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
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."