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Watchdogs Say U.S. Turned Blind Eye to Uzbek Abuse

Washington was more focused on securing military aid from Karimov for war in neighboring Afghanistan, human rights advocates say.

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As Zuhra sat handcuffed to a chair in an Uzbek interrogation room, she couldn’t help but hear the howling screams through the walls of cell. Two of her male relatives had been accused of membership in an extremist group, and authorities had brought her in to get them to talk. While in police custody, Zuhra experienced what human rights officials say has become standard practice of the Uzbek state in its 24 years of independence: torture, sexual abuse, and the complete absence of the rule of law. Her relatives were locked indefinitely in a cell as terror convicts after submitting to a long government interrogation that included having their limbs seared on a hot stove.

The testimony of Zuhra, a pseudonym, is one of many catalogued in a new report released Wednesday by the human rights organization Amnesty International on the pervasive use of torture in Uzbekistan under the government of Islam Karimov. The report, which is replete with firsthand accounts of endemic torture, is extremely critical of U.S. policy toward Uzbekistan and Central Asia. Amnesty accuses the United States of turning a blind eye to torture in order to keep repressive regimes as allies in the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan.

The report comes as Washington is trying to reassess its policy in Central Asia amid a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, a revanchist Russia, and the ever-growing influence of China. Many experts fear that the United States’ singular focus on Afghanistan will not only provide a free pass to Central Asia’s human rights abusers, but could also undermine stability in the region.

“There is much instability in Central Asia at the moment, but most of it is internal,” Jeff Goldstein, a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Foundations and a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, told Foreign Policy. “Yet, U.S. policy does little to address these issues because it would mean poor relations with leaders like Karimov.”

In a March address at the Brookings Institution, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for a three-pronged vision of U.S. policy toward the region: security cooperation, economic connectivity, and human rights promotion. But experts remain skeptical about what the policies advocated by Blinken can actually accomplish.

“The region is still linked to American objectives in other regions,” Luca Anceschi, a Central Asia expert at the University of Glasgow, told FP. On the heels of President Barack Obama’s decision to delay the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, that country remains the primary American security concern in the region, according to Anceschi. In addition, Washington remains worried about the flow of fighters from Central Asia to Syria. The New Silk Road, a U.S.-authored plan to integrate the economies of the region, is more of an exit strategy for Afghanistan than it is a grand vision for Central Asia’s future.

Meanwhile, human rights concerns fall by the wayside. “It’s ripe with contradiction. A security focus means supporting regimes with horrible human rights records and autocratic pedigrees,” Anceschi said. “How could they liberalize?”

Not quite Europe, not quite Asia, Central Asia has always been relegated to obscurity by U.S. policymakers. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Washington was content to push a modest agenda of aid, nuclear disarmament, human rights promotion, while waiting to see what the newly independent post-Soviet states had to offer.

That all changed in 2001, when U.S. policy in Central Asia was rewritten to serve the war effort in Afghanistan. “After 9/11, the previous decade of policy was essentially thrown out the window. Everything was reinvented to fit around Afghanistan,” said Goldstein.

In the run-up to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Washington desperately needed supply routes for personnel and supplies. Located on Afghanistan’s northern border, Uzbekistan was an ideal launching pad for the fight against the Taliban and the Pentagon quickly set up a military base inside the country. The war on terror made Karimov a friend of convenience. Karimov provided the United States with the base it needed, and with it, won the West’s support. And with that backing, Karimov was free to pursue his campaign of domestic political repression unfettered.

Washington also broke bread with another unsavory — albeit less brutal — regime in Kyrgyzstan to secure an additional military base in Central Asia. Likewise, Germany established a military presence in the region, sharing the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan and opening its own facility in Uzbekistan.

By 2005, Afghanistan was being removed as a top priority. The Taliban were thought to have been mostly driven into neighboring Pakistan, and Washington’s attention was fixed on a tough campaign in Iraq. With that shift, Karimov’s abuses became less tolerable, and Washington’s relationship with the odious regime came to a breaking point in November 2005 over the May 13, 2005 government massacre in Andijan that left hundreds dead, including women and children. After some cautious statements and protests from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the Bush administration called for an independent international investigation into the crackdown. Angered and paranoid of American interference in Uzbekistan, the Karimov regime evicted the United States from its military base there.

When the security situation in Afghanistan again worsened, the consequences for U.S. policy toward Central Asia were perhaps predictable. The United States once more warmed to Uzbekistan. Karimov refused to host U.S. troops, but allowed supplies for the Afghan war to be transported through his country via the so-called Northern Distribution Network.

In return, Karimov was rewarded by the West. By 2009, the European Union removed sanctions on arms sales to Uzbekistan that were imposed in the aftermath of the Andijan massacre. Germany has strengthened its ties to Uzbekistan, renewing the lease on its air base there in November 2014 and signing a 2.8 billion euro trade package in March. Washington sent Tashkent 308 mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles and 20 armored recovery vehicles in January.

“There has never been a consistent U.S. foreign policy in Central Asia,” Sarah Kendzior, an independent Central Asia expert, told FP. “Not only is it hard to maintain meaningful relationships with the region’s autocratic regimes, but American inconsistency gives the impression to local governments that Washington doesn’t care about Central Asia on its own, only as a means to an end.”

Today, American influence in the region has been tempered by Russia and China. The Kremlin has poured billions in military aid on the five countries that make up Central Asia, and China’s quest for energy and the gravitational pull of its economy has made it a giant.

With depleted credibility in the region and a waning importance to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, Central Asia is perhaps destined to return to its immediate post-Cold War obscurity.

Meanwhile, human rights officials say, Uzbeks like Zuhra’s relatives remain in their cells.

KEVIN LAMARQUE/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Astana, Kazakhstan covering Central Asia and Eurasia for Foreign Policy and other publications. He was formerly an associate editor at FP@reidstan

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