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'Did Donald Rumsfeld Whitewash Massacre In Uzbekistan?' -- Kirchick In 'The Atlantic'

RFE writer-at-large James Kirchick looks at the U.S. response to the 2005 massacre in Andijon, Uzbekistan, as described by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for "The Atlantic."


Did Donald Rumsfeld Whitewash Massacre In Uzbekistan?

James Kirchick | The Atlantic

April 20, 2010

In his door-stopper of a memoir, Known and Unknown, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spends just three pages recounting what he calls "one of the most unfortunate, if unnoticed, foreign policy mistakes of our administration." The episode he describes took place not in Iraq or Afghanistan but, rather, in Uzbekistan. Yet Rumsfeld's account of what happened and why appears wildly out of sync with the public record.

As a Central Asian former Soviet republic, it's not surprising that events in Uzbekistan would go "unnoticed." But Uzbekistan's strategic location, wedged above Afghanistan, gave it newfound prominence in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, when its government offered the United States use of a decaying, Soviet-era airbase (Karshi-Khanabad, or K2). Ruled by former Soviet apparatchick Islam Karimov since it gained independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has an abysmal human rights record -- one that did not improve after the war in Afghanistan drew it closer to U.S. influence.

That tension between American interests and values reached a turning point in May 2005. It began when the Uzbek government imprisoned 23 businessmen from the city of Andjon. The regime speciously accused them of involvement with an extremist Muslim organization, a charge it frequently levels against its many opponents. Thousands of unarmed protesters gathered in Andijon, voicing opposition to the arrests and to broader concerns about government corruption and cronyism. In the early hours of May 13, gunmen -- who had earlier raided a police garrison -- stormed the prison where the businessmen were being held, freeing them and some others. In response, Uzbek forces fired into the vast crowd of protestors. A definitive count of the dead has proven nearly impossible to determine, but estimates range from the government's official tally of 187 to NGO reports that claim casualties nearing 1,000. A Human Rights Watch report states, "Eyewitnesses told us that about 300-400 people were present at the worst shooting incident, which left few survivors. There were several incidents of shooting throughout the day."

Rumsfeld's account of the tragedy at Andijon is jarringly different from what most international observers say happened. "It appeared that the goal of the assault was to release members of an Islamic extremist group accused of seeking to establish an Islamic state, a caliphate, in eastern Uzbekistan," Rumsfeld writes of the prison break. And of the massacre: "This was not a simple case of soldiers slaughtering innocents, as had been widely alleged and misreported." His version is at odds with that of seemingly everyone: human rights groups, international media, eyewitnesses, U.S. intelligence, even the State Department. Everyone, that is, except the Karimov regime.

Information provided by Rumsfeld himself contradicts his own narrative. According to a memo prepared by the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, helpfully posted on Rumsfeld's website and even cited in the text of his memoir, "The popular perception was that these businessmen were upstanding community members -- not Islamic extremists." Unable to assess the regime's "evidence" allegedly connecting the businessmen to insurrection, the memo's author, DIA Director L.E. Jacoby, concluded that the thousands of protestors who had gathered to demand their release were provoked by legitimate grievances against a corrupt and abusive regime, not a desire to impose an Islamic caliphate. "Their motivation almost certainly was anger and frustration over poor socioeconomic conditions and repressive government policies rather than a unifying extremist ideology," Jacoby wrote. "There are no indications that Karimov understands that a deep sense of injustice was at the center of the unrest."

Rumsfeld largely repeated the regime's argument that the prison break was perpetrated by people with an Islamist agenda (he refers to these individuals variously as "rebels" and "insurgents"). However, the Jacoby memo categorized the composition of the assailants under a section entitled "What We Don't Know," concluding, "Our sources suggest the fighters were disgruntled Soviet-Afghan war veterans" and that "no credible information indicates extremist groups participated in the attacks."

None of this nuance made it into Rumsfeld's version of events. "Self-proclaimed human rights advocates with longstanding records of opposition to the Uzbek government quickly got into the act," he writes in the withering tone he deploys against those who disagree with him on Andijon, portraying them as self-righteous simpletons naïve to the difficulties of global power politics. Using scare quotes, he dismisses reports of the Uzbek government's indiscriminate use of deadly violence against civilians, stating that "Human Rights Watch declared them peaceful 'protesters'" and "Amnesty International called the uprising a 'mass killing of civilians' and denounced the Uzbek government's 'indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force.'" He contemptuously writes that "comparisons were made to the massacre of Chinese citizens in Tiananmen Square, and stories circulated of a deliberate massacre of civilians peacefully demonstrating in the street." While acknowledging that "the government's security forces and public affairs officials functioned poorly," Rumsfeld concludes that, "this was not a simple case of soldiers slaughtering innocents."

However, it's not just the media and human rights organizations that contradict Rumsfeld's account of the events at Andijon. Other branches of the U.S. government belie his sympathetic portrayal of the Uzbek regime. According to the State Department's 2005 Annual Report on Human Rights, "That evening [of May 13], according to several eyewitness accounts, government forces fired indiscriminately and without warning into the crowd. There were credible reports of many more civilians killed while fleeing the scene."

The State Department report continues, "Eyewitnesses reported that soldiers returned to the scene of the shootings on the morning of May 14 and summarily executed wounded persons who remained among the dead. Several other witnesses reported that after the shooting, government workers loaded victims' bodies onto trucks, transported them to makeshift morgues, and buried many in unmarked graves." On May 27, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent visited a site outside the city. He found 37 mass graves where victims of the massacre had been buried. The following day, the man who led RFE/RL to the graves was stabbed to death by unknown attackers.

