Crackdown in Uzbekistan Reopens Longstanding Debate on U.S. Military Aid

by Thom Shanker and C.J. Chivers, The New York Times

WASHINGTON, July 12 - The street demonstrations that helped depose the corrupt leadership in post-Soviet Georgia were at a tipping point in 2003 when that country's military commanders decided to sit out the crisis, allowing a bloodless change of power that became known as the Rose Revolution.

Back at the Pentagon, where American officers had nurtured ties with Georgian Defense Ministry officials, the restraint was seen as proving the value of the billions of dollars allocated each year to foster military-to-military relationships around the globe - even with governments that were democratic in name only.

That view marks one side of the debate about the values and dangers of the United States policy of direct aid to foreign military forces and law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Such aid was a point of contention throughout the cold war in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

The debate has been renewed since ministries in Uzbekistan that received American aid were involved in a lethal crackdown on a prison break and demonstration in mid-May. Supporters of the aid contend that the long-term benefits outweigh the risks, as seen in the moderation shown by troops during the Georgian revolution.

"We did some training with their military before the Rose Revolution, and when it came down to the day of the parliamentary elections and the demonstrations, the military said, 'We're not going to put the people down,' " Lt. Gen. Walter L. Sharp, director of strategic plans and policy for the American military's joint staff, said in an interview.

"It was a key factor that the military understood what their role was," he added.

The leading Georgian opposition figure, Giorgi Baramidze, shared that view. "We believed that the troops that had American training would not turn against the people," said Mr. Baramidze, who is now the Georgian government's minister in charge of integration with the West. "It was kind of a great assurance."

But critics of such aid point to Uzbekistan as a prime example of what can go wrong.

The American military has access to an air base in Uzbekistan supporting its operations in Afghanistan and has embraced Uzbekistan as a partner in fighting Islamist terrorist groups. Critics say this has emboldened a dictatorial government in which torture and repression are routine and freedom of worship, assembly and speech are restricted.

Survivors have described the violence by Uzbek Interior Ministry forces and other units in May as excessive and indiscriminate. The events, which occurred in the northeastern city of Andijon, have prompted Congressional reassessment of military equipment transfers, joint training programs and other aid.

The reassessment has forced the Bush administration to examine its complicated balancing act between two prized policy goals: democratization and counterterrorism.

"It is a delicate balance that we walk every day and that the State Department walks every day," General Sharp said. "We get the obvious benefit of having forces, troops, that are capable of fighting in the war on terrorism. But we don't want to enable the leadership of a country to be able to put down demonstrations in ways that we don't think are the right ways to do that."

Congress appropriated $4.6 billion for global military assistance in the last fiscal year, a figure that is almost one-quarter of all American foreign aid.

The Pentagon's contribution is not alone. The United States also underwrites security, law enforcement and intelligence assistance programs run by the State and Justice Departments, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Human rights groups, several members of Congress and many survivors of the crackdown in Uzbekistan have called for the United States to withdraw from its base there and cut its security support for the government, although the calls have not been uniform.

Muhammad Salih, the leader in exile of the Erk, or Freedom, Party of Uzbekistan and a bitter critic of the Uzbek government, told a Congressional hearing in late June that he would favor a solution that could put pressure on the government without having America's presence reduced. He said the presence had "made a positive psychological effect on Uzbekistan" and provided a potential balance against Chinese interests in the region.

At issue in Uzbekistan and in other undemocratic nations, many officials said, is the tension between the unmistakable risks and what Mr. Baramdize in Georgia called the "very stabilizing role" of engagement with such countries.

The proponents point out that security aid has several aims. The most obvious is to improve the tactical abilities of foreign military or law enforcement units with whom the United States might one day collaborate, or on whom the United States depends in part for its own security.

Proponents of engagement also hope that intimate contact and training will slowly change the mind-set of security officials in centralized and corrupt states, who may exercise restraint at home in moments of instability.

Programs with those goals are run at several training facilities, including the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, a German-American institution, founded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps.

The center seeks to promote Western ideas and management styles among officials from nations formerly in Moscow's sphere. It has nearly 4,000 alumni, among them more than 100 Uzbek officials and military and security officers.

Col. Thomas Wilhelm, associate dean for Eurasian Studies at the center, said that based on contact that it had with its alumni in Kyrgyzstan, there was a sense that American engagement had helped keep the Kyrgyz security forces from drawing blood in March as the old government collapsed.

In the case of Uzbekistan, proponents of sustained engagement warn that without any formalized Western influence in the security agencies, there would most likely be influence from less democratic sponsors.

"If we pull out of Uzbekistan, it will slip into isolation and they can learn human rights from Russia," said Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation, a private organization in Washington that follows the former Soviet states.

The unease about Uzbekistan is part of a familiar cycle. Military-to-military ties often exist quietly until actions by a foreign power galvanize Congress, human rights groups or the public.

For example, after Pakistan tested a nuclear weapon, its order of F-16 fighter jets was halted by Congress, but the deal was put back on track this year, in part to reward its cooperation in fighting terrorism.

Likewise, the School of the Americas, founded in 1946 at Fort Benning, Ga., for Spanish-speaking cadets and officers from Latin America, was the focus of fierce criticism for having provided training and support for governments that carried out human rights violations in the 1980's.

A study in April 2001 for members of the House and Senate by the Congressional Research Service cited reports that "the school had abusive graduates" and that seven Spanish-language training manuals used at the school from 1982 to 1991 "discussed forms of coercion against insurgents, including execution and torture."

But the authors of the report, Richard F. Grimmett and Mark P. Sullivan, also cited supporters of the school who said the program "had the potential to help bring about greater respect for human rights in Latin America by providing human rights training to thousands of Latin American military officials."

Thom Shanker reported from Washington for this article, and C. J. Chivers from Moscow and from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany


Posted July 13, 2005