August 14, 2003

The Leaden Road to Samarkand

Islam Karimov, the tyrant of Uzbekistan, is not Central Asia's most colorful ruler, but he's certainly in the running for the worst, as Robert Temple reports in the New Republic. A corrupt and brutal product of Soviet imperialism, he is now an American ally, in exchange for an airbase of dubious strategic value and the usual counter-productive crackdown on any and all kinds of dissent. It is a profound national shame for us that our money and our military are now committed to supporting the dictatorship of a man who has opponents of the regime boiled alive. Worse than a crime, it is a blunder:

The sort of real changes that are needed --- changes that might bring democracy and economic opportunity to Uzbeks --- will never occur as long as Karimov is running the country. And so a population that aspires to all things that the United States offers is starting to become sullen and resentful at the unquestioning support Washington gives their dictator. Moderate Muslims who want to worship in peace are finding all forms of religious expression and political opposition closed off to them except the underground mosques. Middle-class families are being squeezed out of their businesses by a rapaciously corrupt elite. Young men with no prospects are turning bitter and disillusioned. We know how this story ends.
Indeed we do.

Of course, the problem picking the worst regime in Central Asia is that there are so many awful ones to chose from. Geographically, a strong case could be made for the People's Republic of China, via its rule of Tibet and eastern Turkestan. If we leave that claim to one side, Uzbekistan may well qualify for the worst, but it's not as if the competition isn't stiff. Take, for instance, Kazakhstan, on which Matthew Yglesias had a good post recently.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, NATO has just taken over peace-keeping duties, in time to see an explosion of violence from feuding warlords, the Taliban, and miscellaneous banditry and vendetta. Our administration is apparently considering actually spending \$1 billion on reconstruction aid in Afghanistan this year. That would be nice --- it's approximately the cost of one week of our Mesopotamian expedition --- but unfortunately much of the country is too dangerous for relief work. The damage done by the Taliban is worth noting. Unfortunately, they were not completely crushed in 2001, and have been regrouping in Pakistan. There are now even reports that they have taken Zabul province, and blocked the main road connecting Kabul and Kandahar. This would be very bad news, but the report comes from a site which can't even spell Afghan names consistently, and they in turn cite the incredibly unreliable Stratfor commercial intelligence service, so I'm highly inclined to be skeptical.

Well. Let's not be entirely gloomy about the heart of Eurasia, shall we? The World Bank is funding efforts to revive the Aral Sea, by undoing some of the worst of the Soviet excesses, e.g., actually allowing some water to flow all the way down the Oxus River. Small American colleges are establishing scholarships for Afghan women, and the first students are starting to trickle in. Finally, there is always music: the Silk Road Caravan collection compiled under the auspices of Yo-Yo Ma; the wonderful early recordings from the Secret Museum of Mankind; the beautiful, melancholy performances of Aziz Herawi; and the Uzbek pop of Yulduz Usmanova, who, to close where we came in, wrote the national anthem of Uzbekistan.

Afghanistan and Central Asia

Posted at August 14, 2003 12:22 | permanent link

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