Informed Comment: Juan Cole on Craig Murray

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Murray raised the curtain on the Bush-Blair "War on Terror." He does not deny that there are small groups of persons intent on harming the West. But he does not think that most of what the Bush administration has done in Central Asia is about that threat.

He explained what is really behind the new "lily pad" doctrine of US bases, whereby the US is seeking to encompass the "Greater Middle East" with small bases, each with 1,000 to 3,000 personnel. In emergencies, these bases could quickly swell to 40,000. Like a lily pad, they can "open up" and accommodate a landing frog. Murray said that the US documents are quite open as to why they are seeking the network of lily pad bases around the Middle East. It is because that is where the oil and gas are. If you include the Caspian region, Tengiz, and the gas reserves in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan along with what is in the Persian Gulf, the vast majority of proven oil and gas reserves are in this circle of crisis.

With the economic rise of China and India, such that both giants (over a billion in population each) are now using more and more gas and oil, there is going to be increasing pressure on fuel supplies and prices in the next decades. Europe also lacks much energy of its own and is a major importer. The US fields are rapidly declining. Washington wants access to that fuel, and wants to be able to protect its access militarily.

In essence, I understand Murray to argue that the Bush administration hyped the al-Qaeda threat in order to have a pretext for the lily pad strategy of oil security. Murray did not say so, but this strategy would then logically underlie the conquest and military occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well.

Murray's exhibit number 1 is Uzbekistan, which has major gas reserves. The US sought and received basing rights there after September 11. The US supported the government of Islam Karimov, the old Soviet apparatchik who turned himself into a post-Soviet dictator. The US and the UK maintained in their official documents that Uzbekistan was making progress toward democracy. They praised Uzbek elections as a sign of such progress, even though Karimov did not allow the opposition to run in the elections.

Murray began receiving photographs and other evidence from victims' families that the Uzbek government was engaging in brutal torture techniques as part of its interrogation of dissidents. One corpse had been beaten around the neck and jaw, and boiled alive. There was a line across his chest, under which it was scalded. Boiled like a lobster.

Yet the UK and the US were giving large amounts of foreign aid to Uzbekistan and winking at the political repression and torture. (Murray may not have known at that time that the US had a detention facility at its Karshi-Khanabad airbase in Uzbekistan, at which it was also torturing suspects.) The US was hoping that its corporations would be given contracts for the development and export of Uzbekistan natural gas. (In late 2004, the Uzbeks made their contract with the Russian Gazprom firm instead, and almost immediately Karimov began planning to ask the US to leave the base.)

Murray as UK ambassador began seeing CIA reports naming known al-Qaeda operatives who were prominent in Uzbekistan. But these turned out to be just run of the mill Uzbek politicians who were on the outs with Karimov. Where did the CIA get this information about high-level terrorists in Uzbekistan? From Karimov's secret police. And where did they get their phony "intelligence"? From torturing dissidents and making them admit to being al-Qaeda and implicating others as al-Qaeda. From torture. From the twilight of conciousness before the boiling killed them. From lobsters.

Now I have to back up and tell you about Uzbekistan. Uzbeks have a Muslim heritage. They have Muslim names. But Uzbekistan is a country full of atheists and secularists. It is more secular than France. Everyone drinks vodka like fish. Almost no one could actually tell you how to pray the five daily prayers. There are a few. They are considered odd by the other Uzbeks. I know a sociologist brought up in the Soviet Union who has studied its "Muslims," who were deracinated over 60 years, and he said, "What you have to understand is that they were normal Soviet citizens." He is right.

The government of Islam Karimov, which is basically corrupt dusted-off apparatchiks from the old Soviet system, is aware that the West is afraid of Islam. And as people brought up Communist, they don't like it either. So they scare the Americans and Europeans with tall tales about an Islamist menace in Uzbekistan, which attract support to the Uzbek government and also cause the Westerners to make excuses for a degree of political repression that approaches that characteristic of Saddam Hussein in the old days.

There is an academic industry in the United States, by the way, of alleging radical Muslim fundamentalism is a big problem in Uzbekistan. It is bunkum. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which was tied to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, had between 150 and 1,000 members at its height, and that was about it for Islamism in Uzbekistan.

In a poll done in 2002 by Pew, 91 percent of Uzbeks agreed with Bush's War on Terror and the way it was being waged! You couldn't have found those numbers anyplace else in the world, maybe even in the US!

