As details emerge from the military crackdown in Andijan, Uzbekistan, the foreign governments giving security assistance to Uzbekistan are assessing the implications. Comments offered by senior defense officials in neighboring Kazakhstan suggest that Tashkent needs further military reform, especially for promoting speedy progress towards professionalizing its army. These “early lessons” are being advanced while Western military planners take stock of the exact nature of military-to-military assistance given to Uzbekistan and its future focus.
Given the necessarily imprecise reporting surrounding the events in Andijan, compounded by Tashkent’s tight control over media resources and the heavily restricted foreign access to the area, it is surprising in some ways that General Mukhtar Altynbayev, Kazakhstan’s minister of defense, should readily offer his opinion that the Uzbek response confirms the need to professionalize the army. Altynbayev believes that the higher levels of preparedness offered by increasing the numbers of professional soldiers serving within the Uzbek armed forces might have avoided the initial seizure of Uzbek soldiers in Andijan. Official statements on the crisis from Kazakhstani officials have been carefully calculated to avoid being drawn into condemnation of the regime. In any case, the measured response inadvertently points to the essential dilemma for Western governments offering training and support to the Uzbek armed forces: how can this continue at any meaningful level while the government utilizes advances in its military capabilities against its citizens in abuse of human rights?
A Ukrainian journalist, Ruslan Yarmolyuk, present during the troubles in Andijan, reported seeing two armored personnel carriers (APCs) approaching the crowd and opening fire on the protesters in the city square. He referred to government troops arriving en masse. They reinforced the area to clean up the dead on the following morning, piling corpses on Kamaz trucks. Few eyewitnesses were able to recollect exactly which units participated.
One Uzbek refugee, currently residing in a camp in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, spoke of seeing troops firing at random on the crowd in Andijan. An army jeep raced passed him during the crisis, and he claims also to have seen APCs in the local streets. These stories are being corroborated by numerous similar eyewitness accounts. However, apart from identifying some military vehicles, most reporting has been quite vague on the precise nature of the units involved in the massacre, preferring to use phrases such as “government troops” or “security forces.”
There is, of course, a list of likely sources from which the Uzbek security response was pulled together and overseen, including Interior Troops, National Security Service troops, and Ministry of Emergencies Troops, with assistance and support from the Border Guard Service and police. Such a response would be planned and executed at a high level, making the denials of President Islam Karimov regarding who gave the order to open fire even more difficult to explain. It should be noted that the accuracy with which some of the victims were shots, suggests that it was not the work of young inexperienced conscripts, hurriedly rushed into the town, but rather that of professional or more skilled combat-ready soldiers from specialist units. Interestingly, during the standoff between government forces and the protesters, Hazratqul Xudoyberdi a member of the opposition, issued a call for security personnel to join the ranks of the protesters. He particularly asked for “Members of the ordinary National Security Service and Interior Ministry personnel, army soldiers, and sergeants.” Such a profile of the actual units participating in the crackdown makes sense, and also highlights the single worst security question for the Bush administration, since these forces may be broadly described as “anti-terrorist.” After all, the Uzbek regime is describing the operation in such terms, putting the protest down to the actions of Islamic militants and terrorists.
Unfortunately, for very sound geostrategic reasons, the United States, having formed a strategic partnership with Uzbekistan, reinforced by its supporting role in the war on terror, has prioritized the improvement and training of the Uzbek anti-terrorist forces. U.S. Special Forces have supplied direct training to Uzbek Special Forces to these ends. Such training initiatives have also been underpinned by the provision of military equipment. What has now emerged from Uzbekistan, much to the embarrassment of Washington, raises serious implications not only over the nature of the security assistance provided to Uzbekistan, but whether the American taxpayer has indirectly funded such brutal repression.
It is an uncomfortable question, but one which must be faced, unless the Karimov regime falls soon to be replaced by something better; neither of which is guaranteed. Karimov, however, will struggle to convince his Western security partners that further increased levels of military or security assistance, training, and donations of military equipment will lead to an improvement of the security environment in Uzbekistan. He cannot guarantee that the very forces being helped and trained by the West will not be deployed internally in order to brutalize its own citizens.
(Interfax, May 13; NTV Mir, May 15; Inter TV, Kyiv, May 16; Interfax-Kazakhstan, May 17)