Ten years ago today, in the Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan, a mass of people gathered to protest arrests and violence by state police. Authorities shot at least 1,000 to death. The figures remain sketchy, in part because U.S. officials—led by Donald Rumsfeld—opposed an investigation of a valued partner in the war on terror.
The May 13, 2005, massacre in Andijan, Uzbekistan—a former Soviet republic that won its independence in 1991 but has since been ruled Islam Karimov, its former communist party boss—typifies the United States’ paradoxical war on terror, a war that is all-encompassing, at turns brutal and un-American, and yet grandly ineffective.
Karimov has branded himself as an ally to the United States since the September 11 attacks on America, united with the west against the specter of Islamic extremism. To some extent, the threat was real, especially in secularized Islamic states like Uzbekistan. But old-guard dictators like Karimov—and like Vladimir Putin in Russia—have an incentive to inflate the threat, to conflate all dissidents with terrorists, and to deal with them ruthlessly.
These tactics had tacit acceptance from the Al Qaeda-addled United States. Uzbekistan joined America’s “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq in 2003, and it permitted U.S. special forces to operate in Afghanistan from an Uzbek airbase. In return, according to a classified Congressional Research Service study released by Wikileaks, “the United States provided security guarantees and agreed that terrorists belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who were fighting alongside Taliban and Al Qaeda forces would be targeted.”
Karimov saw the deal as an opportunity to quash his political opponents. He banned an Islamic political party ostensibly committed to peace, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and blamed it for all manner of “terrorist” activities in the country, whose economy runs largely on cotton picked by overworked and underpaid women.
All this bubbled up in Andijan in mid-2004, when Karimov put 23 local businessmen on trial for terror ties without much evidence. As friends and families protested the trials, more were arrested. The Uzbek regime was sitting on a powderbox of civil discontent.
On the morning of May 13, armed protesters stormed the jail where the businessmen were held and released them. More protesters took over government buildings, and tons of residents turned out for a major protest in the city square; some stepped up to microphones to talk “about their problems of unemployment, poverty, corruption of local authorities, and injustice linked to the recent arrests and trials,” according to an OSCE investigation of the day’s events.
Karimov’s soldiers—some possibly trained by Americans under a bilateral security agreement—blocked off the square. From six in the morning to sometime in the evening, forces fired on the crowds—from sniper’s nests, from jeep-mounted machine guns, from Kalashnikovs. At one point, a leader of the protests spoke by phone with Uzbekistan’s interior minister. The official said the shootings weould continue until all the protesters had fled to nearby Kyrgyzstan. “He called them ‘terrorists’ and said that they did not need terrorists on Uzbek soil,” according to the OSCE.
No one is sure exactly how many people died. Many of the corpses ended up in mass graves. Protesters quickly assembled a list of more than 700 missing people. An Uzbek intelligence officer who later defected told authorities that more than 1,500 had died.
On the day of the massacre, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher made the United States’ first comment on the situation, wagging a finger at its ally while siding with Uzbekistan against “terrorists”:
I would note that while we have been very consistently critical of the human rights situation in Uzbekistan, we are very concerned about the outbreak of violence in Andijan, in particularly the escape of prisoners, including possibly members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an organization we consider a terrorist organization...
QUESTION: ...the reports are that Uzbek troops opened fire on a square in this town. Do you think that’s a good idea? Do you think that is excessive violence?
MR. BOUCHER: We don’t think anybody should be using violence. We think everybody should be using — whatever — that everybody should be using restraint and doing whatever they can to avoid violence in this kind of situation, but I’m not going to comment on the latest report. You know, the one before that had other people doing other things. The one before that had criminals being released from a prison, including possible terrorists.
On the side of the demonstrators, rioters, whatever you call them, the armed attack by civilians on the prison in Andijan and other government facilities is the kind of violence that we cannot countenance in any way and we condemn these kind of armed attacks on prison facilities and on government facilities. There is nothing that justifies acts of violence or terrorism and we’re very concerned at reports of either the release or the escape of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan members...
[N]o one can deny that Uzbekistan has faced a problem with terrorism by real extremists who are violent, who are trying to overthrow the government and kill people. And those people need to be dealt with as well.
In the meantime, hundreds of Uzbek refugees flooded over the border to Kyrgyzstan, in fear for their lives. The EU and international community called for immediate investigations. The UN high commissioner for human rights sent letters to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisting that the U.S. assist with the refugees’ dire situation.
An internal battle ensued in the Bush administration. Rice and many State Department officials argued that the U.S. had an obligation to condemn Uzbekistan. She was opposed by Donald Rumsfeld and his allies at the Pentagon, who dismissed Andijan’s dead as rebels from “an Islamist extremist group accused of seeking an Islamic state, a caliphate, in eastern Uzbekistan.” (Reports from Rumsfeld’s own Defense Intelligence Agency show he was mistaken.) Rice recalled the debate, perhaps a bit self-servingly, in her memoir:
Don called me to say that we needed to back off. “The military needs that base,” he said. “Our security is at stake.” I told him that I was sympathetic to the Pentagon’s plight but that, in my view, the United States could not soften its position on human rights as a quid pro quo for the military presence in Uzbekistan. “What’s more, now that he’s threatened us, we can’t afford to cave,” I told him. Don somehow heard this as “human rights trump security” and told Steve Hadley [then White House National Security Adviser] to take the issue to the President. The President obviously wanted to keep the military base, but he didn’t tell me to tone it down, so I didn’t.
Rice won the battle; Rumsfeld won the war. The U.S. helped fly many of the Uzbek refugees to safety in Europe. Shortly after, Karimov ordered American troops to leave their airbase in Uzbekistan. But after a short period of mutual consternation, the nations are back in business. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Uzbekistan in 2012 to announce the U.S. had overcome its human-rights concerns enough to restore military assistance to Karimov’s regime.
“Nobody is shying away from having the tough conversation,” a spokeswoman for Clinton told reporters. “That said, we also have other interests and things that we need to protect in our relationship with Uzbekistan.”
Congress, too, has overcome its qualms about human rights in Uzbekistan, renewing time and again its transfers of military hardware to Karimov. That includes “equipment to enhance Uzbekistan’s ability to combat transnational and terrorist threats,” according to a State department official: “night vision goggles, personal protective equipment, and Global Positioning Systems.” Also drones, and possibly MRAPs, mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles developed to combat IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seen most recently in the arsenals of U.S. police departments that have responded to street protests.
All of that security assistance, guaranteed through next September, goes to a despotic Central Asian nation where men can be arrested, disappeared, and tortured for wearing their beards too long, in conservative Islamic style. Where dissidents can be boiled or frozen alive. And where government guns can make Ferguson and Baltimore look like amusement rides, turning city squares into abattoirs full of women’s and children’s corpses. Such are America’s allies in the unending struggle of freedom against extremism. Such is America’s selective memory for the victims of terror.
[Photos: AP Images]