Why is the Pentagon spending tens of millions of U.S. tax dollars to whitewash the image of Central Asian dictatorships?

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 $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."

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 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 grandchildren."

Theoretically, with the restrictions lifted, General Dynamics stands to profit. The company has already shown interest in finding clients in Central Asia, 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 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 conscience."

That is patently not so, says John Kinahan of Forum 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 reports 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 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 terror."

"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 threatening 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 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 "Internet 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 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 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 original Pentagon solicitation called the sites -- including the 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, "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 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 in Uzbekistan.


War Outside the Frame

It's not Restrepo. The conflict in northern Afghanistan has no running time.

OQA, Afghanistan — The video runs 6 minutes and 53 seconds. The villagers call it "the film."

The footage jerks between a road hugging a mountainside of Kunar province's Kashmund Range and the terraced sierra across the valley. A column of armored Afghan military trucks is stopped on the road. Soldiers dash between the trucks. Someone is firing rockets at them from the other side of the coulee. The soldiers return fire with Kalashnikovs.

The camera points fitfully at the dirt on the road, at the pale sky, at the mountains. You can hear rockets and bullets ripping out chunks of stone. You can hear the low rattling of Kalashnikovs and the higher-pitched pings of M16s. A young man's scared face briefly appears on the screen -- a passerby? A soldier? You don't see him again. The cinematography is spasmodic, erratic, much like the war it is documenting. Abed Nazar, the nephew of Baba Nazar, the Oqa elder, says he shot the video himself, with the camera in his cell phone.

Oqa is far from the tragic mountain passes of Kunar, which many Americans know from the movie Restrepo. It is a tiny cluster of some 40 low houses raised with mud and straw that gape doorless at the Bactrian desert from a desolate barchan. One of the houses belongs to Baba Nazar; we watch the video in his tiny thatch-roofed room. The room fits two narrow mattresses, an old trusseau, and a bukhari stove upon which water is boiling in two fire-blackened pitchers; apart from the screen of Abed Nazar's cell phone, the only sources of light are three small ovoids punched at irregular heights through the two-foot-thick cob walls. Outside these windows, a different kind of war rages on; a war of attrition that cannot be easily captured on 6 minutes and 53 seconds of film.

In this war, the Taliban are quietly claiming dominion over swatches of the trout-colored northern Afghan desert. They impose tithes on farmers and merchants, silence cell phone networks at night, stop musicians from performing at weddings. The episodic violence -- a murder here, a suicide bomb strapped to a bicycle there -- is not cinematic. It is just enough to inject a population exasperated by a decade of unfulfilled promises of a better life with subtle, nameless angst.

Just as quietly, villagers in northern Afghanistan are arming themselves, clustering into vigilante teams. Last month, near the village of Siogert, about 20 miles south of Oqa, a group of ethnic Tajik and Turkmen minutemen killed two Pashtun Taliban fighters, apparently in retaliation for the Taliban's murder of a local teacher in June. Are such killings homespun counterinsurgency operations, old-school revenge killings, or the latest spasms of ethnic strife that has bled the Khorasan for centuries? Who can tell? In this war, Manichaean definitions almost never apply.

In this war, civilians perish because incessant violence has decimated the land's infrastructure, stunted its healthcare, and sentenced millions of civilians to deaths that could have been prevented, or at least significantly postponed. Despite billions of dollars of international aid that has poured into Afghanistan in the decade since the U.S.-led invasion, Oqa's children perish each year of preventable diseases that go untreated because no one in the village has a car and the nearest clinic -- indeed, the nearest settlement -- is three hours' walk away across a roadless desert, and because the doctors who staff the government-run mobile clinics say that visiting the village is too dangerous.

Most children here are born addicted to opium; pregnant women eat it to stave off hunger and pains, exposing their babies to the drug prenatally. The survivors grow up to eke out the life Abed Nazar fled two years ago, when he enlisted in the army and went to serve in Kunar. They collect tumbleweed under agonizing sun for sale as firewood in larger villages and draw murky water by rope out of an open well 75 feet deep. They share pittances of bread for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with their sickly siblings. They smoke or chew opium to take their mind off their hardships.

Every life here is a wartime tragedy. Most flit by unnoticed, impossible to capture in video snippets. A few months ago I mentioned Oqa to a group of officials at the Balkh provincial department of education. They told me the village didn't exist.

In Baba Nazar's room, a dozen men and boys have crammed next to the bukhari to watch Abed Nazar's video with me. They have seen it before, but they watch again anyway, in respectful silence. "The film" is the only video they will see for months. Few Oqans have cell phones; there is no electricity in the village, no television. Even Nurullah, the host's rowdy seven-year-old grandson, is hushed. Until Abed Nazar's phone battery dies, the only sound in the room in Oqa is men killing each other in Kunar.

Abed Nazar explains that six soldiers died in the attack: two Americans and four Afghans. The video does not capture their deaths. I cannot confirm this tally because the video is undated, and Abed Nazar cannot tell me exactly when, during his two years as an Afghan infantryman in Kunar, he filmed it. "Two Americans, four Afghans," he repeats. He is 25 years old, and awed by this terrible war he is part of."Two Americans," he says. "Four Afghans. Two of the Afghans were my close friends."

Baba Nazar shakes his head. "Every day war, every day war," he says. He is 70 years old. A bit of shrapnel mars his son's right eye, from a buried rocket that exploded when he unwittingly built a fire over it in the desert. His daughter lost her left leg and the fingers on her left hand on a landmine that blew up behind his house 15 years ago. Baba Nazar hitches his donkey to an anti-aircraft shell anchored in hard-packed clay.

"War!" he spits. "More and more people get killed." Heavily, he rises from his mattress: a signal for me to step outside.

The desert, scoured raw by a week of rain, stretches to the end of the world: pink and ocher and scarlet, blue-gray where drying mud reflects Michelangelo clouds. To the west, smoke from shepherds' fires hangs on the wind. A bevy of village kids surrounds us as we take a stroll. The children slip on patches of exposed wet clay, somersault, jump up, fall down again, turn to make sure we are watching, laugh.

Then, in the sand, I spot a rusted hand grenade. I point it out to Baba Nazar; the old man picks it up, turns it in his hands, shows me that it has no detonator, and tosses it on the ground. Inferring that I have a special interest in old ammo, the children scatter and return almost immediately bearing offerings: a piece of a mortar shell. A handful of bullet casings. A fragment of an anti-personnel mine.

I think: If I ignore their gifts, they will stop. Then, maybe, no one will get hurt here today. The ruse works: The children chuck their bits of ordnance back at the desert, the desert upon which war waxes and wanes like the shifting sand dunes. Soon they are somersaulting in the dirt once again. The tiny mirrors sewn into the skullcaps of the boys and the beaded taweez amulets pinned to the shoulders of the girls sparkle in the pale November light.

Anna Badkhen