Uzbekistan’s dictator is dead, but his brutal efforts to crush Islamist extremism leave a long and ugly legacy. And Washington will be left cleaning up the mess.
Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s first and only president, is dead. After six days of official silence following a stroke on Aug. 28, the death of the 78-year-old Central Asian leader was confirmed by the Uzbek government; he will be enshrined in history and buried in the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand as the founding father of independent Uzbekistan. The former Soviet apparatchik will also be remembered as one of the most brutal dictators of the 21st century, whose regime became synonymous with authoritarian excesses like massacres, the arrest of his own daughter, and boiling dissidents alive. But perhaps Karimov’s greatest legacy is his outsized role in the global fight against terrorism and the abuses that the Uzbek president carried out in its name.
In October 2001, several weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan was in full swing and President George W. Bush’s war on terror had finally come to Central Asia. But Karimov had already been waging his own war against Islamic extremists in Uzbekistan for nearly a decade. By the end of the 1990s, he had mostly succeeded in driving a mélange of Islamist rebel groups out of his country while consolidating his hold on power with an invasive, and often brutal, state security apparatus led by a clique of former Soviet KGB officers. In his wake, Karimov left a bloody trail of torture, extrajudicial killings, and the mass incarceration of thousands of Uzbeks — many of whose only crime was being a practicing Muslim.
Before 9/11, Karimov was an international pariah, decried by human rights groups and routinely criticized by Western governments. But after the attack on the World Trade Center, a new paradigm took shape. Bush welcomed Karimov at the White House in September 2001, arranging a package of security assistance for Uzbekistan and finalizing plans for a U.S. airbase in the Central Asian country. In exchange for leasing rights on an airbase in Uzbekistan to aid the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, Karimov gained the backing of a superpower in his longstanding fight against Islamists at home.
Islamic militants posed a major threat to the corrupt and often-divided regime, but it was also a useful tool to consolidate power. Anyone who resisted or had grievances against the regime was branded a terrorist, a policy that alienated and traumatized huge portions of the population. The U.S. war on terror gave Karimov an entrée to the West, but in the process tolerated the creation of an environment devoid of moderate voices where only extremes flourished — an ominous legacy that will define Central Asia for years to come. But to understand how this came about, one needs to look back to the uncertain days of newly independent Uzbekistan.
The Rise of Islam
Karimov rose to the top of the Communist Party ranks in Soviet Uzbekistan around the time that the Islamic revival in Soviet Central Asia began to bloom. The people of Central Asia are predominantly Sunni Muslims and have a storied Islamic heritage dating back a millennium. But under nearly 70 years of secular Soviet rule, the region was cut off from contact with the Islamic world that it bordered. After decades of Moscow’s heavy-handed policies clamping down on religion, Soviet authorities eventually settled on a policy known as “official Islam,” whereby registered mullahs, trained in Soviet ideology, were allowed to preach the faith. Unofficial mosques and unregistered mullahs who called for Islam untainted by Communist Party doctrine continued to operate during this period, but were forced to do so underground.
By the late 1980s, however, that began to change. The social opening advocated by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika policy took hold across the Soviet Union, and interest in the Islamic faith came back into the daylight in Central Asia. Religious texts, and later funds, poured in from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as Islamic figures retook public leadership roles in communities across the region in the dying days of the Soviet empire. In Uzbekistan, the Islamic revival took a hard-line turn in the city of Namangan after a group of men attacked and seized the local Communist Party headquarters after the mayor had refused to allow them to build a Wahhabi mosque and madrassa. The group was led by Tohir Yuldashev, a 24-year-old underground mullah, and Jumaboi Khodjiyev, better known by his nom de guerre Juma Namangani, a former Red Army paratrooper who had fought against the mujahedeen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The two men would later go on to found the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in 1998 and declare jihad against Karimov with the aim of creating a caliphate in Central Asia, marking Namangan as the birthplace of Islamic militancy in Uzbekistan, but also a symbol of the regime’s repression.
Karimov, the former head of the Uzbek Communist Party, originally embraced the appeal of Islam in independent Uzbekistan’s early days. On his inauguration day in September 1991, he made reference to Islam in his speech and even held a Quran in one hand and the country’s newly inked constitution in the other, recognizing the political usefulness of religion to solidify a country now absent of an ideology to hold it together. Meanwhile, Yuldashev, Khodjiyev, and their followers in Namangan were founding the Adolat, a political party that called for an Islamic revolution in Central Asia. In March 1992, Karimov declared war on Islamic extremism and finally cracked down on the group, arresting 27 followers and sending Yuldashev and Khodjiyev fleeing across the snaking borders of the Ferghana Valley into neighboring Tajikistan. In late 1994, the government crackdown expanded, rounding up extremist sympathizers and independent Muslims alike, branding anyone who held Islamic beliefs and anti-regime views as a “Wahhabi” — a foreign-influenced, hard-line Saudi strain of the religion.
