No Comment — October 27, 2011, 3:09 pm

Waiting for Tinkerbell in Tashkent

At a time when Republican presidential frontrunner Herman Cain is touting his indifference to “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan,” American diplomats and military leaders are in fact making the pilgrimage to Tashkent to pay homage to the president Cain proudly can’t name, Islam Karimov. Their purpose is plain enough: during the war in Afghanistan, American matériel has typically wound its way upland from Pakistan’s deepwater ports, through perilous mountain passes, to the troops. With relations between the United States and Pakistan in freefall, and with supply shipments increasingly menaced by terrorist attacks and banditry, American military planners are scrambling for an alternative. At the outset of the war, they secured a toehold in Kyrgyzstan, which provided a much-needed northern alternative, but it is essentially only an air bridge, and shipping supplies by air is costly. Uzbekistan is the only meaningful alternative to Pakistan, potentially offering air, truck, and rail corridors.

Still, the overture to Karimov is fraught with problems. His regime is one of the most repressive to arise out of the former Soviet Union. It is also a model kleptocracy, with all important businesses (particularly ones that generate foreign currency) dominated by Karimov’s inner circle, notably his wannabe glamour-girl daughter, Gulnora. Karimov’s Uzbekistan makes Mubarak’s Egypt and Ben Ali’s Tunisia look like welcoming oases of capitalism by comparison. Do American diplomats really appreciate what they’re dealing with?

One of them certainly doesn’t. I was struck to read these pronouncements by an unidentified “senior State Department official” (who sounds suspiciously like assistant secretary Robert O. Blake), in connection with Hillary Clinton’s visit to Tashkent:

Q: [O]n human rights in general, was there anything that came up here in Uzbekistan? [S]pecifically —

A: Yeah. I mean, I think I already described that.

Q: I know you did, but — how did [Karimov] respond to that? When this comes up, does he just blow it off? Does he —

A: No, no. Not at all.

Q: He wants to live [sic] a legacy for his kids and grandkids you just said.

A: Exactly. He wasn’t defensive at all.

Q: But do you believe this?

A: Yeah. I do believe him.

One can search in vain through the State Department’s meticulously prepared human-rights reports on Uzbekistan for evidence that Karimov, one of the world’s most callous dictators, is committed to democracy and human rights. The legacy he is committed to leaving for his kids and grandkids is best measured, rather, by the vast wealth his family has amassed during his rule.

This highlights the key problem with turning Uzbekistan into a new military-logistics hub: It requires us to retreat from our principles by coddling dictators and blathering inanities about them. Doubtless, the needs of U.S. and allied soldiers in Afghanistan will take precedence, and the U.S. will bend in Tashkent’s direction to meet its needs. But one can fairly question whether the United States has to take leave of its senses in the process. The bargain is not only morally but tactically questionable.

Karimov’s repression of Uzbeks has created a climate in which just the sort of Islamist terrorism that now plagues Afghanistan can flourish. Indeed, Uzbek militants have already claimed responsibility for a number of bold attacks in Afghanistan, including the May 2010 suicide attack on Bagram Air Base. The war the U.S. is fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan is therefore also a war against Karimov’s foes — and in fact, Uzbek units allied with the Taliban and Al Qaeda have been priority targets for U.S. forces. The United States has additionally passed the Uzbeks vital intelligence and shared prisoners with them, despite their almost theatrical proclivity for torture. And if U.S. supplies flow through Uzbekistan, Karimov and his clan will surely profit handsomely at American taxpayers’ expense.

American diplomats do themselves and their country no service by waiting for Tinkerbell in Tashkent. They need to keep their distance from Uzbekistan’s kleptocrats, and maintain their commitment to building democracy and establishing the rule of law, which, in theory at least, are what its mission in Central Asia is about. A moment for democratic reform and human rights will come to Uzbekistan, but not until the Karimovs have departed.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



May 2015

Black Hat, White Hat

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beyond the Broken Window

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Search of a Stolen Fiddle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Displaced in the D.R.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quietest Place in the Universe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


“Don sucked the last of his drink through his straw and licked his lips. 'The coast, to me, is more interesting than the valley.'”
Photograph by the author
Fred Morton, who died this week in Vienna, at the age of 90, was a longtime contributor to Harper's Magazine and a good friend. "Othello's Son," which was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013, appeared in our September 2013 issue.
Photograph © Alex Gotfryd/CORBIS
Beyond the Broken Window·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“By the time Bratton left the department, in 2009, Los Angeles had quietly become the most spied-on city in America.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery
Displaced in the D.R.·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“How is it possible that my birth certificate is invalid if I was born here?”
Photograph by Pierre Michel Jean
The Quietest Place in the Universe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Gaitskell and his colleagues are approaching the revelation of a new order, a new universe, in which even light will be known differently, and darkness as well.”
Painting by Sebastiaan Bremer

Number of African countries with vaccination rates higher than that of the United States:


Iowa urologists reported that only a minor portion of locker-room teasing arises from “the presence of excess foreskin”; most teasing targets small penises.

A farmer in Surrey, England, was ordered by the Reigate and Banstead Borough Council to tear down his cannon-equipped castle, which he had built secretly and then concealed behind hay bales.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Subways Are for Sleeping


“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today