Former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld describes the US government's handling of the events in Andijan, Uzbekistan, in 2005, as “one of the most unfortunate, if unnoticed, foreign policy mistakes of our administration” because it supposedly drove Uzbekistan into the arms of Russia.
In his new memoirs, Known and Unknown, Rumsfeld offers a detailed account of his dealings with Uzbekistan, including his views on the diplomatic crisis kicked off by the Andijan events. It is the only discussion of any length in the book concerning the Caucasus or Central Asia.
In May 2005, armed supporters of several Uzbekistan businessmen, arrested because of alleged ties to extremist Islamist organizations, stormed a jail in Andijan to free the prisoners. That catalyzed a broader demonstration at the central city square, which government forces violently put down, killing unknown hundreds of protesters.
The Uzbek government, in trying to justify the use of deadly force, claimed that those behind the demonstrations were Islamist radicals. Most outside observers dispute the Uzbek version of events, saying that most of those gunned down were simply unarmed, disgruntled citizens. After the US State Department criticized Uzbekistan's actions, Uzbek President Islam Karimov evicted the US forces from an air base near Karshi-Khanabad.
In the book, Rumsfeld argues that the United States made a mistake in letting concerns about human rights get in the way of strategic needs. By refusing to support Uzbekistan's side of the story, “[w]e were effectively taking ourselves out of the region, and in the process reversing their progress toward freer systems as well as damaging our national security interests,” he writes. Rumsfeld notes that in November 2005, Karimov signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Russia. “Uzbek leaders then began to strengthen ties with nations that would not berate them regarding democracy and human rights—such as Russia and China,” Rumsfeld writes.
In an unusual move to coincide with the release of the book on February 8, Rumsfeld posted several previously classified documents, mainly internal memos from his time in government, on his website which relate to events described in the book. But in some cases his own documents contradict his recall of events.
For example, in the book, Rumsfeld describes the Andijan uprising as fomented by “rebels” from “an Islamist extremist group accused of seeking an Islamic state, a caliphate, in eastern Uzbekistan.” In the footnotes, Rumsfeld cites an assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon's intelligence-gathering operation, about the Andijan events. But the DIA memo, written at Rumsfeld's request, came to the conclusion that the Andijan events were in fact not the result of an Islamist plot, but of legitimate grievances of the population.
“Their [those involved in the uprising] motivation almost certainly was anger and frustration over poor socio-economic conditions and repressive government policies rather than a unifying extremist ideology,” the memo, written by DIA Director Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby. “There are no indications that Karimov understands that a deep sense of injustice was at the center of the protest. Future protests—possibly leading to more violence—are likely if he does not redress socio-economic grievances.”
Rumsfeld also offers a misleading account of why the US was evicted from the air base at Karshi-Khanabad. In the book, Rumsfeld refers to a May 29, 2005, news conference that several US senators, including John McCain, gave in Tashkent. “'[H]istory shows that continued repression of human rights leads to tragedies, such as the one that just took place,' McCain lectured. Around the same time, I received a letter from McCain, co-signed by five other senators, insisting that America not pay the $23 million we owed the [Uzbek] government from our military's use of the Uzbek air base at K2,” Rumsfeld writes.
But Rumsfeld released McCain's letter—dated September 19, 2005—which makes clear that McCain's request came only after Uzbekistan had evicted the US from the base, not before, as Rumsfeld's account implies.
Rumsfeld takes particular aim at human rights advocates' reporting on Andijan. “Self-proclaimed human rights advocates with longstanding records of opposition to the Uzbekistan government ... seemed interested in embarrassing the United States,” he wrote. “The facts were often mangled in the process.” As an example, he said that Human Rights Watch ignored evidence that many of the demonstrators were armed, mistakenly calling them “peaceful protesters.”
That is not an accurate portrayal of the Human Rights Watch reporting, said Rachel Denber, the organization's acting executive director for Europe and Central Asia. “As our report on Andijan acknowledges, there were some armed people in the crowd in Andijan, but they were vastly outnumbered by unarmed people who came out to protest and then fled and were ambushed when government forces started shooting at the square. In such circumstances government forces had an obligation, which they utterly ignored, to prevent harm to the many who were unarmed,” Denber told EurasiaNet.org.
“Rumsfeld may be right that the U.S. has a better chance of exposing Uzbekistan to democratic values through contact, but that contact will be of questionable value if the United States doesn't respond to serious breaches of those values,” she added.
Events since 2005 have also shown that Rumsfeld's fears that the United States had “lost” Uzbekistan to Russia were unfounded, said Alexander Cooley, a political science professor at Barnard College who studies Central Asia and military basing issues. While Karimov briefly appeared to orient the country toward Moscow, it didn't amount to much, Cooley asserted: “Even though Uzbekistan formally joined the Collective Security Treaty Organization [the Russia-dominated defense group] after the K2 eviction and discussed leasing the same airfield to Russia, little further happened in the way of Russian-Uzbek military cooperation,” he said.
And more recently, the United States has closely cooperated with Uzbekistan over the Northern Distribution Network, a supply route the U.S. military uses to ship cargo overland through Europe and Central Asia into Afghanistan. “Indeed, a couple of years later, Tashkent once more tacked towards military cooperation with the United States,” Cooley said.
Rumsfeld's account highlights how high-profile security cooperation complicated US-Uzbek relations, said Sean Roberts, an international relations professor at George Washington University.
"Prior to 9/11, the United States was able to engage the country's civil society and scant independent media with modest resources in order to promote long-term opening up in the country," Roberts said. "Once the Defense Department raised the level of engagement on security issues, this inevitably forced the issue of the United States taking a more forthright stance on human rights issues as well. As a result, what had been a discreet policy of engagement with Uzbekistan was forced into the open, eventually leading to reactionary responses from Karimov's government."
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. He is the author of EurasiaNet's Bug Pit blog.