US counterterrorist strategy held hostage in Uzbekistan

A recent string of bombings, suicide attacks, and assaults on police in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, have shattered the relative tranquility that settled over Central Asia since the arrival of US troops there in 2001 and the defeat of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan.

The violence is a telling sign that one of America's key allies in the war on terror is in danger of falling prey to the very terrorist forces it was enlisted to help defeat.

The most difficult question about the recent violence in Uzbekistan is not why the violence has occurred, but why it has not occurred more often. Key socioeconomic indicators in Uzbekistan have long been at crisis levels. The effects of poverty and environmental degradation inherited from the Soviet era have been compounded by haphazard attempts at economic reforms pushed by foreign donors and international financial institutions. Corruption and wanton disregard for basic human rights - from torture of detainees to the propensity of officials to brand and squelch all dissent as Islamic militancy - have produced an oppressive society.

President Islam Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989, pledged at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1992 that he'd take his country along the path already charted by the "Asian tigers" - East Asian nations that undertook vigorous economic reforms, while holding off on political liberalization in the interest of domestic stability.

Today, more than a decade later, economic reform in Uzbekistan is a myth, and political stability has been squandered.

But Uzbekistan remains important to the US. It borders on Afghanistan - and has hosted US military facilities ever since the 2001 US war on the Taliban.

A loyal partner in the war on terror, Uzbekistan is the perfect illustration of the challenge the US faces in its long-term antiterror strategy. The Uzbek regime is key to the task of defeating terrorists and thwarting their operations - yet it is an intractable part of the terror problem because it contributes to the underlying conditions that terrorists seek to exploit.

The Uzbek regime has already portrayed itself as a victim of Islamic terrorism and will continue to do so, seeking to justify its oppressive actions at home. The US has condemned the recent terrorist acts in Uzbekistan - and it should request that Uzbek authorities allow US law enforcement agencies full access to the investigation. Without such access and full public disclosure upon completion of the investigation, its results will be automatically suspect. Public scrutiny will be essential to the credibility of Uzbek appeals for US assistance to combat terrorism. The US can't afford the perception that it is propping up a corrupt and oppressive regime.

The US can make clear - publicly and privately, in blunt and certain terms - that the reactionary policies of Uzbek leaders are creating conditions ripe for extremist exploitation. The Uzbek leaders are thus failing their own people in this critical aspect of the war on terror.

As seen from Tashkent, the US is beholden to Uzbekistan as an indispensable ally, and for as long as the US maintains a military presence there, warnings about domestic reform can be ignored. Uzbekistan's leaders must be disabused of this notion. The US has other options in Central Asia. No country there has a perfect record, but some have gone a long way toward modernizing their economies and preserving a degree of political freedom that makes them look like reasonably healthy democracies when compared with Uzbekistan.

Uzbek leaders will continue to turn a deaf ear to US appeals for internal reform for as long as they think that when all else fails, they can fall back on the safety net of the US military presence in their country.

Eugene Rumer is a senior fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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