TCS Daily

Uzbekistan Terror: Another Blow Against the U.S.-led Coalition

By Ariel Cohen - April 14, 2004 12:00 AM

The Bush Administration has much at stake in Uzbekistan. After 9/11, President Islam Karimov has provided access to military bases and air space, which were crucial in launching the war against the Taliban and supporting the Northern Alliance.

The Bush Administration is aware that Uzbek President Islam Karimov's past domestic policies may be at a dead end, and eventually may lead to his demise, a senior Administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says. However, the recent terror attacks, which killed 45 and wounded scores -- as well as claims of responsibility by a hard-line jihadi organization -- have discredited the harsh, anti-government line adopted by human rights organizations and some liberal media members, blaming the Karimov regime for bringing terrorist attacks upon itself.

On Sunday April 11 a previously unknown Uzbek group, Islamic Jihad, announced that it was responsible for homicide bombings and other attacks in Tashkent, Boukhara and other Uzbek towns and villages, and blamed Uzbekistan for its support of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and on the secular nature of the regime. This declaration seemed to vindicate those in Washington who complained about blaming Karimov for the recent upsurge of terrorism. But such blame gaming is false factually and foolish policy-wise.

Islamic Jihad is a known militant Sunni terrorist "brand." In use in Egypt and the West Bank/Gaza, and with the roots in the Muslim Brotherhood movement, Jihad killed rulers in the Arab world, such as Egypt's peace maker Anwar Sadat (1981), as well as numerous ordinary citizens. The Egyptian Al Jihad movement has merged with Al Qaeda.

Karimov has promised repeatedly to the Clinton and Bush Administrations to liberalize the economy and political life. However, little has been accomplished so far. While some human rights organizations and political parties were allowed to register, Uzbekistan is still far from Euro-Atlantic standards of democracy and market economics. Some steps, like the banning of billiards, are petty and outright foolish.

"The human rights community and many in the media do not accept or understand what global Islamist threat is, and they do not really know what is going in Uzbekistan," the senior official said. "In the Ferghana Valley, in other parts of Uzbekistan, and in Kyrgyzstan, Salafi and Wahhabi propaganda is well funded and abundant." It is the root cause of violence, the official said.

"The Washington Post believes it knows the final, Orthodox truth, and it will not be persuaded otherwise," the official said, referring to much-discussed April 1 op/ed titled "The Bombs of Tashkent." While admitting that Karimov's past hard-line policies may be wrong-headed and cause him to "lose everything", the senior policy maker believes that the U.S. needs to work with Mr. Karimov to change his approach.

"President Bush called Karimov after the attacks and asked him not to crack heads and not to engage in mass repressions, which took place after the 1999 attacks. 'Watch what I will do', Karimov answered, arresting over 400 suspects, but quickly releasing most, with only 45 people currently in detention."

A veteran American policy maker points out that it took decades for East Asian countries, such as Korea and Taiwan, to reach today's levels of political development. "We need to support Karimov's efforts to crack down on terrorism, then move to democracy," says the policy maker.

Laurence Jarvik, who was a Fulbright Scholar in Uzbekistan in 2002-2003 stresses that ordinary Uzbeks don't blame the U.S. for Karimov's excesses. He points out that the terror attacks in Uzbekistan may have been planned, to use the Soviet historiography, as "the shot from the battle cruiser Aurora" -- a signal to the Bolshevik style mass uprising, which never came. "The Uzbek people are wise enough to understand that radical Islamists, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) -- who did not operate in the country until the 1990s -- are a non-Uzbek phenomena," Jarvik says.

Official Washington sees Uzbek attacks as fitting the pattern of other recent attacks against the U.S.-led coalition members: metro bombings in Spain, averted large scale bombing and a chemical attack in Great Britain, as well as kidnappings and killings of the Coalition citizens in Iraq -- the Japanese, South Koreans, Italians and others.

Intelligence analysts believe that coming two weeks after the Madrid attack and only days after a Pakistani operation in which Tahir Yuldashev, a leader of IMU may have been unsuccessfully targeted, the Uzbek operations bear all signs of the handiwork of the global jihadi movement for the following reasons:

  • Lengthy lead times for planning and preparation for operations, including brainwashing of suicide bombers
  • Large number of perpetrators
  • Use of women suicide bombers, like in Chechnya, Gaza and the West Bank
  • No immediate responsibility claims and the lack of a stated political platform by perpetrators
  • Indiscriminate targeting of civilians, including women and children

Analysts said that the attacks demonstrated a relatively poor level of tactical planning and that future attacks may be more deadly, as the experience of the recent Algerian civil war demonstrates.

While journalists and human rights activists focused on attacks against uniformed police, Uzbek policemen were less than a quarter of victims. In any event, uniformed police are not perceived in Uzbekistan as high-value, high profile regime targets. IMU in 1999 understood that, focusing on Karimov's and other government office buildings.

The senior U.S. government official would like to see Karimov helping his people to "rediscover the tolerant roots of indigenous moderate Islam." The U.S. must engage in the war of ideas and work with Uzbekistan and other moderate Muslim states to help them formulating such a creed, he said.

More broadly, Washington insiders understand that while democratic and economic reform in Uzbekistan is vital for the survival of a secular state, poverty and repressions are not the sine qua non of terrorism. Nor they are its root cause. If this were the case, Turkmenistan would have suffered from a more intense insurgency than Uzbekistan. And there would be wide spread civil unrest and terrorism in the poor rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, India, China and South East Asia, which is demonstrably not the case.

America should definitely help Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries to liberalize and make moderate Islam shine. However, blaming friendly and secular regimes -- even undemocratic ones -- for crimes committed by terrorists is counterproductive in the global war on Islamist terror. It empowers the enemy, frays the coalition, and will eventually makes Americans pay the price of the war in blood and treasure.


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