Implications of Terrorism in Uzbekistan

April 8, 2004, Tashkent, Uzbekistan — The situation here is grim, not dire. We seemingly know five things about the recent terrorism attacks in Uzbekistan: (1) The attacks were preplanned but prematurely implemented with several not taking place; (2) they were all designed to kill government officials, as opposed to civilians, by suicide bombing — the Chorsu Bazaar attack, for example, took place on a Monday, when the bazaar is closed and at a time when the police were concentrated, taking their morning orders; (3) the attack scenes are quickly swept up and cordoned off by police; (4) the countless checkpoints around the city are simultaneously manned by the local police, ministry of interior and the national security service, watching each other, perhaps, as much as they are watching for terrorists; and (5) the people do not mourn the death of their policemen.

There are three possible explanations. First, the attacks were orchestrated by an outside group such as al-Qaeda, or Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) — which was founded as an international group in the Middle East of the early 1950s and has significant presence in Uzbekistan. (HT, a presumed advocate of non-violence, seeks a regional Caliphate in place of the Tashkent regime). If al-Qaeda is defined as a structured organization with a clear chain-of-command, then they were not involved. The attackers were all Uzbeks; the attacks were not well coordinated; and some of the materials used, such as ammonium nitrate, are common to this agriculturally-based country.

If one defines al Qaeda as a movement, then there is at least a philosophical link. More specifically, it is likely that elements of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which fought with al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the 2001 Afghan war, were at least a part of the attacks. Although the organization is largely destroyed — its charismatic leader, Juma Namangani, was killed during an American air strike in the Afghan war and its political-spiritual leader, Yuldash Tohrir was reportedly wounded last month during the Pakistani Army’s spring offensive — remnants remain. (IMU also seeks a regional Caliphate).

The second theory is that the Uzbek government orchestrated the attacks because of internal competition, external need, or both. As different factions vie for power in President Islam Karimov’s government, these attacks were orchestrated to make the Minister of the Interior look bad, forcing him to resign because he cannot provide for the internal security of the country. (There is a fierce internal rivalry here between the National Security Service and the Ministry of the Interior).

Or, these could have been set up to demonstrate to the world that these attacks are of the same ilk as the Madrid, Casablanca and Bali bombings, and therefore demand both foreign aid and a crackdown. Characterized as such, these attacks thus lengthen the tether for the Uzbek government as it fights for U.S. certification of religious freedom and human rights this year, thereby maintaining the flow of U.S. aid. In this most Machiavellian capital, both possibilities are plausible and, ironically, “comforting.” This theory suggests, at least, that the Uzbek government is in control.

A third theory suggests that while IMU and Hizb-ut-Tahrir types might have been involved in the planning (given their training outside of the country), these attacks were perpetrated by ordinary Uzbeks who have nothing to lose. Today there are some 7,000 Uzbeks in jail for allegedly being members of the IMU or HT — many are there simply because a family member was accused of supporting those groups. The detention and torture of innocent people amongst the 7,000 has made this tolerant society empathetic to the people, not the ideology, of IMU and HT, if only because it appears that someone is protesting a government that doesn’t provide jobs and allows flagrant corruption and abject poverty to take place. (The lack of jobs is also directly correlated to the significant increase in the past year of AIDs, heroin use and suicides).

This theory is the most unsettling, for two reasons. First, these kinds of attacks go completely against the Uzbek culture of passivity, suggesting that they have had enough. Second, if true, this theory suggests that the Uzbek government is not in control and is not sure whom it is fighting.

The truth is often as simple as it appears. The third theory seems to explain the majority of the actions, although former IMU types must have been involved, given the planning. Once the attacks were completed, Uzbek officials jumped on it, explained the terrorism according to their turf and their needs. The Ministry of the Interior does look bad even as global public opinion links the attacks to Madrid. Unsuspecting U.S. officials meanwhile provide some breathing space to the Uzbek government regarding the continuation of aid.

Geopolitical Context

The exigencies of the Global War on Terrorism have made Central Asia an important theatre of operations. Uzbekistan, far from everywhere, is a tough place to reach, let alone influence. If the current conditions persist, it will not be long before radical Islam, if only as an alternative mechanism for political grievance, takes root. And what better place and region for an Islamic Caliphate than, as Halford Mackinder described the Heartland of Eurasia, this “greatest natural fortress on earth.”

Nevertheless, Uzbekistan is also a place whose people share our values of tolerance and respect; a place that just might be a tranformative outpost for the advance of the rule-of-law. If we act now, using the influence of our hard power, then perhaps we can encourage and sustain a soft power vision of the rule-of-law and respect for human rights, achieving both security and stability as a result. Long-term soft power tools, especially culturally congruent forms of religious freedom, will be the key to victory.

