Today marks the sixth anniversary of the Andijon massacre in Uzbekistan. Our founder Nathan Hamm has written literally thousands of words about this atrocity over the last six years, and they are all worth reading. Despite the distance of several years, however, this appalling crime still offers mute, disquieting lessons.
For one, it’s important to note that those who fled the massacre are still in hiding abroad, living in fear of Islom Karimov’s henchmen harming them. Some of these people recount being instructed to fabricate details of the massacre, posing as “eye witnesses” to contradict the universal consensus that Uzbek security forces opened fire into a crowd of unarmed civilians.
But it wasn’t just witnesses the Uzbek regime tried to fake to justify the slaughter. In the wake of the mass killing, the Uzbek regime put out a veritable avalanche of information alleging a group called Akromiya, which split off from the Hizb-ut Tahrir branch in the Ferghana Valley, was behind the “uprising.” However, as occasional Registan.net blogger Sarah Kendzior argued very convincingly, the evidence mustered by the Karimov regime to justify its accusations of Akromiya as a violent Islamist splinter group simply doesn’t add up.
Making things worse was the knowing complicity of western scholars in pushing out the Karimov regime version of events. The most prominent American to justify the atrocity was SAIS professor S. Frederick Starr. At the first anniversary of the mass killing, Starr pushed the Akromiya line by showing an Uzbek government propaganda video at an event co-sponsored by the Hudson Institute and Starr’s own SAIS-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, claiming the initial protests were the work of violent Islamist provocateurs. Starr explained the event as being driven by his belief that journalists writing of the massacre were fabricating stories. “I think they were lying . . . of course they had an anti-government agenda,” he said. Starr published a further report by Shirin Akiner alleging similar things and defending the Uzbek government. (Sadly, both CACI and the Hudson Institute continue to shill for the regimes of Central Asia.)
The U.S. government, however, condemned the killing—as it should have. The protest quickly grew into a chorus of condemnations from across Europe and the U.S. (The only notable holdout was Donald Rumsfeld, whose behavior in reaction to this atrocity is contemptible.)
In the aftermath of these many condemnations, the U.S. lost the right to use the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, or K2, just south of Tashkent. Closing the base, which served as a logistics hub for the war in Afghanistan, didn’t affect operations too severely, as most of the airplanes and personnel were simply shifted to the Manas Air Base outside of Bishkek.
The closure of K2 has sparked years of hand-wringing inside U.S. policy circles. For some, it was a long-overdue result of the U.S.’s supposed endorsement of Uzbekistan’s deplorable human rights situation, even though the U.S. government had condemned it for years beforehand. But for others, in particular then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, K2′s closure was an unacceptable loss, as it represented placing morals above national interest, which in his mind meant the war in Afghanistan crowded out all other concerns in the area.
That debate continues to this day, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, where U.S. allies and bases are under threat in Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, and elsewhere. It is not an easy choice to make, from a political perspective—the public desire to condemn violence notwithstanding, no elected politician in his right mind would want to risk being blamed for, say, the next AQAP terrorist attack because he chose to “punish” the Yemeni regime for its appalling anti-protestor violence by withdrawing all U.S. aid and support. At the same time, that same politician faces relentless criticism for continuing to engage with odious, abusive regimes on a perfectly understandable, moral ground.
Engaging with abusive governments is a delicate dance. There are surely levels and types of abuse the U.S. government considers worth tolerating, and some kinds of abuse the U.S. government does not. No one really says what that is, however. At the same time, while it’s obvious that for at least the last decade counterterrorism considerations have taken precedence over everything else, it’s not at all clear that CT is worth the worldwide loss of prestige, moral authority, and even geographic access our involvement with abusive regimes has cost. Both of these make judging whether engagement with a certain abusive government to gain some CT objective a difficult calculation to make, and those governments don’t always make our job easier by summarily kicking us out when we complain too much.
In either case, it’s clear the U.S. still doesn’t prioritize human rights over the war in Afghanistan or regional counterterrorism initiatives: As recently as December Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Tashkent pushing for an expansion of the Northern Distribution Network to ferry supplies to the war in Afghanistan.
Things in Andijon’s neighborhood aren’t yet sunny. In the wake of the anti-Uzbek pogrom in Osh, Kyrgyzstan last year, thousands of Uzbeks fled the border. Uzbeks who were pressured to return to Kyrgyzstan found their communities destroyed and their homes burned—and later complained the Kyrgyz government was disenfranchising them of property and income in the proposes reconstruction plan. At the same time, Kyrgyz living in a small exclave in Uzbekistan want to return home to Kyrgyzstan, citing harassment and abuse on the part of Uzbek border guards.
These sorts of violent events—Andijon, the Southern Kyrgyzstan riots, and others—have long-lasting effects on the communities where they take place. They also can have surprising and far-reaching effects on governments the International Community rely on as partners in the global struggle against violent extremism (as the “War on Terror” is now known). Yet, the full range of consequences that result are rarely understood, and often get lost in the scramble to move on to the next crisis happening somewhere else. As a result, we very rarely spend the time to understand why they happen in the first place—making it much more difficult to even contemplate calculating the risks of engagement with any regime in the region. Until that changes, until the international community and especially the U.S. policy community takes an interest in the causes and effects of communal violence in Central Asia, the basic contradictions of American policy toward the region will never be resolved.