Murray pointed out that if you had a referendum in Uzbekistan on whether Islamic canon law should be the law of the land, and explained that it would result in a ban on vodka, less that 1 percent of the population would vote for it. That is certainly true.

So there isn't, frankly, any al-Qaeda to speak of in Uzbekistan. But Karimov used torture and false allegations to manufacture an al-Qaeda, and Murray thought that the Bush administration and elements in the CIA were swallowing it hook, line and sinker.

I came away from this consummate insider's presentation with a sinking feeling that Uzbekistan is the tip of the iceberg. I kept thinking about the thousands of Iraqis that the US military rounded up and imprisoned for months without charge. Some proportion of them were tortured. And then the US military in Iraq and the Bush administration in Washington kept coming out and saying that the guerrilla war there from 2003 forward was being fought by al-Qaeda in Iraq.

That clearly was not true for the most part. The US military recently killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the supposed leader of "al-Qaeda" in Iraq, but that has made no difference to the war. But why did they think it was true? Were they just lying? Or was that what their torture victims were telling them because it was what they thought they wanted to hear? Was the torture at Abu Ghraib about "finding" an "al-Qaeda" at the center of the Iraqi insurgency, when there was actually no such thing?

Likewise, do we know that the resistance to foreign troops in southern Afghanistan is being led by "Taliban" because torture at Bagram elicits this identification? What if it is just local Pushtun good old boys who don't like foreigners and wouldn't know Deobandi theology from a pomegranate?

Remember the charges Cheney and Rice made that Saddam was training al-Qaeda operatives in use of chemical weapons? Never happened. Where did the "intelligence" come from? They tortured an al-Qaeda captive named Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who told them that lie. The lie was denied by more senior al-Qaeda figures such as Khalid Shaikh Muhammad. But Cheney and Rice chose to depend on the false intelligence generated by torture. Because that falsehood was useful to getting up the war they wanted in Iraq, and to securing the oil contracts and the military bases they wanted in Iraq.

The Bush administration needs the Terror/ al-Qaeda bogeyman to justify the military occupation of strategic countries that have or are near to major oil and gas reserves. It needs al-Qaeda to justify the lily pad bases in Kyrgyzstan etc.

But the problem is that we now know that serious al-Qaeda is probably only a few hundred men now, and at most a few thousand. Look at who exactly did the London subway bombing. A few guys in a gym in Leeds. That magnitude of threat just would not keep a "War on Terror" in business. The embassy bombings, the Cole, and September 11 itself were done by tiny poorly funded cells that functioned as terror boutiques to accomplish a specific spectacular operation. They don't prove a worldwide, large organization. They prove tiny effective cells. Most of what the Pentagon does and can do is irrelevant to that kind of threat. You'd be better off with some good FBI agents.

So how do you prove to yourself and others a big terror threat that requires a National Security State and turn toward a praetorian society? You torture people into alleging it.

Global terrorism is being exaggerated and hyped by torture just as the witchcraft scare in Puritan American manufactured witches. It is even to the point where 5 African-American and Haitian Christian cultists in Miami can be identified by the FBI as an "al-Qaeda threat" interested in "jihad" after an FBI informant offered to hook them up with al-Qaeda.

Bush needs torture for the same reason as Karimov does. He needs to generate false information that exaggerates the threat to his regime, so as to justify repression. He needs the ritual of confession and naming others, to have it down on paper so he can show it to Congress behind closed doors. But Bush/Cheney's ambitions are global, not just internal.

Murray made too many noises about human rights in Uzbekistan for the comfort of Blair's Foreign Office. He believes that UK ambassador in Washington David Manning got pressure from the Cheney Administration to shut Murray down. The Foreign Office tried to bribe him with an offer to be ambassador in Copenhagen. He declined the bribe, insisting on staying in Tashkent, where he believed he was doing important and effective work. Then the Foreign Office trumped up some false charges against him, which were dismissed. (I believe that these two tactics are widely used in both the UK and US government, and that most people fold in the face of them.) The Blair government ultimately just had to fire Murray.

I was honored to meet this courageous and clear-sighted man. I hope his "Death in Samarkand" will wake some congressmen and senators up, and will provoke some sharp questioning and rethinking about the "War on Terror." If this "War on Terror" leads to our praising Karimov for having elections in which the opposition cannot run, or to our swallowing false "intelligence" about vodka-swilling dissident Uzbek politicians being "terrorists" and "al-Qaeda", then it is leading to the Death of our Republic.

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