A deal with the devil

February 8, 2009 at 7:58 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, International | 3 Comments

It’s funny the kinds of people you’ll have to make nice with if you want to spread freedom overseas…

Military officials say the U.S. is considering resuming military cooperation with hard-line Uzbekistan to help get troops or supplies into Afghanistan.

Such considerations come as a surprise because diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Uzbekistan are rocky at best. The Uzbeks expelled the U.S. from a base on its soil in 2005, and the two nations have traded accusations ever since.

But U.S. officials say the Central Asian nation has emerged as one potential alternative now that the future of a key U.S. air base in neighboring Kyrgyzstan is uncertain. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

So right now, you’re thinking “hey, isn’t that the same Uzbekistan which has a human rights record even Saddam Hussein could admire?” Oh, yes:

Most discussions of human rights in the region begin with Uzbekistan, for good reason. It is one of the worst human rights offenders on the planet. Torture is systemic, there is widespread harassment and persecution of minority groups, and corruption is rampant. In its Freedom in the World index, Freedom House ranks the country near Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe — higher than North Korea, but not by much.

Tom Bissell vividly described pre-War on Terror Uzbekistan in his 2003 memoir, “Chasing the Sea.” Over six weeks, he explored a country whose oppressive police force is driven by bribery, and whose petty and venal dictator uses Islamic terrorism to justify torture, even while actual Islamic terrorists gather just outside the border. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the Uzbeki people barely manage to scrape by, sinking further into abject poverty as forced labor gangs bleed fertile cotton fields into desert. A friend recently finished a weeks-long research trip to Tashkent and described the human rights situation in much the same way: corrupt regular police and an oppressive secret police force that is trained in the finest tradition of the KGB, and not always kept on a leash.


In this environment, torture is widespread and fairly common. Torture’s prevalence is partly driven by the government’s extreme opacity. High-level officials change positions with no outside warning or context on a regular basis. Combined with a lack of institutionalized policies, this creates interlocking and competing interests that are often expressed in the form of oppression. The courts, for example, face a tug-of-war between expediting cases and achieving justice — and justice almost always loses. (The police are very good at “extracting” confessions.) It is, however, unclear whether torture is ordered from the top down and imposed nationwide. There is little evidence that torture is a mandated state policy.

That raises a very uncomfortable question for Western policymakers, namely whether Europe’s and America’s constant scolding over human rights make the situation better, or worse. The diplomatic approach of lecturing high-level bureaucrats in Tashkent on the “problem” of justice fails to address the institutional and local reasons behind the use of torture.

Meanwhile, the Uzbek government seems to measure “justice” in terms of the number of people convicted. Thus, the token measures these officials put into place in response to Western pressure can have the countervailing effect of institutionalizing torture, as decrees calling for “more justice” are met by more torture. This dilemma was proven somewhat moot when Uzbekistan unceremoniously revoked American access rights to the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in southern Uzbekistan in 2005, after American officials complained loudly of the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the city of Andijon. Despite the international uproar, Uzbekistan’s behavior has remained relatively unchanged — even during the current rapprochement, which involves limited U.S. use of the Termez border crossing to transport supplies for the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. Publicly, no U.S. official has admitted anything changed in the relationship.

So why on earth would the new administration want an air base in a country which is only slightly more pleasant to live in than North Korea? The answer is that if the U.S. and NATO want to claim victory in its costly, bloody and possibly unwinnable war in Afghanistan, it can only do that with supply lines and logistical support in Central Asia.

Having read a little too much into that message of Change!, last week, Kyrgyzstan announced that it was planning to close its Manas Air Base, which the coalition has relied on for refuelling missions, medical support and as a point of transit for personnel. Now that the Kyrgyzstan government – apparently pushed by the Kremlin – has withdrawn its services, the U.S. is forced to find another country in the region capable of servicing Afghanistan.

But the cost of choosing Uzbekistan is the extent to which it’ll compromise the Obama administration’s commitment to human rights. The Uzbeks revoked America’s access in 2005 when the Bush administration got a little testy over its massacres; if the new administration won the right to return, it’d have to become uncomfortably mute about the human rights abuses happening under their noses. It’s a deal with the devil if ever there was one.



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  1. Don’t worry.

    Not a single reporter will ever ask Obama about his new ally.

    Since he’s officially continuing with the rendition policy introduced by Clinton, Uzbekistan will come in handy.

  2. If people can go on TV and cry and talk about how Obama sends a thrill up their leg and how they’ll never have to worry about paying another bill ever, and declare that he’s the greatest president America ever had — and all that before he moved to Washington! — then I reserve the right to predict he’ll be the worst president ever, especially after such a disastrous first fortnight.

    All the people who made such a fuss about “Ooo, he’s the first black president! He’s special!” will regret it, becuase — sad to say but true — it works the other way to. When everyone realizes this tin-pot “emperor” has no clothes, then unfortunately, in future, every time a black man wants to be president, millions of people will think, “Oh crap, not another Obama!”

    He’ll be in the history books for sure: “America’s first — and LAST — black president.”

    Well, maybe a black woman could be president…

    Her campaign slogan would have to be: “I’m no Obama!”

    She’ll probably win if she gives speeches like,

    “Hey, I’ve had to put up with idiots like Obama all my life! Let me tell you about this guy I went out with in grade 12. Oh, he thought he was soooo special. He was always just talkin’ talkin’ talkin’. I thought he was so smart. Then I realized — he never DID anything. And all he ever talked about was, “I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that. Just you wait an’ see!” And all the time he was lying to me, about everything! And one day I just woke up and shook my head and realized. “This big-head fool; he’s just like Obama!” And I swore right there and then: No more Obama’s in this girls’s life! So, believe me when I tell you: I AIN’T no Obama!” [Wild applause ~ she goes on to win by a REAL landslide]

  3. […] than at any time since the end of the Cold War. In nine months alone, the Obama administration has pondered a deal with the murderous regime in Uzbekistan, has broken a promise to officially recognise the Armenian […]

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