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Uzbekistan: Bush's New Best Friend
8 November 2001
The United States' new relationship with the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan once again raises questions about what sort of alliances the Bush administration will build to fight the war against terrorism. Uzbekistan has granted the U.S. access to its airfields for what it insists are "humanitarian" and "search and rescue" missions, but adamantly denies (in the face of evidence to the contrary) that U.S. troops, including Special Operations Forces, are on the ground.
In a special article on The Nation magazine's website, author Dilip Hiro relates a Uzbeki military officer's most up-to-date definitions for "humanitarian and "search and rescue." "If it means you have to take out half a dozen Taliban positions to 'rescue' your colleagues, then that is what you have got to do.... It could be considered 'humanitarian' to remove Taliban forces from a valley filled with civilians in need of food and medical supplies."
A recent New York Times article revealed that U.S. Green Beret troops were stationed in Uzbekistan and were training the Uzbeki military in marksmanship, infantry patrolling, map reading and other skills. In addition, the article made public the United States provision of "nonlethal" equipment like helmets, flak jackets, Humvee transport vehicles, and night-vision goggles to the Uzbeki military and border guards.
In the decade since its independence from the Soviet Union, U.S. weapons sales to Uzbekistan have gone from zero to more than $4 million in the last three years. Funding for the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program has also risen in the last few years, from $526,000 in 1999 to $550,000 for 2000. Now that Uzbekistan is our close ally in the war on terrorism, that figure is likely to increase substantially.
Although the New York Times made clear that U.S. Special Forces have been operating in Uzbekistan since 1996, the Uzbeki President denied it as recently as two weeks ago. In a news conference with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Karimov was asked the following question:
"Mr. President, how many American forces will be in your country? Which airfield have you offered? Did you agree that American Special Forces would be allowed to operate from Uzbekistan?"
He replied by saying, "Special Operations Forces will not be deployed in the territory of Uzbekistan."
Karimov's disavowal of the depth of his relationship with the United States points to the nation's iron fisted control of information, something that makes the country an attractive launching pad for U.S. operations. One Air Force official, quoted in the Washington Post, happily noted that "CNN can't film" U.S. aircraft taking off from Uzbeki airfields. Karimov's spokesman described Uzbekistan, which shares an 85-mile border with Afghanistan, as a "closed country."
According to the State Department's 2000 Human Rights report, "Uzbekistan is an authoritarian state with limited civil rights. [In 2000] the Government's poor human rights record worsened, and the Government continued to commit numerous serious abuses... Citizens cannot exercise their right to change their government peacefully... There were credible reports that security force mistreatment resulted in the deaths of several citizens in custody. Police and NSS forces tortured, beat, and harassed persons. The security forces arbitrarily arrested or detained pious Muslims and other citizens on false charges, frequently planting narcotics, weapons, or forbidden literature on them."
But the Bush administration is now turning a blind eye to the ugly underbelly of its new best friend. One unnamed U.S. government official compared the new Uzbeki-U.S. relationship to " modern dating...Sometimes you get married, sometimes you get a temporary restraining order." In the case of the relationship between Uzbekistan and the United States, "it seems like we're engaged and things are going well." But, this "marriage" between Uzbekistan and the United States is one more instance of U.S. dependence on allies in the fight for "enduring freedom" that are not free or even democratic.