The unprecedented alliance between the United States and Uzbekistan has prompted many observers to consider the long-term implications for Uzbekistan. Attention has focused mostly on how the anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan will influence Uzbekistan reform efforts. But the newly minted alliance may have the greatest impact on the United States, damaging its ability to promote democratic change in Central Asia.
Strategic necessity brought the United States and Uzbekistan together. The US military needed Uzbek support bases to prosecute the anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan. In return, Uzbekistan appears likely to benefit from increased economic assistance. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. At first glance, the two countries do not appear to be natural partners. But an examination of US and Uzbek anti-terrorist actions in recent years indicate that the two countries may make very suitable allies.
The US response to the September 11 attacks bears striking similarities to the reaction of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government to the February 1999 bombings in Tashkent. Without producing evidence, Uzbek authorities blamed the bombing attacks on Islamic radicals. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives].
Both countries swiftly employed a range of anti-terrorist measures, relying heavily on the massive use of force. Uzbekistan fortified its border and rounded up thousands of suspected Islamic radicals [For background see the EurasiaNet human rights archive], and the United States launched a fierce military onslaught against Afghanistan. Karimov and US President George W. Bush sought to deflect criticism of their policies by portraying the terrorist attacks not as particular responses to either Uzbek domestic or US foreign policy respectively, but as assaults upon civilized norms.
"This is the world's fight," said President Bush who, in announcing a 'coalition against terror,' echoed Uzbekistan's President Karimov's call two years earlier for "the world community to unify against terrorism." Both leaders applied pressure on other states to support them.
Both presidents additionally stressed that their enemies were not rational people with grievances, but simply that, "Their intentions were evil," as official Uzbek media reported. President Bush accused the terrorists of "abandoning every value except the will to power" and following "in the path of fascism."
Bush and Karimov depicted Afghanistan as a wretched, backward land that needed re-ordering in the interests of world security. President Bush echoed President Karimov's description of Afghanistan as a place where "international terrorists and fundamentalists take refuge and set up training camps." Both the US and Uzbek leaderships likewise conveniently overlooked the roles that their countries had played in perpetuating civil war in Afghanistan with their support for different factions over the years.
Presidents Karimov and Bush also handled the tricky question of Islam in similar ways. In spite of insisting they were not fighting Islam, they were undeniably at war with forms of Islam that they could neither control nor co-exist with. Rather, both accused their enemies of using Islam to justify violence. However, they in turn justified their actions by politicising Islam and rallying Muslim leaders to their support.
In both states reactions to the terrorist atrocities led to tighter controls on civilian populations, drawing criticism from civil liberties advocates. Human Rights Watch lambasted both Uzbek and US law enforcement agencies for heavy-handed treatment of Muslim detainees.
What are the implications of these surprisingly analogous strategies for Uzbekistan's political and economic development? It is not, as some worry, merely that the US will be unwilling to criticise Uzbekistan in the future: it will be unable to. By refusing to negotiate with those it regards as terrorists, or taking steps to address the underlying causes that fuel terrorist activity, President Bush has lost the moral authority to urge restraint upon President Karimov. Furthermore, by sidelining mechanisms of international justice and unilaterally assuming the right to act as judge, jury and executioner, the US cannot easily champion the supremacy of international law.
However, the implications for the United States should not be overlooked either. For many years the United States has urged Central Asian nations to emulate its model of open, democratic society. The anti-terrorism campaign has undermined US arguments for open society development. Indeed, it seems as if the United States has moved in recent months towards the Central Asian model: clamping down on civil liberties; refusing to attempt to reach a peaceful, negotiated solution; and swiftly resorting to overwhelming force.
Central Asian policies have generally been successful at keeping the lid on violent dissent, albeit at the price of the development of human and civil rights. However, they have also swelled the ranks of embittered and radicalized opposition movements. The decision by the United States to embrace the use of overwhelming force could very well serve to hasten this disturbing trend in Central Asia. There is little reason to think that US use of the same strategy will have any other effect.
Nick Megoran is a research student at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Comments can be sent to him at [email protected].