When Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met recently in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, with that country's dictator, Islam Karimov, he said he was satisfied with the cooperation he was receiving. That may be true on the military front, where 1,000 U.S. troops have been stationed to help in the fighting in Afghanistan, but it's far from true in the politics of Uzbekistan and other countries in Central Asia near Afghanistan.
After a decade of independence from the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, the "Stans," as they are known, have retained an ugly common legacy. All are authoritarian regimes that have failed to bring about economic prosperity and that rely on harsh repression to stay in power.
Now that the war effort in Afghanistan has forced the United States into an unsavory shotgun marriage, the least the Bush administration can do is exert leverage in defense of human rights and political liberalization.
That should start in Uzbekistan, one of the worst violators of human rights among the former Soviet territories. As documented by nongovernmental organizations from the United States and Europe, the list of abuses against the people of Uzbekistan is long and troublesome.
There are at least 7,000 people in prison for their religious or political beliefs and affiliations. Independent political parties and movements are banned. There are no independent media, and Soviet-style censorship is practiced. Since the end of 1997 the government has engaged in a campaign to arrest Muslims who practice their faith outside strict state rules.
As the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan evolves, the United States will be pouring money into Uzbekistan and its neighbors. That's good; economic development reduces not just poverty but the despair-driven impetus toward violence and terror.
The U.S. should be careful, however, in monitoring direct assistance. No U.S. money should go to agencies involved in police and security activities until the human rights climate improves.
Under the current Cooperative Threat Reduction program between the U.S. and the former Soviet republics, countries eligible to receive aid have to show progress in human rights. The Bush administration should start by demanding the release of political prisoners like the poet Mamadali Makhmudov and teacher Bahodir Hasanov, among many who have been unfairly jailed.
It should also demand that human rights organizations be allowed to operate freely and that banned political parties be legalized. The ongoing abuse against peaceful Muslims cannot be tolerated; it undercuts proclaimed U.S. support for moderate Muslims. The fight, as President Bush has so often pointed out, is not against Islam.