Learning curve

August 09, 2004

IT'S AN ISLAMIC country of about 22 million people with a repressive secular regime that brooks no dissent; thousands have disappeared into its gruesome prisons, and credible allegations suggest that some prisoners have been tortured or killed in vats of boiling water. It is not Iraq; it is Uzbekistan.

Since 2001, the United States has had an Air Force base in Uzbekistan, the better to project force over neighboring Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia. American servicemen are under orders not to fraternize with the Uzbeks; that means they miss out on the strikingly beautiful mosques and madrassas of such ancient Silk Road cities as Samarkand and Bukhara, and on the warmth of most of the people. But the policy reduces the exposure of Americans to the possibility of violent attack, and it helps to maintain a certain distance, psychological as well as physical, between American military power and Uzbek repression.

This is new territory for the United States. Never before has America had a presence in the heart of Asia -- and moreover in a one-time Soviet republic. It is a place to tread carefully, and there are encouraging signs that the Bush administration understands that.

In the Cold War days, America embraced any dictator who wasn't a friend to Communists. But the world is no longer so straightforward.

When Uzbek President Islam Karimov offered the United States use of an airbase after Sept. 11, 2001, Washington gladly took him up on it, but has been careful not to get too cozy. Mr. Karimov has used the war on terror as an excuse to crack down even harder on his opponents; the State Department cautioned him to ease up, and, when he didn't, moved earlier this summer to cut off $18 million in U.S. aid.

In late July, three bombs went off simultaneously in the Uzbek capital: at the U.S. Embassy, the Israeli Embassy and the chief prosecutor's office, killing seven people. Mr. Karimov has blamed an Islamic opposition group that is almost certainly not to blame. The message he has been trying to draw from the bombings is that he should have a free hand to do whatever is necessary against his foes. Clearer heads understand that that is the sort of policy that leads to more opposition and more violence.

Americans are properly keeping their heads down in Central Asia. It is a combustible part of the world -- poorer than it once was, thirstier than it once was (because of drought and mismanaged irrigation), still overlain with Soviet methods, and vulnerable to those touting extremist solutions. America needs to continue engaging with the Karimov government, and to apply pressure when it can do some good. It must avoid being identified in people's minds as part of the problem. A blunder like that could have devastating consequences -- and not only in Central Asia.

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