Did Donald Rumsfeld Whitewash Massacre in Uzbekistan?

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In interviews and in his memoir, the former Secretary of Defense defends the Uzbek government -- and himself -- over a 2005 incident that left hundreds of unarmed protesters dead

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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."

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James Kirchick, a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a foreign correspondent based in Berlin. He is a columnist for the New York Daily News, Ha'aretz, and Tablet.

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