the Nunn-Lugar program [continue] to destroy weapons of mass destruction in Uzbekistan.”
A Pentagon end run
The rare, mass protest of the arrests of Muslim businessmen that led to the slaughter of hundreds of civilians in Andijon in 2005 created a conflict between the U.S. Congress and the Pentagon.
After the U.S. military was ordered to vacate K2, the Pentagon informed Congress in September 2005 that it still planned on paying bills submitted by the Uzbek government under the Coalition Support Funds program for the use of K2 from the beginning of 2003 through part of 2005.
Members of Congress, including Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., John McCain, R-Ariz., and John E. Sununu, R-N.H., strongly objected, saying that a payment of millions of dollars to the Uzbek government immediately after the Andijon massacre would give the wrong impression that the U.S. valued security issues more than human rights. Ultimately, the payment of Coalition Support Funds to Karimov’s government still took place despite congressional objections.
In a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace one year after the Andijon massacre, McCain explained what happened. “Even after our troops had been kicked out, the Pentagon announced its plans to transfer $23 million in Coalition Support Funds to the Uzbek government. The Senate adopted legislation that would prohibit this payment until Tashkent had accepted an independent, international inquiry into the Andijon massacre. But later that week — and before the measure could be enacted into law — the Pentagon went forward and wired the $23 million cash payment. This act,” McCain said, “debased the very meaning of the term ‘coalition.'”
Human rights abuses in Uzbekistan continue. In November 2006, Uzbekistan was added to the State Department’s list of “Countries of Particular Concern” for its abuses against Muslims. Fears of civil society protests against Karimov led the government to place several human rights activists under house arrest in March 2007.
Today, in Uzbekistan, said Human Rights Watch’s Berg, “The unit to ‘fight terrorism and extremism’ shows up at trials. They are part of the teams that storm houses, checking out what people are doing. Religious prisoners’ families have to show up to the police once a month. The whole family is harassed as a result of one member’s behavior. People who have been involved in basic criminal activities are asked to be informers. The persecution of independent Muslims is ongoing.”
Assistant Database Editor Ben Welsh contributed this report.