President Islam Karimov, delivering a key speech on the eve of Army Day in Uzbekistan , declared that the Uzbek army must be prepared to launch pre-emptive strikes against international terrorists and the centers that direct them. Alluding to the attacks within Uzbekistan in 2004, Karimov used the opportunity of addressing the military to focus on the country’s security threats and pointedly raised the prospect of taking pre-emptive action (Uzbek Television First Channel, January 13).
President Islam Karimov, delivering a key speech on the eve of Army Day in Uzbekistan , declared that the Uzbek army must be prepared to launch pre-emptive strikes against international terrorists and the centers that direct them. Alluding to the attacks within Uzbekistan in 2004, Karimov used the opportunity of addressing the military to focus on the country’s security threats and pointedly raised the prospect of taking pre-emptive action .
Yet underlying Karimov’s public stance on the issue of using force against Tashkent ‘s radical adversaries are attempts to talk up military and intelligence capabilities to detect and carry out such operations. Moreover, growing unease over the rivalry of the United States and Russia in the region facilitates a political imperative to convince a domestic audience that he can adequately deal with the terrorist threat.
First, Karimov has been regarded by Washington as a stalwart supporter of U.S. deployment into Central Asia in the aftermath of 9/11. He sees the potential rivalry between these powers as a negative factor in the region, highlighting the existence of American and Russian military deployments in Kyrgyzstan , within 30 kilometers of each other, as “unnatural.” Conscious of the controversy surrounding the U.S. military presence in Uzbekistan, vehemently opposed as a long-term option by Moscow, the Uzbek leader believes the U.S. military will leave after Afghanistan has stabilized; leaving open the thorny question of future U.S. Air Force basing rights. Karimov told Nezavisimaya gazeta, “Regrettably, under the guise of fighting international terrorism, the main geostrategic players in the world are engaged in a struggle for influence in Central Asia , an all-important part of the world. As a consequence, the true fight against terrorism may find itself outside the framework of real processes” (Interfax, Moscow , January 14). Such publicly voiced suspicion about whether Washington and Moscow prefer to pursue self-interests rather than engage in genuine efforts to enhance regional security serve to convince Karimov that Uzbekistan must seek security independently, while continuing to receive international assistance from these powers.
Next, raising the prospect of an Uzbek army tasked with such pre-emptive missions entails assessing the current military capabilities to execute such plans. One indication of improvements in the course of continued military reform has appeared in the army’s rations. The outdated Soviet rations, introduced in the early 1980s and offering only low nutritional value, have given way to the appearance of elements of the national cuisine, meat, vegetables, fruit juices, milk, honey, and vitamin supplements; all geared towards the good health of military personnel and thus raising morale and combat capabilities (Uzbek Television First Channel, January 9). Uzbekistan ‘s Defense Minister, Qodir Gulomov, inspected the Tashkent Higher Combined-Arms Command School on January 1 specifically to oversee the implementation of these rations plans. Though such alterations are evidently long overdue and a clear improvement in the lifestyle of the ordinary soldier, Uzbekistan suffers from other problems associated with a Soviet legacy force; low-technology equipment, lack of adequate intelligence assets needed to fix and locate enemy targets, and Special Forces units resembling more closely Western-style infantry units. In short, there is a long way to go in Uzbekistan ‘s efforts to develop armed forces capable of meeting the challenges of responding to the threats posed by international terrorism.
There is no evidence to suggest that the Uzbek authorities had any real understanding of exactly who was responsible for the attacks in Tashkent in 2004, let alone being able to discover the intentions of those responsible beforehand. Instead, the familiar suspect groups, including Hizb-ut-Tahrir came under official scrutiny, and it is possible that the Uzbek army, were it to be used in a pre-emptive manner, would attack political targets instead of identifying actual terrorists. In simple terms the army and intelligence services do not currently posses the capability to act pre-emptively against terrorists with any degree of precision. It is in this sense that Karimov’s adoption of the language of pre-emption marks a dangerous moment in the development of counter-terrorist policies in Central Asia .
Karimov’s adoption of the language of pre-emption can clearly unsettle his immediate neighbors, who are entitled to ask where these centers of terrorism are located and on whose territory. Yet, the successful development of such military capabilities seems inextricably linked to pursuing closer relations with Western militaries and governments able to plug the technology gaps in the Uzbek military. However, echoing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent talk about pre-emptive strikes against terrorists, Karimov may have calibrated his remarks to a domestic audience and more significantly towards the armed forces themselves. The population needs reassurance that there are options at Karimov’s disposal that can offer a level of security from future acts of terrorism not guaranteed by the U.S. military presence within the country. Genuine pre-emption, aimed against genuine terrorist targets, does not equate with Karimov’s understanding of what is politically expedient.