Why is the Pentagon spending tens of millions of U.S. tax dollars to
whitewash the image of Central Asian dictatorships?
BY DAVID TRILLING | NOVEMBER 22, 2011
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – 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
6128dc0ba4&tab=core&_cview=1> $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
> 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
traight-rights> 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
Nonetheless, with Pakistani-American relations at a desperate low,
Washington now seems more eager than ever to make overtures to Tashkent. In
the past, Karimov has responded to U.S. criticism by threatening to shut
down the supply route to Afghanistan. In 2005, after Washington demanded an
investigation into the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the eastern city
of Andijan, he closed the American airbase at Karshi-Khanabad. So
Washington's expressions of disapproval have given way to praise. In
September, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautiously
> commended Tashkent for its "progress"
on political freedoms, and, more significantly, President Barack Obama moved
to end restrictions on military aid, in place
asional-paper-2-20101015/OPS-No-2-20101015.pdf> since 2004. Then, during an
Oct. 22 visit to Tashkent, Clinton thanked the Uzbek leader in person for
his cooperation. A State Department official traveling with her
> said he believed
Karimov wants to leave a democratic legacy for "his kids and his
Theoretically, with the restrictions lifted, General Dynamics stands to
profit. The company has already shown interest in finding clients in Central
> hawking its wares at a defense
exposition in Kazakhstan last year. This potential self-interest casts an
unflattering light on Central Asia Online's flattering coverage of the
region's calcified dictatorships, especially Uzbekistan.
Take a March
/main/2011/03/08/feature-01> story praising Tashkent's effort to register
religious groups. The story does not mention reputable organizations'
allegations about arbitrary arrests of Christians and Muslims from
unregistered groups, but cites state-affiliated clergy lauding the country's
religious freedom and praises the feared security services for acting within
the law. The story ends by saying, "Uzbekistan is doing everything necessary
to ensure its citizens have the proper conditions to exercise freedom of
That is patently not so, says John Kinahan of
18, an Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog: "The only thing harmonious in
Uzbekistan is a constant picture of violations of just about every human
right you can name, which is certainly not producing any meaningful exchange
of views of what is going on or how people relate to each other."
Reasons for fear remain abundant. On Nov. 17, a closed court near Tashkent
convicted 16 men of belonging to a banned Islamist group. Independent
html> say they were tortured into signing confessions. The families are
despondent, unsure how they will survive without their breadwinners, who
were locked away for six to 12 years.
Sometimes the website downplays abuses even contrary to concerns expressed
by the U.S. government. On Sept. 13, the State Department
> singled out
Uzbekistan as a country "of particular concern" for religious freedom,
noting "serious abuses" in the government's "campaign against extremists or
those participating in underground Islamic activity." The day before the
report was released, Central Asia Online ran a
/main/2011/09/12/feature-01> story defending Tashkent, entitled, "Uzbekistan
fights terror, not religion, analysts say." The story canvased members of
state-sanctioned religious groups to paint a picture of tolerance inside the
country, concluding, simplistically, that "most agree with the crackdown on
"It is not possible to have any independent surveys of what people think of
the situation," says Kinahan. "Uzbekistan is a serial human rights violator.
People there have a well-founded fear of expressing their true opinions ...
it can be dangerous."
Particularly in its coverage related to extremism and terrorism, Central
Asia Online toes Tashkent's line and simultaneously demonstrates a level of
access unheard of for other Western information gatherers. Foreign
reporters, including myself, are regularly denied visas. The few who get in
must work undercover, pretending to be aid workers or tourists. Local
journalists have little freedom, running the risk of arrest on trumped-up
charges of spying or <http://www.eurasianet.org/node/62080
security if they stray from official viewpoints. Meanwhile, respected
foreign news outlets like the Associated Press are denied accreditation;
websites considered critical of the government, such as
> Uznews.net and <http://www.fergananews.com/
FerganaNews.com, are routinely blocked. Reporters Without Borders ranked
> Uzbekistan 163rd out
of 178 countries in the organization's 2010 Press Freedom Index and called
the country an " <http://12mars.rsf.org/i/Internet_Enemies.pdf
Enemy" this year. That Central Asia Online has seemingly unfettered access
to the country's feared secret police -- the SNB -- is alone suspicious,
suggesting collusion, says an Uzbek journalist who has written secretly for
foreign news organizations.
"It looks like the website has a special and close relationship with the
Uzbek government," he told me, responding to several Central Asia Online
stories on extremism. "The authors have access to officials and clerics who
customarily refuse to meet independent-minded journalists; they only talk to
government-affiliated journalists whose work is approved by the SNB."
