Did Donald Rumsfeld Whitewash Massacre in Uzbekistan?

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 bases on their territory. (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.

Presented by

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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