At the same time, Karimov was erasing any threats to his rule across the country, shutting down newspapers, attacking independent lawyers, and jailing human rights activists. But the state’s paranoia centered on political Islam. A brutal wave of repression followed in 1997, after a series of beheadings of police officers and a collective farm boss and a shootout with police in Namangan. No one claimed the attacks, but holdovers associated with the now-banned Adolat were suspected by the government. A sweeping series of arrests followed. Human Rights Watch reported widespread arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and the fabrication of evidence at the time.
Yuldashev and Khodjiyev were staying busy in Tajikistan, where a civil war broke out between the former Soviet government and a disparate opposition of democrats, nationalists, and Islamists in May 1992, a few months after they arrived. Yuldashev soon left for Afghanistan, where he would build ties with extremists from across the region, allegedly including Osama bin Laden. Eventually, Yuldashev would forge an alliance with the Taliban, which was emerging from a brutal civil war of its own. Khodjiyev, however, stayed in Tajikistan and joined the bloody fray of the five-year war, fighting alongside the United Tajik Opposition, which was at odds with the Emomali Rahmon government. A peace deal in 1997 brought the war to a formal end, but Khodjiyev remained in Tajikistan where he became a player in the regional heroin trade. In August 1998, the two men formally founded the IMU and conducted their first large-scale attack six months later in Tashkent: six car bombs, the largest of which was intended for Karimov, left 16 dead and 120 wounded. The IMU launched another series of attacks in August 1999, this time into neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where they occupied villages and took several hostages, including a major general in the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry and four Japanese geologists working in the area.
The hostages were eventually released, but more skirmishes followed in 2000 and into 2001. Karimov’s reaction was vicious: Khodjiyev and Yuldashev were sentenced to death in absentia and he accused the Tajik and Kyrgyz governments of harboring the militants — placing land mines along Uzbekistan’s borders with the two countries and cutting off gas supplies in retaliation. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would soon launch offensives of their own; by the summer of 2001, the IMU was mostly concentrated in Afghanistan. In the aftermath, Uzbek prisons swelled with thousands of new inmates, many of whom were not connected to any radical group. Tashkent continued with Soviet-style heavy-handedness, with the government overseeing the Islamic hierarchy, imams’ sermons, and the contents of religious texts. Those who practiced Islam outside this state-controlled system were seen as terrorists or extremist sympathizers. By 2004, Human Rights Watch reported that more than 6,000 people were imprisoned for practicing their faith.
The War on Terror
Before Sept. 11, 2001, Karimov had been attempting to mend fraught ties with Washington. A decade of iron-fisted rule had left the Uzbek president isolated and his country’s economy ailing. In an overture to the West, Tashkent announced an amnesty program to release some of the prisoners accumulated over Karimov’s 10 years as president. It looked as if Uzbekistan was about to become an example of the benefits of sustained human-rights pressure on authoritarian leaders, but Karimov instead became a case study of what happens when U.S. foreign policy values military cooperation above all else.
Within days of the terrorist attacks, Karimov was being wooed by Washington. In an address to Congress, Bush linked the IMU to al Qaeda and said the group could be a target for U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Cooperation was formalized between Washington and Tashkent in a March 2002 Oval Office meeting. For the Uzbek president, it was a win-win agreement: Washington desperately needed supply routes for personnel and equipment into Afghanistan. In return, he had the backing of a superpower against the IMU, as well as leverage against Western interference in Uzbekistan’s domestic affairs.
As the fight against the Taliban ramped up, the IMU’s ranks were thinned: Khodjiyev was killed in November 2001 by a U.S. airstrike, and Yuldashev fled to Pakistan with other members of the Taliban. The death of Khodjiyev helped transform Karimov into a self-styled bulwark against Islamic extremism. This hard-fought victory against the IMU was won in large part thanks to his status as a U.S. ally in the global fight against terrorism, which emboldened the Uzbek leader to eliminate any remaining threat to his hold on power — secular or religious, real or perceived — with brutal and indiscriminate means. In the years that followed, Karimov made no gesture toward any semblance of reform and Uzbekistan’s notorious prisons were reportedly used in the CIA’s rendition program.
Uzbekistan was not immune to terrorism during this period, however. In March 2004, a series of bombings hit Tashkent and the old Silk Road city of Bukhara. They were claimed by the Islamic Jihad Union, an offshoot of the IMU. In July of the same year, bombings hit the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Tashkent in attacks again claimed by the Islamic Jihad Union. Despite counterterrorism cooperation, ties between Washington and Tashkent never truly warmed, with Karimov increasingly suspicious of American intentions. Western support for the so-called color revolutions in Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, and neighboring Kyrgyzstan in 2005 inflamed Tashkent’s paranoia that Washington was actively seeking regime change in former Soviet countries.