In its stories on alleged extremists, Central Asia Online does not mention
documented government abuses and does not cite skeptical analysts who might
question Tashkent's claims or raise the possibility that its heavy-handed
tactics serve to radicalize practicing Muslims. In an
/main/2011/08/04/feature-01> August story about official assertions that the
al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is recruiting among Uzbek
labor migrants, the author, "Shakar Saadi," cites a named SNB officer and
even quotes a prisoner -- a startling feat of reporting prowess, considering
that the U.N. special rapporteur on torture has been
> denied access to
Uzbekistan's prisons for years.
Over the past two years, the budget for the TRWI websites has increased from
$10.1 million to $121 million, according to
6128dc0ba4&tab=core&_cview=1> DOD records. But the parties involved in the
project have been reluctant to discuss details. Central Asia Online did not
respond to repeated requests for comment, sent via the website, over the
course of six months. General Dynamics Information Technology referred
questions to U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). A spokesman for SOCOM
in Tampa would not provide details on why the budget grew so quickly. He
said the websites' content is coordinated with regional embassies, but
"developed in support of a set of combatant command-assigned objectives."
Representatives of all five U.S. embassies in Central Asia, however, told me
they have nothing to do with Central Asia Online. In Tajikistan, where the
U.S. embassy has a commendable record of defending media freedoms, a press
attaché volunteered that Central Asia Online does not even receive the
embassy's press releases. A spokesman for another embassy in the region said
he had never heard of the site.
All this raises the question: Is U.S. taxpayer money being given to a
for-profit military contractor to shill for a Central Asian dictator, just
because he's a useful ally in the war on terror?
"It's disturbing, to say the least," says Alexander Cooley, a political
scientist at Barnard College who writes frequently about America's military
footprint in Central Asia. "I would not expect anyone who is otherwise
involved as a contractor or a subcontractor for U.S. security agencies to
provide objective news analysis of terrorism. Part of covering terrorism
means covering both the emergence of legitimate threats, but also covering
how the specter of terror is used as political cover for governments to
clamp down on political opponents," Cooley said. He called the "fluff" on
Central Asia Online "just propaganda."
The bitter irony is that, through its uncritical support for Tashkent's
anti-extremism measures, the Pentagon is implicitly endorsing policies
believed by many to foment discontent and radicalization in a country that
borders Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Tashkent is happy to use this renewed
engagement with Washington to boost its image.
The TRWI websites do not hide their affiliation with the U.S. military,
stating it clearly in their "About" sections. The
9cf2e&tab=core&_cview=0> original Pentagon solicitation called the sites --
including the <http://www.setimes.com/
> Southeast European Times and
> Magharebia --
"tools in support of strategic and long-term U.S. Government goals and
objectives," not professional journalism. Yet for a small outlet covering an
obscure corner of the world, Central Asia Online does relatively well. The
site has published an average of 71 stories per month this year, which, a
SOCOM spokesman told me, garner some 168,000 article reads, 85,000 unique
visitors, and 380 reader comments per month.
The target is "online audiences" in the five post-Soviet Central Asian
republics, plus Afghanistan and Pakistan, though the material -- mostly
about security and published in English, Russian, Urdu, and Farsi -- also
seeps into local newspapers, websites, and news aggregators around the
world, expanding the site's readership. Though it is the responsibility of
those outlets to attribute, many, at least in Central Asia, do not, billing
the stories as original, local reporting, rather than DOD propaganda.
Apart from its security focus, Central Asia Online sometimes reports on
sports, business, and civil society -- also uncritically, careful to cite
government sources on message.
An early July feature, "
eature-01> Uzbekistan proposes more government openness," praised Karimov's
instructions to Uzbek officials to write more press releases, which the
story said would "ensure public access to information about state agencies
and regulate procedures for informing the public about their activities."
Local journalists (the kind cleared by the SNB) and officials told Central
Asia Online how free information will blossom in Uzbekistan thanks to
Karimov's decree. The story did not mention, however, Karimov's
> June 27 warning that
"destructive forces" trawling the Internet are "controlling young minds."
In the weeks following Karimov's speech, while Central Asia Online was
praising his country's "openness," Tashkent was blocking dozens of real news
portals including the New York Times and Human Rights Watch. Zealous
officials even made sure that, when a <http://uza.uz/en/tech/2066/
state-sponsored festival celebrating the .UZ Internet domain was held in
Tashkent, no one could get too excited: dozens of websites and international
media portals were
blocked. Throughout it all, Central Asia Online remained open and accessible
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Received on Wed Nov 23 2011 - 19:19:05 EST