It’s something of a fact of life for people who work in and study Central Asia that rumors, groundless speculation, and conspiracy theories rule the day. It’s how an untrue rumor can metastasize into something horrible and violent in very short order: after all, if my friends are saying it, then it must be true!
While the fertility of rumor mongering is just an unfortunate fact of Central Asian social life, there is no reason for rumor mongering to infect American commentary on the region. But it does.
One US-based rumor that just won’t go away is the belief that the government is this close to selling weapons to the abusive regime in Uzbekistan. Most recently, Columbia Professor Alexander Cooley pushed this rumor in the New York Times:
In January, the Obama administration lifted a ban on foreign military sales to Uzbekistan, on national security grounds, to allow for sales of counterterrorism equipment. American officials insist that such future transfers will include only nonlethal items, but the Uzbek government has long sought items like armored personnel carriers, helicopters and drones, which could be used to suppress protests.
This canard has been a meme of sorts with him, and I’m baffled at why he believes it so ardently. There is no basis in US law, official US policy, or anything US officials have said about their plans for the regime, that indicate even a distant interest in selling weapons to Tashkent. More than one official — and the retired and unrepentantly pro-Karimov Donald Rumsfeld does not count, as he no longer makes policy — feels burned, even humiliated, by what happened in Andijon with forces that may have been partly US-trained. No one wants to make that same mistake again.
On Twitter, I asked Cooley what his basis for this speculation was, and he never responded. But here’s why this sticks in my craw: he should know better. I know he’s traveled to Tashkent, and interviewed people for his research. He claims expertise on the region and writes often about Uzbekistan (and discusses Uzbekistan at great length in his new book on Central Asia). You’d think he’d know that rumors run rampant in Central Asia. You’d also think he knew that a basic negotiating principle is to start really high and then get talked down — as the US has done with Uzbekistan at every stage of negotiations since they resumed talking in 2008. Uzbekistan always wants maximalist outcomes from its talks, and rarely gets even a portion of that. Yet Cooley repeats the Uzbek government’s demands (I assume, sourced from an Uzbek government source) as if they’re the next stage of the negotiation for the Northern Distribution Network.
That’s just shoddy. Rumors can and do get out of control — the recent Kommersant-fueled pabulum about a “US base” in Uzbekistan is one example: a casual report about a few warehouses turned into “AMERICA TO BUILD ANTI-RUSSIAN BASE IN UZBEKISTAN” basically overnight. Sober analysts of Central Asia mostly roll their eyes at this stuff. The un-sober ones report it as fact.
But Cooley is hardly alone here. The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus just published a curious bit of hand wringing about Washington’s assistance to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. After tallying both countries’ terrible human rights records, he lists the outrages:
For fiscal 2013, the Obama administration is seeking for Kazakhstan some $1.5 million for anti-terrorism and nonproliferation programs, $1.8 million to finance military purchases and $707,000 worth of training for its military in the United States.
For Turkmenistan in the same fiscal period, the White House is seeking $685,000 for military purchases and $350,000 for that country’s military to be trained in the United States. In 2011 it received $1.7 million for anti-terrorism programs.
Using my calculator, I see that’s about $3.5 million in aid to both countries. For Turkmenistan alone, it’s barely over a million dollars — a cut from 2011. To provide a sense of scale, Turkmenistan routinely inks multi-billion dollar energy deals with nearby countries — several thousand times more money than what the US provides. Kazakhstan’s GDP in 2011 was around $186 billion — 93,000 times as much money as the US is providing in aid. This is not a significant amount of money.
The reason the US pays such paltry sums to regional tyrants is for access and a tiny bit of influence. Pincus admits as much when he acknowledges the value of “realpolitik.” But he then goes on to worry about what happens when America supports bad regimes and how these tiny sums of money make American rhetoric about democracy sound hypocritical. There are certainly people who feel that way as well. But then, after a bizarre aside about retired Admiral and former CENTCOM commander Bill Fallon’s 2007 remarks about Bagram, Pincus closes his article with this:
The new agreement with Afghanistan, which allows a continuing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, has made certain that the extensive facilities for U.S. aircraft and personnel will continue to be at Bagram and available, using Adm. Fallon’s words, “for other things in the region.”
Let’s hope those “other things” don’t include military operations to keep in power Washington’s current “allies,” such as the current rulers in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
Yes, let us indeed hope that. My only question is: where on earth would he get the impression that anyone in Washington wants to defend Nazarbayev or Berdimuhamedov against a coup?
There are rumors about just about anything and everything in Central Asia. But that’s no reason to write about them as if they’re true. The commentary about Central Asia badly needs a dose of reality and less gossip.