The Andijan Massacre
With an ailing economy and governments tumbling around him, Karimov’s abuses only grew worse. On May 13, 2005, after months of protests against the government over corruption and mass arrests, a group of men launched a prison break to free a group of influential local businessmen who had recently been jailed in the eastern city of Andijan. Exactly what happened next remains disputed, but what is known is that the Uzbek military sent in troops and opened fire on protesters, killing hundreds of civilians, including women and children. Washington remained hesitant at first to press the issue with Tashkent, issuing some cautious statements about the incident while stymying attempts at a probe (including one particularly cynical effort by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld). Eventually, the Bush administration called for an independent international investigation into the crackdown. Furious over American interference in Uzbekistan’s internal affairs, Karimov evicted the United States from its military base in Karshi-Khanabad.
Almost immediately, Uzbekistan began taking steps closer to Russia, which had also begun to grow weary of the U.S. military presence in its Central Asian backyard (Washington also maintained a base in Kyrgyzstan). Karimov’s relationship with Moscow has long been chilly, but Russian President Vladimir Putin offered support to the Uzbek leader on the Andijan massacre and Tashkent responded in kind. Despite this amity between the two men, the Uzbek president did his best to remain fiercely independent from external players, baiting membership in Russian-led alliances like the Collective Security Treaty Organization and later, the Eurasian Economic Union to secure weapons deals and write off debt owed to the Kremlin. Karimov was an erratic ally for everyone, but if he earned any sort of praise for his 25 years as president, it’s that he wasn’t willing to be anyone’s puppet.
But it wasn’t long before Washington’s priorities got in the way of its morals. Due to difficulties moving supplies to the Afghan front through Pakistan, NATO needed a new transit point along the so-called Northern Distribution Network. Overtures were made in the lead-up to the April 2008 NATO heads-of-state summit in Bucharest, Romania. Karimov refused to host U.S. troops, but opened the door to providing a supply route into Afghanistan. Soon thereafter, senior U.S. military and political officials resumed visiting Tashkent, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited in 2011. In echoes of the early days of the war in Afghanistan, the West re-established a working relationship with Karimov, but this time on more transactional terms.
By 2009, the European Union had removed sanctions on arms sales to Uzbekistan that were imposed in the aftermath of the Andijan massacre. In March 2015, Germany strengthened its ties to Uzbekistan, signing a 2.8 billion euro trade package. And despite the drawdown in Afghanistan, Washington provided Tashkent with 308 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles and 20 armored recovery vehicles in January 2015.
Coming Full Circle
The threat of radical extremism in Central Asia was Karimov’s ticket to international relevance, catapulting Uzbekistan to outsized strategic importance, even allowing the regime to play larger powers like China, Russia, and the United States off one another. With the United States’ current downsized operations in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and its role in Western counterterrorism have subsided, but the death of Karimov should be a reminder of its lasting significance.
The IMU has fractured and morphed since its years in exile, and its ranks are now largely made up of a variety of nationalities across Central and South Asia. The group may no longer be the same threat it was during the late 1990s, but it still has its sights set on the region. The IMU pledged allegiance to the Islamic State following Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a caliphate in June 2014. The Soufan Group, a security consultancy, estimates 2,000 Islamic State volunteers in Iraq and Syria are from the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Some 500 of those volunteers are from Uzbekistan, which has become an increasingly fertile recruiting ground for the group. Uzbekistan has a population of 31 million, 40 percent of which is under the age of 25, and there are few work opportunities to go around. Aware of growing disaffection with the regime, the Islamic State has focused its propaganda efforts of late in the Uzbek language, in hopes of tapping into even more recruits.
For the past 25 years, Central Asia watchers have been sounding the alarm about a new era of Islamist militants in the region. This prophecy has so far failed to fully materialize, and even Karimov’s death is unlikely to herald a new dawn for jihadis. But the seeds have been sown for a far greater type of instability in Central Asia, one where the only options are autocracy or Islamic militancy. The United States, Russia, and China were all willing to forgive Karimov’s abuses against his own people in hopes that it meant less terrorism and more stability in a strategically vital region. But in allowing economic stagnation and widespread human rights abuses to fester in the long term, the dream of a stable Central Asia looks more unattainable than ever.
Today in Uzbekistan, dissent has been driven underground, with even moderate opposition voices jailed, killed, or sent into exile. Karimov may have officially joined the war on terror in 2001, but in reality he was waging that battle from the day he became president in 1991. He may be remembered at home as the country’s founding president, but what he leaves behind is a legacy for Uzbekistan where only the extremists willing to pick up a gun are left to oppose the government’s injustices.
Photo Credit: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images; Getty Images/FP; Alex Wong/Getty Images; YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images; BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images