A Misplaced Focus

There is a growing derp out there in the world of internet journalism, one that is eating at our ability to understand events and how they could possibly happen. One of them is happening right now in Tajikistan.

With the news that the former chief of Tajikistan’s internal police, the OMON, has defected to ISIS, many are leaping on the fact that OMON has been the recipient of U.S. training over the years along with military equipment. In a video, he bragged of traveling to the U.S. several times, which has led many to identify him as a “U.S. trained commander,” as if his receiving training a couple of years ago is the most important identifying characteristic for understanding his decision.

It is a derpy line of reasoning. While it’s true that Gulmorod Khalimov may have received training (it is unclear where and when), and it is also true that OMON units do receive training and military equipment… I’m left asking: so what?

For starters, most recipients of U.S. training do not join ISIS or other terrorist groups. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that using an exception to a rule, as people do by affiliating Khalimov with the U.S., is an inherently dishonest framing of the issue, especially when one considered the vastly greater amount of military assistance Russia has given Tajikistan’s security services (hundreds of millions of dollars). Surely Russia should be named as well?

But more importantly: this line of argument, whereby Khalimov’s most important attribute is being a recipient of U.S. training, is inherently racist. It denies Khalimov agency in his own decisions. By implying Khalimov is a passive vessel of American mendacity, any personal choice, any culpability in his decision to abandon his country, betray his government, and join a band of vicious, murdering child-rapists, these critics are denying him personhood and the power to make his own decisions.

Also: this is only training. So what if he went to a training session? That just isn’t relevant to the bigger issue of Tajikistan’s many internal and external challenges. More to the point: there is limited evidence that training security forces is a net-gain for the local population by imbuing the cops and internal security people with a sense of professionalism and a code of conduct. Do people really prefer the U.S. make no effort to create professionalism in national security services? Would they rather these services have zero exposure to human rights law, which is a mandatory section of the training?

Sometimes I think they do: the idea of American involvement, no matter how well-intentioned, is so despicable to them that they would rather condemn a country to being ripped apart by murderers and thieves while a country with the power to maybe improve some things at the edges sits back and watches it all burn down. And even then, they’d whine and complain that America “let” the country collapse (see: Syria).

I just don’t get it. There are a lot of worrying aspects to Khalimov’s decision to join ISIS — his own personal journey of radicalization, Tajikistan’s failure to professionalize its security, the rise of ISIS within Afghanistan, the hollowing power of narcotics smuggling, pervasive corruption and nepotism, state failure, resource starvation… you get the point. To reduce this man’s decision to travel thousands of miles away to become a terrorist down to his once attending a U.S. training course is… well, the only word I can think of is derp.

It should go without saying that most people in the U.S. government, are not cacklingly evil villains seeking to ruin lives and oppress people. But sadly, that does seem to need saying. Assuming U.S. training, and not the many other problems facing Tajikistan, are what are to blame here, is a serious mistake.

As a follow up, consider the situation after the Andijan massacre (ten years ago this month), where Uzbek troops and police united fired indiscriminately into a crowd of mostly unarmed civilians, killing close to a thousand people. The Uzbek government sharply cracked down on civil society after the massacre, seizing or destroying visual records of the clash, and denying access to any human rights researchers or journalists. So it’s hard to piece together what happened, how bad the killings really were, and so on.

That being said, it is clear that at least some of the units that participated in the mass killing received U.S. training. And that has become an article of faith to many people looking at Central Asia: U.S. trained security forces kill innocent people, therefore end the U.S. training.

But does that make sense? Again, much like with Khalimov, training is only training, and once they are back in their dictatorship commanders and troops have a lot more constraints on their behavior than they do in a classroom at Ft. Benning. At the same time, the OSCE was running a massive police training program in the region at the time, which included Uzbekistan.

No one talks about the OSCE’s culpability at Andijan. They only care about the role American assistance may have played.

And even here, the professionalism question remains. At least one political prisoner in Uzbekistan has said that cameras and training can limit (though not prevent or end) abuses. So should the U.S. end a program that might ease the horror a bit if it cannot end it entirely?

I mean… maybe. But if that is the argument one is to make — total disengagement for moral principle — I would at least like to see it expressed a bit more honestly.

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