Obama cozies up to Central Asian dictator

The exigencies of the Afghan war lead the administration to ask for military aid to Uzbekistan

Topics: Afghanistan, War Room,

Obama cozies up to Central Asian dictator

It’s generating few headlines, but Operation Enduring Freedom — otherwise known as the war in Afghanistan — could soon result in less freedom for the people of Uzbekistan, if the Obama administration gets its way.

The ruling dictatorship of Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan to the north, has been a kind of beneficiary of the war and the American need to transport supplies and troops in and out of Afghanistan. (See a map of the supply routes here.)

Prompted by the the current crisis in U.S.-Pakistani relations, the Obama administration has reportedly shifted supply lines to rely even more on the Central Asian corridor. And in an effort to improve relations with Uzbekistan, it is now asking Congress to OK military aid to that country, over the furious objections of human rights groups. Several groups signed a strongly worded letter to senators this week, asking that they turn down the administration’s requests for aid.

The administration, for its part, has not been commenting on the matter on the record.

To learn more, I spoke to Steve Swerdlow, Uzbekistan researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Who is Islam Karimov, and what sort of regime are we dealing with here?

The Uzbek government is one of the most repressive in the world. It’s commonly rated as such on Freedom House’s annual list. It’s known for the systematic use of torture throughout its criminal justice system. I was there as the HRW representative last year for several months, and we documented widespread torture both in pretrial detention and in prisons. It is used against political opponents, dissidents and even so-called common criminals. Several dozen activists, human rights defenders, journalists and opposition figures are languishing in prisons for their beliefs or activism. There is no free press. The government last year denied my visa and expelled Human Rights Watch from the country for our work in documenting human rights abuses. It has also kicked out international media outlets in recent years following the killing of protesters by government forces in 2005.

And how long has Karimov been in control?

He has ruled with an iron fist for over 22 years. He is the former secretary of the Communist Party in Uzbekistan before it was an independent country. And he was quickly elected president when it became a country in 1991. Since that time, he has been the singular figure in charge.

What is the issue facing Congress and the Obama administration right now?

Congress is reviewing whether or not to grant the president the power to waive existing restrictions on giving assistance to Uzbekistan — and that includes military aid to the government. Since 2004, there have restrictions on what sorts of military equipment can be sold to the Uzbek government. The Obama administration, including the Pentagon, is strongly lobbying Congress at the moment to drop these restrictions. That would allow Uzbekistan to buy supposedly nonlethal or defensive military equipment such as shields, armor, et cetera.

And the reason that they’re lobbying for this is to gain greater access to Uzbekistan as a transshipment point for the war in Afghanistan?

Our understanding from congressional sources is that in exchange for granting U.S. and NATO sources authorization to transit supplies and maybe even troops out of Afghanistan northward through Uzbek territory, the Uzbek government wants these human rights restrictions dropped. That’s both because the Uzbek government is interested in buying military equipment and it wants to have the American stamp of approval that it is no longer being classified as a serial human rights violator.

Throughout the Afghan war period, hasn’t here been a relationship between the U.S. and Uzbekistan at least on and off?

It’s gone through hot and cold periods. The first was 2001 to 2005, when the U.S. government was closely cooperating with the Karimov government, which allowed the U.S. to use an air base known as K2. In 2004, in light of the deteriorating situation around the freedom of expression, the persecution of human rights defenders and the crackdown on civil society in general and religious believers, Congress enacted these restrictions. In 2005, there was a major uprising in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan. The Uzbek government forces surrounded a square where mostly peaceful protesters had gathered. There had been an armed element in the uprising for part of the day, but many more peaceful civilians joined in. Uzbek forces surrounded the crowd and opened fire, killing hundreds of civilians. After that, the relationship between the U.S. government and Uzbekistan changed rapidly. The U.S. was instrumental in helping to resettle some of the refugees that had fled the violence, and in response the Uzbek government blocked access to the air base.

So what has happened under President Obama?

As the war in Afghanistan grew more complicated and the need to supply forces there became greater, the U.S. started making overtures to the Uzbek government. That started in 2007 and increased in 2008 through 2010 as the U.S. developed the so-called Northern Distribution Network, which is a transit corridor that extends all the way from the Baltic states, down through Russia and Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan. It is used to supply troops in Afghanistan. The Uzbek government has been able to profit handsomely from this arrangement; it receives compensation for allowing transit through Uzbek territory, and Uzbek firms that are closely linked to the Karimov family have produced some goods and performed services for U.S. and NATO forces.  

When it comes to the current lobbying by the administration, what’s going to happen next?

Our understanding is that things are moving very rapidly, especially since the fallout between Pakistan and the U.S. after the killing of Osama bin Laden. It seems like the fragility of that relationship created a sense of urgency and maybe an opening for the Obama administration and the Pentagon to push now for a waiver on human rights restrictions. Our understanding is that various senators and members of Congress are being approached and briefed by Pentagon officials and maybe White House officials on the need to give this free pass to Uzbekistan, and that they’re looking to seal it up this month.

At Human Rights Watch, we’re taking the position not that U.S. troops shouldn’t be supplied through the Northern Distribution Network, but that the U.S. shouldn’t relinquish its tremendous leverage for a short-term goal. The larger lesson is that doing business with extremely abusive dictators is not a smart policy from the perspective of human rights or security.  Dropping all restrictions on aid, including military aid, without insisting on concrete improvements in Uzbekistan’s human rights record is a huge windfall for an extremely repressive government and may  ultimately create long-term instability in Uzbekistan and Central Asia. It also sends the detrimental message to ordinary Uzbeks that despite its pronouncements on the Arab Spring and democratic change, the Obama administration is more interested in narrow security interests in Afghanistan than in supporting the fundamental human rights of the Uzbek population.

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>