TASHKENT–In the markets, on the streets, even in the privacy of their homes or cars, the people of Uzbekistan are sphinxlike. They think things are going…well, as best as could be expected. Not good…but not bad. They are canny traders of information, offering little, but quickly asking, “And what do you think about Uzbekistan?” and then listening with neither expression nor comment. They shake their heads in sympathy for the September 11 victims. But they have nothing to say about the three-week-old US airbase here–nothing. Some even express surprise to hear of the existence of an American military presence on formerly Soviet territory, a base from which we may (or may not) be dropping bombs and special forces into Afghanistan. It’s probably feigned surprise, but considering the Pentagon-sponsored news blackout–not one journalist has been allowed within two miles of the base–ignorance is plausible.
Uzbekistan has its own problems with terrorists, most spectacularly illustrated when a 1999 car bomb in downtown Tashkent, the capital, killed sixteen and wounded more than 100. So most Uzbeks are quick to volunteer that terrorists are, indeed, very bad.
But ask whether President Islam Karimov’s war on terrorists has become a war on nonviolent Islamic groups–complete with arbitrary arrest, torture and extrajudicial killings–and they again refuse to bite. Terrorists are bad. The president is good. As to torture, well, abuses may (or may not) be happening. But if they are, then what’s important is, “President Karimov doesn’t know about it”–this from a university professor who had just told me how his son was arrested as a terrorist “because he went to the mosque”; was held for forty-three days without a lawyer; was cajoled into confessing by security officers who tore out his fingernails and inserted needles in their place; and who later renounced his confession in court as the product of torture, only to be given six years by a judge who replied, “As long as it is written, it is so.”
When I demurred that President Karimov surely knows what’s going on–if only because foreign governments and human rights groups have complained to him–the professor looked down at his feet and shook his head curtly. “He doesn’t know.”
On October 5, President Karimov and US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared together in Tashkent to announce a “qualitatively new relationship.” Uzbekistan would provide us with an airbase and overfly rights; and we would defend Uzbekistan from fuzzily defined future foes.
Our newly minted ally Karimov was the Communist Party boss of Soviet Uzbekistan, and in 1991 he sat on the fence as long as possible during the coup attempt that lifted Boris Yeltsin to new heights. (In Tashkent, those who demonstrated prematurely against the coup and for independence were beaten and fined.)
Such wariness was not without grounds. In December 1991, as the Soviet Union was being dismantled, Karimov found himself in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley provinces, in a building surrounded by thousands of (unarmed) people chanting “Allah akbar!” Inside, Karimov heard the contradictory demands of a kaleidoscope of groups represented on the street–from calls that he register certain pro-democracy movements to calls that he establish an Islamic state of Uzbekistan, modeled on Iran. He promised to think it all over, and they let him go home.