Uzbekistan Analysis

by Nathan Hamm on 4/15/2004 · 3 comments

Over at Oxblog, Patrick Belton notes that good analysis of Central Asia is lacking. He’s correct. I mean, really, where besides The Argus is there? All of Andy and my slaving over hot electrons is the best you’re going to easily find, so stop looking.

Why? Analysis on the region tends to swing between the poles of “It’s all about oil!!!!” (leftist variety) and “[Securing diverse energy sources is crucial to America’s economic security, therefore] We must stand beside friendly regimes that share our security concerns.” Yes, I know I am taking serious straw-man liberties with each argument, but I rarely see worthwhile analysis in widely read publications. You want good stuff? Look to Martha Brill Olcott or rising star Chris Seiple (hat tip to a wonderful reader for pointing him out to me!).

That’s a rather long-winded way of saying I don’t think either Ariel Cohen piece that just popped up is all that great. Not the EurasiaNet one nor the TCS one. And to be entirely forthcoming, I don’t like the former because the latter shows that Cohen apparently believes the same things that his unnamed US officials are saying about the US-Uzbek relationship. Patrick is right to say the EurasiaNet one is good, I guess. It’s more facts-driven. Read it if that is what you’re looking for…

So, I guess that means I’m talking mostly about the TCS piece (forgive me if I get weirder than normal, I’m kind of sick, my skin actually hurts.)

The Bush Administration has much at stake in Uzbekistan. After 9/11, President Islam Karimov has provided access to military bases and air space, which were crucial in launching the war against the Taliban and supporting the Northern Alliance.

Now, I respect Ariel Cohen and he’s obviously a smart man. However, my thoughts after the Uzbekistan bombings make me very attentive to the use of tense in that paragraph. What, in the present tense, do we really have at stake in Uzbekistan? The base at Khanabad isn’t going to hold that country together if Karimov faces a real threat. Is the support from that particular base so crucial to ongoing operations in Afghanistan that we can’t consider basing the troops somewhere else (like Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan)? I don’t want to abandon engagement with Uzbekistan but,

The Bush Administration is aware that Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s past domestic policies may be at a dead end, and eventually may lead to his demise, a senior Administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says. However, the recent terror attacks, which killed 45 and wounded scores — as well as claims of responsibility by a hard-line jihadi organization — have discredited the harsh, anti-government line adopted by human rights organizations and some liberal media members, blaming the Karimov regime for bringing terrorist attacks upon itself.

The policies are self-defeating. Why support them? More to the point for me, why should we rally behind Karimov if he can’t keep his binding promises to us about abandoning those policies? I agree that the human rights groups are shrill and excessively critical. Karimov may not have brought the attacks on, but he certainly made them seem like the only way to express the political feelings of the attackers.

I’m perplexed. There’s a real and unsurprising double standard going on here. Maybe not specifically in the mind of Dr. Cohen himself, but certainly in this current of thought. Conservative arguments about terror’s genesis in Arab societies usually focuses more on the fact that Arab political systems give no outlets for dissenting political opinions. Instead of seeping out, the steam builds up and explodes. Why would this not be true for Uzbek society as well?

Intelligence analysts believe that coming two weeks after the Madrid attack and only days after a Pakistani operation in which Tahir Yuldashev, a leader of IMU may have been unsuccessfully targeted, the Uzbek operations bear all signs of the handiwork of the global jihadi movement for the following reasons:

* Lengthy lead times for planning and preparation for operations, including brainwashing of suicide bombers
* Large number of perpetrators
* Use of women suicide bombers, like in Chechnya, Gaza and the West Bank
* No immediate responsibility claims and the lack of a stated political platform by perpetrators
* Indiscriminate targeting of civilians, including women and children

I think he’s trying to tie all of these events together. I can swallow the Yo’dosh side, but the Madrid argument? Why? I’m just not buying it without some good evidence. The most compelling argument for the timing of the attacks is the destruction of the explosives dump/bomb factory the night before in Bukhara. And as for the patterns of terror, well, I’m not going to say it’s unconnected to larger currents of Islamic terror. It most definitely is. The bombers probably were trained by a group like al Qaeda, but their goals were domestic and aimed at the Uzbek regime, Dr. Cohen’s dismissal of that idea to the contrary. I don’t know if Dr. Cohen’s ever been to Tashkent, but I could probably rattle off ten places in thirty seconds that I would go if I was interested in indiscriminately targeting civilians. And as for another element of his “pattern,” it may not be the US Constitution, but there certainly are some political goals in this letter.

