US Embassy Meeting in Tashkent

by Nathan Hamm on 6/1/2005 · 13 comments

[From Tashkent correspondent David Walther]

In Closed Meeting, Embassy Warns of New Threats to U.S. Citizens

The U.S. Embassy in Tashkent today held an informational meeting for U.S. citizens only (passport required) at a secure location disclosed only a few hours before the meeting took place. The purpose of the meeting was to highlight and explain the newest warden message that indicated a new threat level specifically for American citizens living in Tashkent.

While Ambassador Purnell admitted at the beginning of the forum that it might be difficult at first to distinguish any difference between the new warning and the ones that had been issued for the last three years, he emphasized that the meeting had been called specifically to underscore the seriousness of the perceived threat and intimated numerous times (though never said directly) that they were working with credible new intelligence. He emphasized differences in the new message, including a new warning against the threat of kidnapping, which he indicated they now take very seriously.

The warning itself, with its new emphases, specifically states that intelligence indicates that attacks are in the late planning stages that include soft targets frequented by Americans and other foreign citizens—including restaurants, night clubs, hotels, and religious gatherings. Ambassador Purnell urged Americans in very strong terms to avoid public gatherings with other foreigners completely, and to be suspicious of chance acquaintances with local people who show inordinate or unusual interest in them or their activities, warning that kidnappers usually make an attempt to get to know their intended victim beforehand.

Perhaps most alarming to those in attendance was his private announcement that based on this new intelligence, he had requested that the State Department raise the threat level status for Uzbekistan so that Embassy and U.S. government personnel or their families could be re-stationed and/or evacuated from Uzbekistan if they choose—while he stressed that there would be no general evacuation of embassy staff at this point, he did indicate that he expected several staff members to choose to exercise the option to be restationed and a number of families to leave.

When asked during a question and answer time by an attendee whether this was as close as the U.S. government would come to telling its citizens to go home, he worked around the question with a joke, saying the U.S. government never tells its citizens where they can go and can’t go, but that these warnings were very serious.

He also indicated that he expected the State Department to grant his request to raise the threat level for Uzbekistan within a matter of days, and that at that point the State Department would issue a new statement warning Americans to limit all unnecessary travel to Uzbekistan as a whole—expanding the current warning advising travelers to stay away from the Andijon region.

The ambassador clearly stated that the new intelligence and the expected attacks have nothing to do with the events in Andijon, which he several times characterized as a popular uprising related to economic circumstances and domestic issues. The expected attacks, however, rather vaguely predicted to come from well organized groups with international ties, like the IMU or Islamic Jihad.

During the question and answer time after the Ambassador’s warning, several interesting issues came up: a Tashkent resident asked the ambassador to comment on John McCain’s Senate delegation that visited Tashkent over the weekend, and though Purnell politely declined to comment, he did confirm that the senators were not given an audience at any level of the Uzbekistani government. When asked to comment about the news blackouts in country during the events in Andijon, Purnell said he enjoyed the irony of the fact that his television access was blocked out as well, and that when the Deputy Foreign Minister called him and asked for a response to Karimov’s speech after the first day of fighting, he could honestly reply, “I didn’t see it. My television’s blocked out.” After the laughter died down, the ambassador said, “It’s those little things that keep you going.”

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This post was written by...

– 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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Tim Russo June 1, 2005 at 2:25 pm

i wonder if the ambassador knew this would end up in a blog (or 2…i blogged on it just now. thanks nathan.)

Lyndon June 1, 2005 at 3:56 pm

So does this mean the trip to Uzbekistan I’ve been planning for this summer is not a good idea? In all seriousness, I wonder if any of you who are actually in Tashkent can comment on how safe or unsafe it’s feeling right now. Having lived in Moscow for several years, I know that a lot of people in the US (and people at the Embassy here) are under the impression that it’s a dangerous place to be, while I find it a wonderful city and am sad to be moving home this summer; therefore I always wonder what to think about the warden messages and travel advisories. But this sounds like something pretty serious. Anyone’s two cents will be appreciated.

And David, thanks for the exclusive report.

