Uzbekistan seems like such an unlikely ally — a country most Americans couldn’t place on a map or, at best, remember as a part of the former Soviet Union. And those who do know something about Uzbekistan know that it has changed little from those Soviet days. So why has this former enemy state and the United States become close partners in the war in Afghanistan?
FOR UZBEKISTAN, there are risks to aiding the United States, but there is also an incentive — the promise of a hefty economic assistance package.
Uzbekistan needs it. The country is little more than a barren wind-swept expanse of land about the size of California — better known for its ancient Silk Road camel trails than for its modern clout.
This is a desperately poor country where the average monthly wage is under $20, if you can find work.
Cotton is the country’s cash crop, the product pushed by Soviet chief Nikita Khruschev, who wanted to turn the Central Asian plains into Cotton Heaven.
The results were disastrous. Now, 50 years later, the land is dense with toxic pollutants that spill into the water table from over-irrigated cotton fields. The grazing lands are so withered one wonders what goats and sheep find to eat.
An infusion of money might not transform Uzbekistan’s throw-back command economy, but it could at least build roads and create some jobs.
Uzbekistan also gets a pledge of military protection from the United States, and President Islam Karimov, knows he’ll need that, too. For while he has publicly insisted that the one air base he has offered to a battalion of U.S. combat troops will be used only for humanitarian and search-and-rescue operations, sources say he has privately given the go-ahead for using the base to springboard U.S. special forces into Afghanistan to root out Muslim terrorists.
Taliban forces, which control territory adjacent to the Uzbek border, have threatened Karimov with “revenge attacks” if he continues to cooperate with America.
‘HUMAN RIGHTS NIGHTMARE’
The deal with the United States serves Karimov’s agenda in other ways as well. The former Soviet boss, who rules with an iron fist and has been called a “human rights nightmare” by various international human rights watchdogs, could hardly find a more opportune way to pump up his flagging popularity at home.
To the approval of his people, Karimov has signaled to Russia — still so influential in its old neighborhood — that Uzbekistan will go its own way and choose its own friends.
But he has been dogged by criticism of his record. On Oct. 4, Human Rights Watch cautioned Washington to step carefully in the Central Asian nation.
InsertArt(1782165)“If the United States is going to ally itself with Uzbekistan, it has to find a way to avoid aligning itself with Uzbekistan’s brutal policies,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.
“President Bush has said the war on terrorism cannot become a war on Islam,” he said. “The government of Uzbekistan is undeniably at war with forms of Islam it does not control.”
What does America get from this partner? First and foremost, a foothold in the region. No other country neighboring Afghanistan has given as much. Pakistan comes closest, yet is reeling from violent anti-American riots, some even threatening U.S. soldiers deployed at one Pakistani air base — for humanitarian and search-and-rescue only, with no possibility of mission creep.
Riots are unlikely in Uzbekistan. The country is mostly Muslim, but few Uzbeks practice their religion. One seldom hears a call to prayer blasting from loudspeakers in village squares or city centers, and mosques remain empty, even on Fridays, the most important prayer day of the week.
InsertArt(1782166)It was not just 75 years under communism that took its toll on Islam. Next came a systematic crackdown on all unofficial forms of Islam — a harsh but effective counter-punch to a two-year terror campaign organized by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which included a failed assassination attempt on Karimov himself.
So not only will U.S. special forces get a direct shot at northern Afghanistan, only 100 miles from the Uzbek base, they will operate in a country where people are
not likely to fill the streets in protest.
Ironically, the United States probably benefits most from the very police state that, a decade ago, it would have crusaded against. The official media, national Uzbek TV and radio, have hardly reported on the deal with the Americans. When they do, they repeat the party line: This war on terrorism is good for Uzbekistan, good for America and bad only for the terrorists.
No local news organ would dare hint that U.S. special forces are gathering strength at Khanabad air base in Qarshi for potential offensive strikes against Afghanistan.
Indeed, some government spokesmen continue to deny that U.S. forces of any ilk have even landed in Uzbekistan, even though dozens of U.S. military cargo planes have flown to the Uzbek air base in Qarshi in recent days.
The Western media is prevented from approaching the base, now surrounded by a three-mile-wide zone that is enforced by Uzbek military police. It’s the kind of secretive, closed environment that covert operations love.
But it may not last. Military sources tell NBC News that in three or four weeks, if all goes well, the air base will open its gates to the press.
That could be the first big test for these unlikely partners. If news actually filters out to the Uzbek people about what is really going on here, Karimov will have to decide whether he truly shares values and goals with his former enemy and sticks to the deal with the United States.
By doing so, he risks rekindling a dormant Muslim insurgency at home. Whichever it is, Karimov, a quasi-dictator and shrewd politician, will likely survive.
NBC’s Jim Maceda is on assignment in Uzbekistan.