SEATTLE--When George W. Bush crawled into bed with Islam Karimov in the wake of 9/11, the U.S. government knew exactly what kind of man he was. A few years earlier, after a half-dozen bombs destroyed government buildings in downtown Tashkent, the president and former Soviet boss of Uzbekistan appeared on state television, promising to "eliminate the scoundrels" behind the assassination attempt.
I write in my upcoming book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?: "Within weeks Uzbekistan was in the throes of a brutal purge of its already beleaguered religious Muslims. That month a presidential decree authorized the punitive arrest of a suspect's father if his extremist sons could not be found. 'If my child chose such a path,' Karimov said, 'I myself would rip off his head.' Head-ripping was a recurring theme of Karimov's rhetoric. He added a promise to 'tear off the heads of two hundred people in order to protect Uzbekistan's freedom and stability.' It is unknown whether Karimov personally supervises such reprisals; however, published reports claim that exactly that number of bodies of 'Muslim extremists'--often the victims are identified as radicals simply because they wear long beards--were strung up from Tashkent lampposts in May. Exceptionally violent and corrupt even by Central Asian standards, the government of Uzbekistan is proof that a ruler can remain in power despite the near-universal contempt of his subjects."
Karimov's police state is pervasive and brutal. Torture is endemic; the battered bodies of political prisoners are returned to their families showing clear proof that they have been boiled to death. Only one candidate, Abdulhasiz Dzhalalov, was allowed to run against the autocratic Karimov in the most recent presidential "election." Dzhalalov announced that he had voted for Karimov.
After 9/11, however, the United States ignored numerous reports of Uzbek atrocities--some authored by its own state department--and began paying Karimov millions of dollars in exchange for hosting a permanent American military base on Uzbek soil. "The expanded relationship," writes The New York Times, "was both praised as realpolitik strategy and criticized as a shortsighted gesture of support for a dictator with a chilling human rights record."
Bush's pact with the devil came due on May 13, 2005, when thousands of protesters gathered in Bobur Square in the southern city of Andijon to complain about corruption, the shattered Uzbek economy and to demand the release of political prisoners. "We hoped the local government would come to hear our grievances," a man named Dolim told The Guardian. "People said even Karimov himself would come. We went because of unemployment, low salaries not paid, pensions not received."
Indeed, Karimov did go to Andijon--to personally supervise the massacre of the demonstrators.
Uzbek security forces firing automatic weapons killed an estimated 1000 people over the course of 90 minutes. "The dead were lying in front of me piled three-thick," said a survivor. "At one point, I passed out. When I regained consciousness, it was raining--on the ground, I could see water running with blood." He survived by hiding under corpses. "Dead people everywhere, and some alive, just moving. I felt sick, because of all the things splattered on my clothes. I went into the college and saw the armored personnel carriers moving over the bodies. They wanted to kill anyone who was wounded. Soldiers walked down the sidewalk, firing single shots at anyone moving."
The Bush administration resisted international pressure to close its airbase at Karshi-Khanabad (K-2). "The Pentagon wants to avoid upsetting the Uzbekistan government," The Washington Post quoted White House officials two months after the Andijon massacre. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman urged the Uzbeks to investigate themselves: "The United States has repeatedly urged Uzbekistan to undertake a full and transparent inquiry into the Andijon incident."
Even this pro forma criticism proved too much for the testy tyrant, prompting him to evict the United States from K-2 earlier this year. But Andijon refuses to go away. On June 22, The New York Times released a detailed analysis of videotapes taken before and during the bloody crackdown. The images "show no sign that [Uzbek authorities] tried nonlethal methods or a gradual escalation of force to break up the crowd, like giving clear warnings or signals to disperse, using water cannons or tear gas, or having snipers eliminate [men who were armed]."
Despite the United States' loss of an airbase and a new mutual defense treaty between Tashkent and Moscow, however, the Bush administration continues to ply the butcher of Andijon with cash and military aid.
From Silk Road to Ruin: "RAND Corporation pundit Olga Oliker summarized the Bush administration's position: 'Cutting all ties between the two nations would be a mistake,' Oliker wrote, because 'the country remains a way station for illegal and dangerous trafficking in drugs, weapons and fighters. This has made the Uzbek government a valuable partner in combating those problems.' True, the weapons and the insurgents who carry them drew much of their strength from Karimov's campaign of anti-Muslim repression. But let's not forget the United States' primary policy motivation: Uzbekistan has some of the world's largest reserves of natural gas."
"Internal developments in Uzbekistan are really worrisome," says Royal Institute of International Affairs analyst Yury Federov. "The ruling regime keeps itself in power through repression, and many people in Uzbekistan believe that repression in the final end cannot save the current regime from the crash, which may lead, in turn, to a general destabilization of the situation in the country and in the neighboring region."
It's 1981 all over again. And again, we're arming and funding Saddam.