The blood of the Uzbeks, the hypocrisy of the West, and the last great oil grab

The current policy amounts to trading the human rights of 25 million Uzbeks for access to oil supplies

Johann Hari

The Independent

18 May 2005

Welcome to the New Middle East. On your left, you'll see the largest Asian massacre since Tienanmen Square. Look - they're hosing blood off the streets. To your right, you can see some dissidents being boiled alive, while the local regime smirks they had "an accident with a kettle". Ah, and here's a dictator who reminisces about his trips to the White House and brags: "I'm prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic. If my child chose such a path, I would rip off his head myself."

The debate about Uzbekistan over the past week has been weirdly unreal. The Uzbek people are rebelling because they live in grinding, binding poverty and have no freedoms at all. Many still live on Soviet-style collectivised farms and earn less than $2 a day. True, there is a small Islamic fundamentalist political movement in the country, but in the current rebellion all the classic jihadist tactics - like suicide-bombs or targetting civilians - have been scrupulously avoided, with only the police feeling the force of their rage. Yet all it has taken is for Islam Karimov to cry "terrorism!" and most Western politicians and journalists have acted as though the "war on terror" is the reason why Britain and America are deeply enmeshed with the Karimov tyranny.

Yes, the Uzbek KGB provides us with some intelligence on apparent al-Qa'ida cells, but according to a man who has read all of it - Craig Murray, Britain's ambassador to the country post-9/11 - it is "totally useless". This is hardly surprising, since Karimov is "systematically" using torture, according to the UN. Information acquired via electrodes is as useful as the European confessions of witchcraft in the 16th century.

Any benefit to the "terror war" from reading this junk is far outweighed by the damage to that same "war" caused by our association with Karimov. All experts on the region agree that Karimov's Stalin-era policies of criminalising Islam, no matter how mild or pluralistic, is directly fuelling jihadism. As one member of the European Parliament's Uzbekistan relations committee explains: "By supporting Karimov, we are helping to create the very thing we fear - Islamic fundamentalism. Islam has never been strong in central Asia. Even before the Russians came, alcohol was widely drunk, prayer observed fitfully. Now, a visitor sees neither beards nor headscarves... yet official persecution is giving fundamentalists their opening in the region. Ordinary Uzbeks, constantly told that all opponents of the regime are Islamic radicals, are understandably wondering whether there might not be something in this ideology." And by shovelling cash to Karimov and building bases on Uzbek soil, we are ensuring angry Uzbeks will ultimately blame us for their oppression - and possibly make us pay a blood-price for it. Jihadism was born in the Middle East when the West supported savage dictators; why repeat the mistake?

No; the reasons for our governments' connections to Karimov are rather different. Uzbekistan's first uprising - the first of many - is right now being crushed by US-trained troops and with US funds, in return for access to the last great oil-grab in history. The Republican regime in the White House wants to be part of the global scramble for the final untapped stash of fossil fuels on earth, before the carbon-burning party winds to an end. Central Asia holds up to 243 billion barrels of crude, worth around $4 trillion - enough to meet the West's energy needs for years - and Uzbekistan is in the region's dead (and I mean dead) centre. A strategic decision was clearly taken that, if this requires them to fund and fuel Karimov, the butcher of Uzbekistan - and inadvertently recreate the Middle East in central Asia - so be it.

This isn't just my view. In 1998, Dick Cheney - when he was still CEO of the oil firm Halliburton - explained, "I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian [central Asia's source of oil]." Three years later, Cheney was responsible for the National Energy Report, which recommended that "the President make energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy". Their words. Their intentions.

At a time when oil supplies are either vulnerable to jihadist coups (as in Saudi Arabia, where our governments still back and arm the odious House of Saud) or are simply running dry, the oil industry is ravenous for new supplies. In some places - like Iraq - this thirst will lead the US to overthrow tyrants but, in just as many places, like Uzbekistan, it will lead them to prop up oil-and-pipeline-friendly tyrants, with the British government following closely behind. The question "do they let us buy and sell their oil?" determines policy, not the question "do they terrorise their people?"

So we ignore the voices of the Uzbek people; nobody wants to know the price for our carbon-economy. The rote condemnations offered by the US and British governments over the past few days do not match their actions. (The US call for "peaceful resistance" - in a country where people regularly "disappear" for joking about the leader - is preposterous). Look at the plight of Craig Murray as British ambassador. Whitehall's man in Tashkent did everything a representative of democracy should: he spoke out against Karimov's butchery, and offered dissidents support and protection. He was repaid with the sack, and a vicious smear campaign. There is no point having a fake argument about whether Karimov is a necessary but ugly ally in the "war on terror", when the real argument is about whether it is worth trading the human rights of 25 million Uzbeks for access to remaining oil supplies.

We must be honest: that is what the current policy amounts to. At the best of times, trading human lives and human dignity for oil would be repellent, but right now, it would be near-suicidal. Islamic fundamentalism will pose a genuine threat to free societies in the coming age of DIY-WMD, where the technologies of destruction are terrifyingly easy to acquire. We need to undercut the causes of Islamic fundamentalism - particularly Western-backed tyranny in the Muslim world - now.

Even more importantly, the petrol-based economy which these excursions into central Asia are designed to prop up is an environmental disaster for all humans, and finding a new set of dealers for our fossil-fuel habit is not the solution.

Some American environmentalists have tried to turn this insight into what they call a "geo-green movement" to make Americans realise that they need urgently to begin the transition away from dirty fuels, for the sake of human rights abroad and for the planet. It's time for a British counterpart. For the sake of us and for the sake of the Uzbeks, it's time to wake up and smell the petrol.

jhari@independent.co.uk