Thursday, January 26, 2012

Was the Uzbek Opposition Sold Out for the NDN? Jamshid Muhtorov as a Case Study

Approximately two months ago, the United States chose to re-engage with Uzbekistan after Pakistan decided to shut down US military transit into Afghanistan. There was lots of teeth-gnashing about this; how to/if it was fair to equivocate "engagement" with "legitimizing"and whether not engaging was actually an effective strategy. My take was that emphasizing the NDN through Uzbekistan would 1) increase costs and create massive opportunities for corruption and 2) make US interests in Uzbekistan (human rights, increased openness, etc.) subservient to US interests in Afghanistan.

I'm going to focus on #2 here. My worry was - and still is - that Uzbekistan is a tricky enough country as it is. The US won't ever be all do-rah regime change about it and likely shouldn't be. But to view the country as a highway that requires protection is the mother of conflation. The new interest (NDN) is now the first and foremost interest, and protecting it and Afghanistan are more important than understanding what avenues forward exist in Uzbekistan. It gives an excuse to not care about Uzbekistan other than as a way to get out of Afghanistan successfully.

"Assessing the human rights situation in Uzbekistan is a tricky business." Joshua Foust writes,  "No one argues with the very basic fact that the Karimov regime is one of the most horrific rights abusers on the planet." Now I'm not sure what the US would do without the NDN, but ever since the new rapprochement there has certainly been no formal complaints about human rights issues, even when real and/or fake people were being punished for Facebook activism. But this week it's gotten far worse.

Three Germans (or people who temporarily lived in Germany, it's all a bit unclear) have been charged with being members of terrorism groups. Two for IMU, one for IJU. That's weird, but hey, people become terrorists, it happens.

Weirder still is the story of Jamshid Muhtorov. Immediately after the story of "man arrested for hanging out on the wrong side of the internet," Sarah Kendzior noted that a man of the same name was a refugee from Uzbekistan for his work as a human rights activist. Her and many others are questioning the FBI's assertions here, and for full disclosure, I'm one of them.

The further reading one does, the more it seems like Muhtorov was arrested for having a beard and an internet connection. The subtitle for the local story is ""Jamshid Muhtorov Grew Beard, Stopped Wearing Western Clothes"and quotes a federal complaint (a legal document purporting evidence required to arrest) saying "'wedding' is code for terrorist event or attack." Muhtorov was on his way to Turkey.

Let it be known that there are far more Uzbeks in Turkey (some of which happen to get married) then terrorists in Turkey. If there was strong enough evidence to arrest Muhtorov in the US, I am very surprised that the US didn't want to follow him up the string to see who he met with in Turkey. The MIT after all is probably very interested in pursuing nasty folk in its territory, as they were victim to al-Qaeda bombings more recently than the US has been. It's more likely that the evidence wasn't strong enough to get Turkey to act or to give more names to pursue, so they just kept him in the US.

The FBI is claiming that Muhtorov gave material support to the Islamic Jihad Union mentioned above, but there's a slight problem. The IJU may not exist. I've written about them before, how the Uzbek government initially blamed them for the Andijon massacre before word got out that this is a terrible thing to say. My nutshell version is:
So all in all, we still don't know what the IJU is about after looking into assertions on what the IJU is about. It's certainly possible that they want to turn the entire Dar al-Islam into a caliphate capitaled at Samarkand. It's also entirely possible that they only exist in the failed state between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that any pan-Turanian branding is just that, branding. 
Everything in the entire Muhtorov story is ill-defined, and instead of pursuing the man to give shape to it and to see just precisely what sort of crimes we're talking about, we're just going to arrest a man for internet perusal and un-American fashion activities.

Muhtorov is certainly the prime - and most widely-covered - example. But since ratcheting ties with Uzbekistan, the US government has arrested one and put the hit out on three others for being anti-Karimov. This is not enough to make a pattern, I admit. But it is absolutely frightening to think that as part of the NDN bargain , the US has decided to begin rolling up on anti-Karimov individuals.

Who is Muhtorov likely to know? Other dissident Uzbeks, to be sure. Any implication by him suddenly cracks into the entire Uzbek opposition in exile and links them to a terrorist group. Any communication, exchange of money, or organization with Muhtorov will be considered liaising with a terrorist in the eyes of the United States if Muhtorov is found guilty. These arrests are worth being followed skeptically. The US counter-terrorism establishment could be given carte-blanche to destroy or at least de-legitamize an opposition movement against a man and an apparatus that " one of the most horrific rights abusers on the planet."

It's not there yet but it's worth keeping an eye on. And it's a hell of a bargain for the rights to use a highway.

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