I haven’t the energy or desire to deal with every point, but you’ll notice that almost all the information in Dr. Cohen’s article comes from an unnamed official (except for the stuff from Laurence Jarvik, and I agree with what he said, and actually think Dr. Cohen doesn’t notice it undermines his shotgun approach to arguing off all attackers).

The senior U.S. government official would like to see Karimov helping his people to “rediscover the tolerant roots of indigenous moderate Islam.” The U.S. must engage in the war of ideas and work with Uzbekistan and other moderate Muslim states to help them formulating such a creed, he said.

Well, besides the point that I don’t take anyone, Ph.D. or not, seriously when they rely so heavily on one unnamed person who may have one hell of an agenda, what good reason is there to think the Uzbek government is at all interested in cooperating with us on anything? Karimov hasn’t done so hot at that. And more importantly, anyone who has either lived in Uzbekistan or follows it closely will notice that the Uzbek government has a really hard time evenly and consistently implementing policies.

More broadly, Washington insiders understand that while democratic and economic reform in Uzbekistan is vital for the survival of a secular state, poverty and repressions are not the sine qua non of terrorism. Nor they are its root cause. If this were the case, Turkmenistan would have suffered from a more intense insurgency than Uzbekistan. And there would be wide spread civil unrest and terrorism in the poor rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, India, China and South East Asia, which is demonstrably not the case.

This is a good point. And taken with this,

“The human rights community and many in the media do not accept or understand what global Islamist threat is, and they do not really know what is going in Uzbekistan,” the senior official said. “In the Ferghana Valley, in other parts of Uzbekistan, and in Kyrgyzstan, Salafi and Wahhabi propaganda is well funded and abundant.” It is the root cause of violence, the official said.

you have the crux of Cohen’s argument. The problem is that Cohen is arguing a chicken or the egg question when that’s not what we are dealing with. Saudi money and propaganda are an extremely important ingredient. I don’t doubt for one second that Uzbekistan’s terrorists sprouted from those seeds. At the same time, I don’t doubt for one second that Uzbekistan wouldn’t have much of a terror problem if Uzbeks didn’t feel so cornered. Most Uzbeks don’t see terror as the answer, but they are deeply upset at the lack of opportunity they have (see this). If your people are pining for the Soviet Union not out of nostalgia, but because one had more opportunity, your government is pretty bad.

America should definitely help Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries to liberalize and make moderate Islam shine. However, blaming friendly and secular regimes — even undemocratic ones — for crimes committed by terrorists is counterproductive in the global war on Islamist terror. It empowers the enemy, frays the coalition, and will eventually makes Americans pay the price of the war in blood and treasure.

Dr. Cohen is right about the first sentence there. My only quibble with it is that the Uzbek government is a piss-poor partner that doesn’t see holding up its end of the bargain as all that important. As for the rest of it, damn it, criticism isn’t blaming. Just like not all Democrats are leftoids, not all critics of Uzbekistan’s government are as mum on terror as some human rights groups. Uzbekistan’s government deserves criticism, even if it’s behind the scenes. If Dr. Cohen’s unnamed official is representative of those dealing closely with Uzbekistan (I would just eat it up if it was Representative Curt Weldon, Gulnora Karimova’s Congressional spokesman), I fear we’re too narrowly fighting terror in Central Asia. If we really want to make a difference, we have to salt the earth by rolling back repression if we truly hope to keep Wahabbi-inspired ideologies from taking root.