When I interviewed Rumsfeld last month, I asked him about the DIA report -- which he had himself commissioned. But he was unmoved. "I certainly stand by what I wrote in the book," he told me. "And I would add that you can find scraps of intelligence that are on all sides of most issues and what it requires is analyzing and synthesizing and pulling those threads together and then coming to some judgments about what is likely." Yet the information disputing Rumsfeld's version of events constitute more than mere "scraps of intelligence." The evidence, which is largely consistent by all accounts except for Rumsfeld's and Karimov's, leaves the former Defense Secretary's version of the tragedy at Andijon looking factually dubious, strategically inept, and, ultimately, self-serving.

As Rumsfeld recounts in his memoir, he ultimately lost an internal policy battle over how the U.S. should have responded to Andijon. Three weeks after the massacre, the Washington Post reported on a debate between Defense and State Department officials over whether the U.S. should join calls for an international investigation into the massacre. The Post quoted "a senior diplomat in Washington" as saying, "there's clearly inter-agency tension over Uzbekistan. ... The State Department certainly seems to be extremely cool on Karimov," in contrast to Rusmfeld, who at a NATO meeting in Brussels "had emphasized the risks of provoking Uzbekistan."

In his memoir, Rumsfeld recounts a Bush administration principals meeting the following month in which he "argued for a more measured handling of Uzbekistan," and voiced his opposition to "berating them and shoving them back in the wrong direction." Yet his "arguments did not prevail" against the State Department mandarins. "At an NSC meeting, Condi Rice responded to me by declaring, 'Human rights trump security,'" he recalls. Meanwhile, then-Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns "echoed in the press" that "We made a clear choice, and that was to stand on the side of human rights."

Public criticism from the State Department and members of Congress outraged the Uzbek government, which immediately curtailed U.S. flights into and out of the base. But it was U.S. cooperation with a United Nations airlift of Uzbek refugees who had fled the massacre that ultimately led a furious Tashkent to order a formal eviction on July 29. Noting that, "our eviction from Uzbekistan came at a critical time," Rumsfeld doesn't mention the humanitarian airlift.

The reason Rumsfeld says he considers U.S. post-Andijon policy towards Uzbekistan to be such a monumental blunder is because of the supposedly deleterious effects it had on the war effort in Afghanistan. The eviction left "those of us in the Defense Department scrambling to try and come up with alternatives, all of which were considerably more expensive," he writes. Furthermore, because of U.S. outspokenness on human rights, "Uzbek leaders then began to strengthen ties with nations that would not berate them regarding democracy and human rights -- such as Russia and China."

Despite his warning, these alleged effects turned out to be largely overblown, and possibly nonexistent. Three days before the Uzbeks ordered the formal eviction from K2, Rumsfeld won assurances from neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that they would continue to allow the U.S. use of their bases. (In a rare instance of humility, Rumsfeld overlooks his own success in deftly engineering this agreement, which came just weeks after the Kyrgzy and Tajiks had succumbed to Russian and Chinese pressure to mandate a deadline for U.S. withdrawal.) Days before the Uzbeks ordered the formal eviction from the base, Rumsfeld told journalists, "We're always thinking ahead. We'll be fine." What's more, Uzbek displeasure with Western criticism was not strong enough to prevent Karimov from granting NATO, in 2006, the right to use Uzbek territory as an overland supply route. Nor did that criticism dissuade him from giving the U.S. use of a military a base in the city of Navoi three years later.

Rumsfeld has also struck out at U.S. senators and officials whose criticism of the Uzbek government, he argues, hurts American credibility abroad. In the wake of the eviction from K2, a bipartisan group of senators, led by John McCain, insisted that the U.S. government should withhold reimbursements to the Uzbek government to censure its behavior. Recalling a May 29, 2005, press conference headed by McCain, Rumsfeld writes, "'[H]istory shows that continued repression of human rights leads to tragedies, such as the one that just took place,' McCain lectured. Around the same time, I received a letter from McCain, co-signed by five other senators, insisting that America not pay the $23 million we owed the [Uzbek] government from our military's use of the Uzbek air base at K2." In his reply to the legislators, Rumsfeld wrote that, "[F]ailing to pay for the services we had requested and received and the goods we consumed would send a harmful message to all of the other nations helping us that the United States could not be relied on." But, as Joshua Kucera of Eurasianet recently wrote, Rumsfeld misleads readers on this point. The bipartisan letter from McCain was actually sent on September 19, over a month after Uzbekistan had already evicted the U.S. military from K2, not "around the same time" as the May 29 press conference. In other words, the demand that the United States withhold reimbursements to Tashkent was made in response to the Karimov regime reneging on its own promise to host U.S. forces.

A few days before the U.S. military was evicted from K2, Rumsfeld wrote a memo to his undersecretary Douglas Feith, "Let's quickly make sure we've paid Uzbekistan everything we owe them." Was Rumsfeld anticipating the expulsion and trying to get Tashkent its money before Congress could intervene? A year later, in a memo dated January 10, 2006, he wrote, "I want to remember the mistake we made on Uzbekistan, and damaging our MIL to MIL relationships unnecessarily."

It's understandable that Rumsfeld, as Secretary of Defense, would be more willing than those in the State Department or Congress to maintain a positive relationship with Uzbekistan. After all, he had a war to fight in its mountainous, landlocked neighbor, and the human rights records of "allies" were not his primary concern. But Rumsfeld has shown a remarkable willingness to parrot the Karimov regime's line on Andijon. It seems that Rumsfeld considers the massacre there to be "one of the most unfortunate" foreign policy failures of the Bush administration not because of any damage to U.S. credibility, which was largely unhurt, or to U.S. interests in Afghanistan, which were barely effected, but for no greater a reason than that he lost the argument.