Thursday, May 19, 2005

US on a rope trick

May 19 2005

US on a rope-trick in Karimov crisis

pv vivekanand

THE US has switched tracks on the crisis in Uzbekistan after having taken a position that while it had concerns over the human rights situation under the reign of President Islam Karimov it was more concerned over the surge of Islamists in the ex-Soviet republic.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday let off a salvo calling for political reforms in Uzbekistan. It was surprising. However, when seen against the backdrop of the anti-American uproar caused by the Newsweek report alleging desecration of the Holy Quran by American soldiers, it becomes clear why the US, as represented by Rice, had a sudden change of mind against the former Soviet republic, which is an important American ally in the US-led war on terror.

The world has been seeing a pattern where US allies are free to violate human rights and engage in brutal crackdown against dissidents without censure from Washington. It is all the more acceptable to the US if the dissidents happen to be "Islamists." That is the message that was clearly sent out when the Uzbek crisis erupted: The US appears to signal that it was more worried about the forced release of some prisoners from an Uzbek prison than the massacre of hundreds of people by Karimov's security forces.

"We have had concerns about human rights in Uzbekistan, but we are concerned about the outbreak of violence, particularly by some members of a terrorist organisation that were freed from prison," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan on Friday. "And we urge both the government and the demonstrators to exercise restraint at this time. The people of Uzbekistan want to see a more representative and democratic government, but that should come through peaceful means, not through violence. And that's what our message is."

Rice statement

Obviously, the world sensed from the statement that little could be expected from the US in terms of changes in Uzbekistan despite the crisis.

Then came the Rice statement on Monday that the Uzbek system was "too closed" and the country needed political reforms. It was the Bush administration's first implicit criticism of the Karimov regime, which has ruled the Central Asian republic with an iron grip since it became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

(The State Department issued another statement on Monday saying it was "deeply disturbed" by reports that soldiers in Uzbekistan fired on unarmed civilians).

"We have been encouraging the government to make reforms, to make it possible for people to have a political life," said Rice. "This is a country that needs, in a sense, pressure valves that come from a more open political system," she said.

Was it a sudden realisation that Uzbekistan stood in need of reform?

Wasn't it known to the US that Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989 and is is one of the last Soviet-era rulers still in power. He has been accused of gross violation of human rights, rigging elections, shaping the constitution to suit self-interests and oppression of whoever challenged him as well as institutionalisation of torture.

But then, the US is a staunch supporter of Karimov's declared stand against "Muslim extremists" and Washington had always opted to look the other way when considering Karimov's track record in power.

Karimov's main challengers are two Islamist groups, Hizb Al Tahrir and a faction which is allegedly linked with Al Qaeda. Both groups are avowedly anti-American, and Washington could not but be a partner in Karimov's fight against these groups. Therefore, it was only natural that the US expressed more concern that 23 people accused of being "Muslim extremists" were released from prison than massacres were committed by Karimov's forces. As of Tuesday, some 800 people were confirmed killed while thousands were displaced from their homes because of the violence.

Some commentators saw the days that passed between the first White House statement on the crisis and Rice's implicit criticism of Karimov as reflecting the dilemma facing the Bush administration. On the one hand is the avowed Amerian drive to encouraging and even imposing democracy around the world and on the other hand is Washington's anxiety not to antagonise a key ally in the anti-terror war which hosts American support bases for the war in Afghanistan and is also said to be one among the dozens of countries where US has detained prisoners taken elsewhere.

However, the days between the two position statements saw Muslim anger exploding against the US over the Holy Quran desecration report.

Pushing reforms

No doubt, Washington strategists realised that maintaining a cool approach to the crisis in Uzbekistan in the name of "Muslim extremism" while Muslim fury is boiling over was not exactly the best approach; and hence the volte-face signalled by Rice.

It remains to be seen whether Washington would follow up Rice's word with practical action to nudge Karimov to settle the crisis and launch a reform process that would bring about meaningful changes in the country.

Indeed, the US has the option of doing nothing after expressing displeasure over whatever is going on in Uzbekistan and hoping that Karimov would be able to suppress the unrest, with business back to normal in a few days.

However, intelligence reports indicate that Karimov is facing an uphill task.

While he blames "Muslim extremists" for the crisis, many others say the unrest is linked to a long-term demand for political reform.

The Andijan area where the unrest broke out is known to be a poor locality but also a hotbed of militancy.

"All we want is freedom from hunger. Uzbeks live like dirt," these were the words of one of the 23 men who were freed from jail on Friday. The 23, most of them businessmen, faced charges of belonging to an Islamic group called Akramia, named after Akram Tahir Yuldashev, leader of the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), who was sentenced in absentia to 17 years in prison in 1999.

Like other Islamist groups elsewhere, Akramia is said to be involved in social welfare work and has set up small businesses that provide employment.

Although the group is said to be linked to the IMU, Uzbek prosecutors say that the fugitives are associated with what Karimov called "a faction of Hizb Al Tahrir."

They are believed to be linked to a wider group of likeminded organisaitons seeking to set up an Islamic state in the broad Ferghana Valley which straddles Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The IMU was founded in 1989 and is said to have about 3,000 members compared with Hizb Al Tahrir's 5,000 members.

IMU members fought alongside the Taliban during the American war against Afghanistan in 2001 and since the Taliban were ousted, the group has declared war on the American air force and special forces presence in the country.

Hizb Al Tahrir, which has been outlawed in most of Central Asia as well as Russia, is a larger group. Some 500 of its members are in detention in Uzbekistan.

Hizb Al Tahrir was founded in 1953 in Jerusalem by Taqiuddin al Nabhani, an appeals court judge. It is now present in Western Europe, Central Asia, and China's far west and seeks to establish a worldwide caliphate, ostensibly through peaceful political means.

The group, led by Walid Omran who lives in exile, is said to have bases in the southeastern Ferghana region near the border with Tajikistan. It runs "education centres," but the authorities say these are breeding grounds for militants.

About 2,000 prisoners were freed during Friday's storming of the Andijan jail, and they fled with guns and ammunitions as well as grenades. They are said to be hiding near the Kyrgyz border, and Karimov's forces face a tough task to bring them to heel.

Beyond the borders

Given Karimov's alliance with the US and the Islamists' avowed opposition to Washington's policies, the Uzbek crisis assumes a larger dimension beyond the borders of the country. And that is where Karimov finds his biggest challenge since even if he manages to supress Uzbek members of the militant groups, he would still have to reckon with external elements filtering into the country in a situation almost similar to that in Iraq.

Caught in the middle would be the US facing the option of letting go of its alliance (a highly unlikely prospect) or exposing itself to mounting Muslim anger, further fuelled by the deaths of at least 800 people in the last five days in Uzbekistan.

Treading a middle line is only a short-term option because what has been sparked in Uzbekistan does not hold out any prospect of being put down in a hurry.