The Bush administration, though perturbed by Uzbekistan's reluctance to reform, is dismissive of the notion that the late March violence that gripped Tashkent and Bukhara was a popular reaction to government repression. Washington concurs with the official Uzbek view that the militant attacks were the product of an international terrorist conspiracy, and Bush administration officials indicate that the United States will maintain its strong backing for Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
"We need to support Karimov's efforts to crack down on terrorism, then move to democracy," said one veteran US policy maker, who spoke to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity.
Uzbek Prosecutor-General Rashid Kadyrov, speaking at a news conference April 9, claimed the al Qaeda terrorist group played a role in March 28-31 violence, which, according to official figures, claimed 47 lives, including 33 militants and 10 police officers. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Kadyrov added that the Islamic militants had received weapons and tactical instruction from Arabs who had themselves received training in al Qaeda camps. These international terrorists had engaged in the "ideological brainwashing" of Uzbek militants, Kadyrov said.
Kadyrov said the attacks were the work of Islamic radical secret societies, or jamiats, operating in Tashkent and Bukhara. The jamiats operated in a similar fashion as other known radical Islamic groups in the country, namely Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Kadyrov offered no evidence to substantiate his claims.
President Karimov said in Uzbek television interview that the militant attacks showed that "international terrorism is regrouping" from the damaged inflicted on the movement "during the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq." He indicated that the Uzbek government would tighten security in response to the violence. "We cannot avoid intensifying he struggle against international terrorism," he said.
On April 12, a heretofore unknown organization, calling itself the Islamic Jihad Group, claimed responsibility for the violence, describing it as a response to government efforts to restrict individual liberties, in particular freedom of religious expression. In a statement, the group said it would resort to "fiercer" attacks in the future if the Karimov administration pressed on with its crackdown. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Human rights groups, along with many Western and Russian media outlets, have disputed official claims concerning an international terrorist connection, asserting instead that the violence was connected mainly to popular frustration generated by government policies that have stifled political freedom and economic opportunity. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Some media outlets, including the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, characterized the militant attacks as a home-grown domestic insurgency. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The Bush administration officials expressed disdain for American critics who challenged the Uzbek government over its characterization of, and response to the violence. They described such criticism as inaccurate and damaging to the US-Uzbek strategic partnership. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Uzbekistan has developed into the United States' key strategic ally in Central Asia. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The human rights community and many in the media do not accept or understand what global Islamist threat is, and do not know what is really going on in Uzbekistan," a senior Bush administration official told EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity. "In the Ferghana Valley, in other parts of Uzbekistan, and in Kyrgyzstan, [Islamic radical] propaganda is well funded and abundant."
"The Washington Post believes it knows the final, Orthodox truth, and it will not be persuaded otherwise," the official added.
Many intelligence analysts in Washington believe a connection exists between the Uzbek violence and recent international terrorist activity elsewhere, including the Madrid commuter train bombings and the foiled Islamic radical plot in Great Britain. To back such a belief, they point to the fact that the Uzbek militants employed tactics, especially the use of female suicide bombers, that have emerged as trademarks of the international jihadi movement.
Laurence Jarvik, a Johns Hopkins University professor who was Fulbright Scholar in Uzbekistan in 2002-2003, suggested that the late March militant attacks may have been an attempt by Islamic radicals to foster a popular uprising against Karimov's administration. If that was the case, Jarvik added, the militants failed miserably. "The Uzbek people ... understand that radical Islamist [groups] -- such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the IMU, who did not operate in the country until the 1990s -- are an alien implant," Jarvik said.
The senior Bush administration official admitted that Karimov's hard-line approach on combating the Islamic radical threat meant that he could possibly "lose everything." The official added that Karimov's reluctance to implement needed political and economic reforms has at times vexed the Bush administration. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The US government would prefer to see Karimov taking steps to help Uzbeks "rediscover the tolerant roots of indigenous moderate Islam," the official said.
At the same time, US officials firmly believe that the best way to maintain stability is to continue working with Karimov on the gradual implementation of reforms. The veteran American policy maker suggested that Uzbekistan was following the same political path as South Korea and Taiwan, which have been making deliberate transitions, spanning decades, from authoritarianism to a more democratic system.
The Bush administration urged Karimov to use restraint in responding to the attacks, the senior administration official said. The official noted that US President George Bush personally asked Karimov in a telephone conversation "not to crack heads and not to engage in mass repression." According to the official Karimov responded by saying; "Watch what I will do."
According to Uzbek officials, over 400 people were detained in a security sweep carried out in response to the violence. Most were released after questioning. Kadyrov, the prosecutor-general, said 45 individuals were facing criminal charges connected with the militant attacks.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at The Heritage Foundation.