Nathan June 1, 2005 at 8:40 pm

I don’t know what to say really Lyndon. As David points out, after hearing similarly worded messages for so long without anything happening, it’s hard to be really concerned. But, then again, the embassy’s treating this differently. From what has been communicated to me (and the way it’s communicated), it’s not clear if there’s information that Americans themselves are targets. It’s kind of implied in the kidnapping message, but…

There’s loads I’m not privy to and I haven’t been there for a while, but my general impression is that the State Department either has more specific information than they’ve every had or that we’re pretty clearly back on a seasonal terrorism schedule in Uzbekistan. The latter very well be the case as the IMU seems not to have had it too terribly rough last year and the IJU likely travelled up from Pakistan. It’s all one big happy terrorist family and the local franchise may try new tactics learned from Iraq.

My really general impression is that Samarkand, Bukhara, and the West are much calmer than the rest of the country. If something were to go down, I’d expect it to be in Tashkent or the Valley.

david_walther June 1, 2005 at 11:33 pm

nathan, i think you are dead on about it being in the valley or in tashkent, that would certainly fit the past patterns and the apparent logic behind it all too.

as far as whether the threat was real, after rereading last night, i realized that i don’t think i made it clear enough how strong the ambassadors emphasis was that A) the threat was very real, and based on new information and B) that americans were specifically among the targets according to the information they have.

lyndon, it would be great for you to come to tashkent, especially all the great work you did during andijon–i think it just depends on you. the attitude here so far has been to take all this very seriously, but those of us who are dug in already are not planning on leaving unless something real begins—however, i think we will also take the warning very seriously and stay away from restaurants and hotels.

if you don’t have your own contacts here, lyndon, and need help finding a non-hotel place to stay or whatever, i’d be happy to help out. nathan can give you my real name and email address if you write to him…

Lyndon June 2, 2005 at 10:29 am

David, thanks for the additional information and offer of help. Can you just email me at the address listed on my blog’s main page (it’s off to the right at the top), which you can reach by clicking on my name above? I do have a couple of questions about the visa application process and about what places are must-see if I’m going to be there for a limited amount of time.

Deborah June 2, 2005 at 10:50 pm

Thanks very much for giving this report on the meeting in Tashkent; I have a friend there, and could find no mention of anything happening there in main stream media, but heard about the family evacuation order, and wondered what had brought this on.

Dolkun June 3, 2005 at 7:51 am

Could anyone comment on whether the U.S. threat assessment could be being manipulated?

Tashkent wants the world to believe Andijan was symptomatic of a wider terror threat. Could it therefore share intelligence bolstering its position, and causing a spike in the U.S. threat assessment either intentionally or as a by-product?

Nathan June 3, 2005 at 9:14 am

I have my doubts that it is Dolkun. The Uzbek government pushed the “it was all Hizb ut-Tahrir” line after the massacre and that’s not who the US seems to be worried about. I’m also not convinced that the US would be getting its information on a group mostly operating in Pakistan from the Uzbeks.

Could happen, but I doubt it.

JP June 5, 2005 at 1:02 am

I a rpcv UZ-9 and was in UZ the month of March. Can you say if ALL PC is UZ is being evacuated – I know the 18’s who did not get their visas renewed have been.
thanks for your posting – i’ve been doing a lot of searching and find very little.

Nathan June 5, 2005 at 10:41 am

I’ve not heard anything official from anyone, but I know they were in consolidation at the beginning of the week. Plus, with the new travel warning advising Americans to leave the country and the mandatory evacuation and reassignment of embassy staff, we can safely assume they’re being evacuated. There were also a bunch of volunteers whose visas were up for renewal soon. The MFA surely wasn’t going to renew them. I’m hoping to hear from some 17s I know whether or not they’re evacuating/have evacuated.

Pol Corvez June 6, 2005 at 6:11 am

My daughter, a PCV in Kokand, Uz’, sent me a note (June 2) saying all PCV’s were put on STANDFAST, told to pack their suitcases and wait for the order to leave the country. The 53 new PCV’s were repatriated to the US for lack of visa. Apparently, all the US NGO’s are leaving the country.
No other news, except that she feels very sad and irate about (maybe) leaving, as she loves working in Uz’ and was ready to co-direct a summer school project that would really benefit the local kids.

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