After weeks of evasion and deflection, reminiscent of two illicit lovers keen to avoid scandal, the United States and Uzbekistan announced on October 12 that they had made a deal. Tashkent agreed to let the United States use not only its airspace but also its military and civilian infrastructure in the common cause of fighting terrorism. In return, Washington undertook a commitment to discuss any threats to Uzbekistan, implying its willingness to defend the host country if attacked by Afghanistan.
Though remote at present, the prospect of the Taliban regime attacking Uzbekistan cannot be ruled out. Much depends on what happens during the “search and rescue” and “humanitarian” missions by the US special forces operating from Uzbek airbases. In the course of such innocuous-sounding missions, the special forces frequently deploy helicopters and strike aircraft.
“If it means you have to take out half a dozen Taliban positions to ‘rescue’ your colleagues, then that is what you have got to do,” explained an Uzbek military analyst in Tashkent. “Most people might sometimes find it hard to recognize [the difference between] a regular attack and [a] search and rescue [mission].” Equally, he added, “it could be considered ‘humanitarian’ to remove Taliban forces from a valley filled with civilians in need of food and medical supplies.”
Washington has been complicit with the repressive Uzbek government for some time. Rustam Jumaev, chief spokesman for Uzbek President Islam Karimov, recently told the Washington Post that his country and the United States had been conducting covert anti-Taliban operations since mid-2000, and that significant security and military cooperation between Uzbekistan and the Pentagon had existed for “two to three years.” This was a welcome departure from the Uzbek administration’s usual secretiveness. Though the London Guardian had revealed on September 21 that two US Hercules transport planes, carrying surveillance equipment and 200 US military personnel in civilian clothes, had landed three days earlier at a military base near Tashkent on their way to Termez on the Uzbek-Afghan border, Uzbek officials would say only, “Our president is prepared to discuss anything with Washington.”
Weeks later, an Uzbek spokesman revealed that, following telephone conversations between Presidents Karimov and George W. Bush, the former had agreed to let the Pentagon use Uzbek airspace in the fight against terrorism for security and humanitarian aims. And it was only after the visit to Tashkent of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in early October that an announcement was made about the imminent arrival of 1,000 soldiers from the US 10th Mountain Division, deployed to defend an airbase being used for search and rescue and humanitarian missions. Another contingent of 1,000 troops arrived soon after. Why the mountaineers were guarding the perimeter of an airbase remained a mystery until it became clear that the Uzbek government had handed over an airbase completely to the Pentagon.
The airbase remains unnamed to this day. But since a five-miles radius around the airbase at Khanabad near Qarshi–100 miles from the Afghan frontier–has been closed even to local residents, the “secret” is common knowledge. Aside from heavy US transport planes, the locals have noticed strike aircraft and helicopters landing and taking off.
The Uzbek government has barely changed from Soviet times. The Communist chief of that period, Karimov, is still in power. The republic, accounting for about half of the 57 million inhabitants of the five Muslim-majority Central Asian states, continues to be under one-party rule, now called the People’s Democratic Party. In 1999 opposition groups were prevented from contesting the parliamentary elections. The following year Karimov was re-elected in a contest regarded by Western observers as neither free nor fair.
Uzbekistan’s human rights record is abominable. Last April, in a chilling reminder of the Soviet era, Elena Urlaeva, a human rights campaigner, was forcibly admitted to a psychiatric hospital after her arrest in Tashkent. In the name of suppressing Islamic militancy, the authorities have arrested male citizens for wearing a beard and females for wearing a veil, and other Muslims for circulating religious leaflets and for attending unlicensed mosques. “The situation was bad before, but it is now very dangerous for religious freedom and political opposition,” said Ruslan Sharipov of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. “There are already some 10,000 political and religious prisoners, and there is great censorship. I am afraid that the US will take the pressure off Uzbekistan’s human rights now, and that things could get a lot worse.”
Uzbekistan’s economy is still dominated by a corrupt, inefficient public sector, which provides a gravy train for the ruling-party faithful. When Tashkent refused to reform its banking sector to qualify for further loans, the International Monetary Fund closed its local office earlier this year.
With average monthly wages of as little as $20 by some estimates, socioeconomic conditions are ripe for change. But legitimate opposition, whether secular or Islamic, has been driven underground. The Islamic Renaissance Party, with a considerable following in the densely inhabited Fergana Valley–home to a third of the national population-turned increasingly violent. It set up a rear base in the ethnic Uzbek area of Afghanistan after it passed into Taliban hands in mid-1997, renaming itself the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). It attempted to assassinate Karimov by detonating a series of car bombs in Tashkent in February 1999, but failed. Thirteen people died.
Now the Bush Administration associates the IMU with Osama bin Laden. That appears to be enough justification for it to openly embrace Karimov, whose corrupt and often brutal one-man regime is despised and feared by so many. Details of the financial deal between Tashkent and Washington remain secret. Most likely, either the United States has promised to pressure the IMF to resume loans while helping Uzbekistan to reform its financial sector, or it has agreed to lean on the World Bank to grant Tashkent soft loans and defer or waive interest payments on earlier loans. Either way, Karimov will get a nice economic cushion while he runs the country with an iron hand. It is ironic that the military operation the US has launched on the shoulders of two dictators–one military, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in Pakistan; and the other civilian, Karimov in Uzbekistan–has been named “Enduring Freedom.”