After the Uzbekistan Terror Attacks: Don't Sanction, but Press forDemocracy

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After the Uzbekistan Terror Attacks: Don't Sanction, but Press forDemocracy

May 4, 2004 5 min read
Ariel Cohen
Ariel Cohen
Director, CENRG and Senior Fellow, IAGS
Ariel served as the Director of the CENRG and Senior Fellow for IAGS

Islamic Jihad, a group previously unknown in Uzbekistan, has announced that it was responsible for March's suicide bombings and other attacks, which claimed the lives of 45 people, primarily in Tashkent and Boukhara. Further attacks may well destabilize Uzbekistan's secular government, which would be a disaster for the U.S.-led war on terror. Despite claims to the contrary from the human rights community, Washington should understand that poverty and repression are not the root causes of terrorism, though democratic and economic reforms are vital for the long-term survival of Uzbekistan's secular state. The United States should work with Uzbekistan to promote such reforms.


Attackers Failed
Islamic Jihad is a known Sunni militant "brand," used in Egypt and the West Bank/Gaza, which originated in the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Islamic Jihad members have killed leaders and ordinary citizens rulers in the Arab world. Egypt's Islamic Jihad affiliate, the Al Jihad movement, has merged with Al Qaeda.


Islamic Jihad pinned responsibility for its attacks on Uzbekistan's support of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and on the secular nature of the country's government. The attacks may have been planned to trigger a Bolshevik-style mass uprising against the government, which never came. Troublingly, the Uzbek operations bear all signs of the handiwork of the global jihadi movement:


  • Lengthy lead times to indoctrinate attackers;
  • Long preparation for operations;
  • A large number of perpetrators;
  • The use of women suicide bombers, as in Chechnya, Gaza, and the West Bank;
  • The lack of a stated political platform; and
  • The indiscriminate targeting of civilians, including women and children.

The terror strikes in Uzbekistan also fit the pattern of other recent attacks against members of U.S.-led coalitions: metro bombings in Spain, averted large scale chemical attacks in Great Britain and Jordan, an Islamist uprising in Thailand, a strike against a Saudi oil refinery, and the kidnapping and killing of Japanese, South Korean, and Italian civilians in Iraq. All of these acts have been undertaken to punish U.S. allies, to force them to pull out of the coalition, and to isolate the United States.


Fortunately, the attacks in Uzbekistan demonstrated a relatively poor level of tactical planning, but future operations may be more deadly.


Broken Promises

The United States has much at stake in Uzbekistan. Since 9/11, President Islam Karimov, a Soviet-era secular authoritarian leader, has provided access to military bases and air space that were crucial in launching the war against the Taliban and supporting the Northern Alliance. However, the U.S. State Department and human rights organizations have harshly criticized the Karimov regime for human rights abuses and lack of economic reform.


Karimov has promised repeatedly, to Presidents Clinton and Bush, to liberalize the economic and political life. Little, though, has been accomplished so far. The 2003 State Department Human Rights Report notes that while some non-governmental organizations and political parties were allowed to register, Uzbekistan is behind its neighbors, such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, in democratic reform. The regime harasses secular, nationalist, and moderate Islamic opposition groups and media and has, oddly, undertaken a campaign of arbitrary restriction, for example, banning billiards. The Report also notes some progress, including the release of thousands of prisoners, registration of a few NGOs, and new efforts to combat human trafficking.


The Bush Administration is aware that Karimov's domestic policies are ill conceived and likely leading the country to a dead end. Senior Russian officials share this assessment. But Washington also knows it must exercise care moving forward, lest the country be destabilized. A militant Islamic takeover of Uzbekistan would provide radicals with a state base larger and militarily and technologically more sophisticated than Afghanistan. Moreover, the demise of Uzbekistan's secular government could have tumultuous consequences for the whole of Central Asia. If Islamists overrun Uzbekistan, weak Central Asian states, such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and even the totalitarian Turkmenistan, may follow.


Engagement or Isolation?
As there is no clear democratic alternative to Karimov now, carping criticism may be counter-productive, while greater engagement may bear fruit. The harsh anti-Uzbek line that international human rights organizations and some U.S. media have taken in response to terror in Uzbekistan and the sanctions that they call for would be a mistake in the global war on terror, especially given instability in Afghanistan.


The liberal-left human rights community and many in the media do not follow, understand, or accept the global extremist sources of the Islamist terror threat. These activists mistake local conditions for root causes of terrorism and exaggerate human rights violations by U.S. allies, while neglecting much greater abuses by U.S. foes and critics, such as Iran, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia. In the Ferghana Valley (a particularly volatile part of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) and elsewhere, Salafi and Wahhabi Saudi-funded propaganda and militancy are abundant. These-not poverty, despair, and police brutality-are the root causes of suicide bombings.


After the March attacks, President Bush asked Karimov not to engage in mass repressions, which took place after the 1999 attacks. Though the Uzbek government arrested over 400 suspects, it quickly released most. Only 45 people are currently in detention.


What Should the United States Do?
Washington should understand that while democratic and economic reforms in Uzbekistan are vital for the long-term survival of the secular state, poverty and repression are not the root causes of terrorism. Still, repressive policies, such as deploying mines at the borders, systemic torture, andthe suppression of moderate political parties should stop.


In order to stabilize a secular regime in Uzbekistan, the U.S. should:


  • Send a strong signal to Tashkent, that business as usual cannot continue;
    The deadlines by which Washington must certify Uzbekistan's progress in human rights and religious freedom fall in July. At stake are military and civilian assistance worth over $200 million. An abrupt interruption of aid could send the wrong signal and empower Karimov's radical enemies. Uzbekistan's poor progress calls for diplomatic pressure and a measured and continuous response, including ongoing military and security cooperation as envisaged by the U.S.-Uzbek 2002 Joint Declaration on the Strategic Partnership and Cooperation.


  • Convince Karimov to preserve secularism while "rediscovering the tolerant roots of indigenous moderate Islam" that could be the basis of a new economic and political reality; and


  • Engage in the battle for hearts and minds in Uzbekistan and other moderate Muslim states to develop political pluralism, free media, and civil society, including moderate clergy.

America should work with Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries to liberalize their policies and economies and make moderate and tolerant Islam prevalent. Blaming friendly and secular regimes-even undemocratic ones-for crimes committed by terrorists would be counterproductive in the global war on Islamist terror. It would empower the enemy, fray the coalition, and cost Americans in blood and treasure.


Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at The Shelby and Kathryn Cullom Davis Center for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.



Ariel Cohen
Ariel Cohen

Director, CENRG and Senior Fellow, IAGS