This may be easier said then done, however. Geopolitical (as characterized by the Defense Department) and democratic (as characterized by the State Department) imperatives might conflict and impede the American effort to achieve this vision. First, it is an expeditionary age. Not unlike the coaling stations that Mackinder’s contemporaries, Alfred Thayer Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt, sought for American sea power, the Department of Defense is looking for “operating sites” (as Don Rumsfeld told a Tashkent news conference here in February) or “cooperative security locations” that makes its power ubiquitous. At the center of everyone’s backyard, especially the surrounding nuclear powers of Russia, China, India, Pakistan and soon, perhaps, Iran, Uzbekistan is geo-strategically located for such future opportunities.

Second, two key deadlines are approaching. Because of Uzbekistan’s religious freedom repression, the Secretary of State will have to decide this month whether or not to designate Uzbekistan as a “country of particular concern,” thereby inviting a menu of sanctions against Uzbekistan, not to mention the stigma of belonging to a group of pariah nations like Cuba, Sudan and North Korea. Meanwhile, the Congress must certify Uzbekistan as making progress on human rights if it is to award any additional monies from the Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs Appropriations Act for Fiscal year (FY) 2004.

Hopefully, the Department of State, Department of Defense and the Congress will speak with one voice, paying equal attention to the hard power needs that are unsustainable without soft power progress. This possibility, however, is not often the case, especially amidst an international situation where Uzbekistan is not a top priority at the moment for the U.S.

Recommendations for U.S. Policy

Unfortunately, for many reasons, we have reached a point where the Uzbek government listens more to the Department of Defense (it has more money, it is philosophically more consistent with the Uzbeks’ geopolitical perspective on the world and they fight a common enemy every day) than it does to the State Department. Talk of being designated as a “country of particular concern” or the possibility of not receiving monies from the 2004 Appropriations Act does not frighten them because they feel that President Bush (who waived the Cooperative Threat Reduction human rights certification for the Uzbeks in January) and the Department of Defense are “on their side.” Simply, the Uzbek government will not budge on economic and political reform unless it receives a strong and unambiguous message from all the elements of national power, especially DOD.

That message must be a simple one: Unless there is tangible economic and political reform in Uzbekistan, then the United States will take its expeditionary base at Karshi-Khanabad elsewhere. Immediate economic reforms include, but are not limited to: the limitation of border tariffs so that regional trade is encouraged, and the creation of a transparent and consistent contract law environment which attracts investors. Immediate political reforms include, but are not limited to: allowing for a modicum of free press; implementation of the UN’s plan to stop torture and the revision of the May 1998 “religious freedom” law.

The Uzbek government will not want to hear this. It is a government scared by the soft power of democracy, which brought down the authoritarian Georgian government (e.g., the “Rose Revolution”); and it is scared of the hard power of terrorism, which brought down a democratic government in Spain. In this context, it is almost guarantee that the government will not take any meaningful action. Why change when both roads lead to a loss of control? The devil known is always more comfortable than the devil unknown. Still, it is in the Uzbek government’s long-term interest, despite not being its near-term priority, to hear the American message.

Importantly, the U.S. message should not be sent vis-à-vis public diplomacy. There is nothing worse for an Uzbek than to be embarrassed; and they are quite capable of continuing in their self-sufficiency without America, should we choose to embarrass them. Instead, this message should be delivered quietly, president-to-president, so there is no doubt about U.S. resolve. If the Uzbek government agrees to these kinds of economic and political reforms, implemented this year without fanfare, then the U.S. should also provide additional aid and investment to Uzbekistan. With some straight talk from President Bush, this expeditionary base at Karshi-Khanabad can become much more than a hard power base; it will be a soft power conduit to broadening American investments and shared values. This is in both nations’ interests: geopolitically evolutionary for the Uzbeks, democratically progressive for the Americans.

The situation is not yet dire and it is time to make a call. We either act at the intersection of our values and interests in shrewd manner, or we can whistle happily past the graveyard as we repeat the mistakes of the Cold War, especially of Vietnam and Iran.

If we can be a catalyst to reform, then we will have a stable and friendly ally for the 21st century. Importantly, it will be an ally who, in an Uzbek way, develops a rule-of-law society consistent with its own values of tolerance and religious freedom, which is the cornerstone of civil society. But this is something the Uzbeks already know. As Foreign Minister Sodyq Safaev said recently: “We also believe that more civil society, more democracy, is one of the best ways to secure profound stability and, let’s say, public accord in society.”