Now, as for analysis I can get behind, check out Chris Seiple’s latest FPRI piece (via reader email originally and the link is from Zenpundit). He presents the only plausible argument for the Uzbek government’s involvement that I’ve heard–not that he’s arguing for it. The fact that he lays out the plain facts (Dr. Cohen should read this, Seiple’s actually in Tashkent and knows the ground) and the potential explanations.

Some highlights, beginning with the theory I prefer,

A third theory suggests that while IMU and Hizb-ut-Tahrir types might have been involved in the planning (given their training outside of the country), these attacks were perpetrated by ordinary Uzbeks who have nothing to lose. Today there are some 7,000 Uzbeks in jail for allegedly being members of the IMU or HT — many are there simply
because a family member was accused of supporting those groups. The detention and torture of innocent people amongst the 7,000 has made this tolerant society empathetic to the people, not the ideology, of IMU and HT, if only because it appears that someone is protesting a government that doesn’t
provide jobs and allows flagrant corruption and abject poverty to take place. (The lack of jobs is also directly correlated to the significant increase in the past year of AIDs, heroin use and suicides).

This theory is the most unsettling, for two reasons. First, these kinds of attacks go completely against the Uzbek culture of passivity, suggesting that they have had enough. Second, if true, this theory suggests that the Uzbek government is not in control and is not sure whom it is fighting. (Let me just say that the Uzbek government is fairly inept. If I’m able to intimidate some police officers and convince others I’m a diplomat, well, I’ll let you decide what quality this police state is…)

The truth is often as simple as it appears. The third theory seems to explain the majority of the actions, although former IMU types must have been involved, given the planning. Once the attacks were completed, Uzbek officials jumped on it, explained the terrorism according to their turf and their needs. The Ministry of the Interior does look bad even as global public opinion links the attacks to Madrid. Unsuspecting U.S. officials meanwhile provide some breathing space to the Uzbek government regarding the continuation of aid.

Uzbekistan is also a place whose people share our values of tolerance and respect; a place that just might
be a tranformative outpost for the advance of the rule-of- law. If we act now, using the influence of our hard power, then perhaps we can encourage and sustain a soft power vision of the rule-of-law and respect for human rights, achieving both security and stability as a result. Long-term soft power tools, especially culturally congruent forms of religious freedom, will be the key to victory.

This may be easier said then done, however. Geopolitical (as characterized by the Defense Department) and democratic (as characterized by the State Department) imperatives might conflict and impede the American effort to achieve this vision. First, it is an expeditionary age. Not unlike the coaling stations that Mackinder’s contemporaries, Alfred Thayer Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt, sought for American sea
power, the Department of Defense is looking for “operating sites” (as Don Rumsfeld told a Tashkent news conference here in February) or “cooperative security locations” that makes its power ubiquitous. At the center of everyone’s backyard, especially the surrounding nuclear powers of Russia, China, India, Pakistan and soon, perhaps, Iran, Uzbekistan is geo-strategically located for such future opportunities.

I was going to excerpt his policy recommendations, but I would have had to take the whole section over. This guy is sharp and he is realistic about the competing interests within our government where Uzbekistan is concerned. Go read the whole thing.

It should be obvious that Uzbekistan has its sandy claws sunk deep into me. I really care about the country and wish it the best. I feel that my government will miss an important opportunity to foster the spread of democracy if it takes the “hard power first” advice of the Ariel Cohens of the world in the War on Terror. It’s doesn’t need to be a two-step battle, we can help create democracy while we fight terror.

And, PS, Laurence, if you’re still reading The Argus, I really do still intend on coming down to DC to meet you! I haven’t left Philly in months! I’m glad to have been able to have mention you (even if only briefly) in a post!

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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{ 1 comment }

buermann April 27, 2004 at 3:38 pm

I really did enjoy Russian Imperialism, which I thought was quite serious, enough that the opening exposition on how an anti-imperialist Marxist state became an imperial power could easily apply to a certain other nation born out of anti-imperialist struggle. Not a perspective I necessarily agree with, but I don’t think Cohen is exactly one to consider both sides of the coin in the same light.

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