Why is the Pentagon spending tens of millions of U.S. tax dollars to whitewash the image of Central Asian dictatorships?
When people read a news website, they don’t usually imagine that it is being run by a major producer of fighter jets and smart bombs. But when the Pentagon has its own vision of America’s foreign policy, and the funds to promote it, it can put a $23 billion defense contractor in a unique position to report on the war on terror.
Over the past three years, a subdivision of Virginia-based General Dynamics has set up and run a network of eight “influence websites” funded by the Defense Department with more than $120 million in taxpayer money. The sites, collectively known as the Trans Regional Web Initiative (TRWI) and operated by General Dynamics Information Technology, focus on geographic areas under the purview of various U.S. combatant commands, including U.S. Central Command. In its coverage of Uzbekistan, a repressive dictatorship increasingly important to U.S. military goals in Afghanistan, a TRWI website called Central Asia Online has shown a disturbing tendency to downplay the autocracy’s rights abuses and uncritically promote its claims of terrorist threats.
Central Asia Online was created in 2008, a time when Washington’s ability to rely on Pakistan as a partner in the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan was steadily waning. In the search for alternative land routes to supply U.S. troops, Uzbekistan seemed the best option. Nearby Iran was a non-starter, and Uzbekistan’s infrastructure — used by the Soviets to get in and out of Afghanistan during their ill-fated war there — was far superior to that of neighboring Tajikistan. Today, the U.S. military moves massive amounts of cargo across Uzbekistan. By year’s end, the Pentagon hopes to see 75 percent of all non-lethal military supplies arrive in Afghanistan via the so-called Northern Distribution Network, a web of land-based transport routes stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Amu Darya River.
Gas-rich Uzbekistan, the most populous of the formerly Soviet Central Asian republics, has been ruled since before independence in 1991 by strongman President Islam Karimov, who is regularly condemned in the West for running one of the world’s most repressive and corrupt regimes. Freedom House gives Uzbekistan the lowest possible score in its Freedom in the World report, while watchdog groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported on widespread torture and forced child labor. The respected Russian human rights group Memorial says Karimov holds more political prisoners than all other post-Soviet republics combined, often through an “arbitrary interpretation” of the law. The overwhelming majority of those convicted are somehow linked to Islam. Memorial has found that thousands of “Muslims whose activities pose no threat to social order and security are being sentenced on fabricated charges of terrorism and extremism.”