Light Matter on Murder in Samarkand

From Light Matter

Craig Murray’s Murder in Samarkand tells the story of one diplomat who fought the system and lost.

First a timeline. Way back in post 9-11 2001, when the civilized world was united by a desire to eradicate the planet of the scourge of terrorism, it seemed that global alliances were being realigned and the bad guys were on the run. The US set up airbases in Uzbekistan with Uzbekistan’s full — and Russia’s tacit — approval. So soon after the US-led NATO campaign in Kosovo, when relations between Washington and Moscow were strained to Cold War levels for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, such cooperation was unheard of. American boots in Russia’s near abroad at any other time would have signaled the final dissolution of the Russian homeland let alone the USSR. But these strange times made for stranger bedfellows. Putin, famously, was the first to call President Bush in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks; Arafat showily donated blood to the victims of the towers; even Saddam tried to find the proper channels through which to express his condolences to the families of the civilian casualties while distancing himself from the blame. It seemed unsurprising that we would form an alliance with Uzbekistan or that Uzbekistan, looking to distance itself from Moscow’s influence, would agree. It was a brave new world. By mid 2002 the US was a wave of anger and the Bush administration was shooting tubes on this wave like a world class surfer.

Then the War on terror took a surprising turn and troops were cut from Afghanistan and ran to Iraq, even as public support (except among the deaf dumb and blind) lingered somewhere in the Hindu Kush. US alliances began to dwindle and the coalition of the willing became the coalition of the willing-to-be-coerced or outright duped. Our Central Asian airbases were still of strategic importance to the war on terror, even though the Afghan campaign was winding down. Islam Karimov was willing to keep the Americans on in order to reap the benefits of Washington’s munificence and keep Moscow at arm’s length as he worked out the intricacies of his own private “independence.”

Into this world of fuzzy realpolitik stepped Craig Murray in his first posting as Ambassador, though not, despite the self-presentation to the contrary, some innocent abroad. Before taking on his job in Tashkent, Murray was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Ghana, and worked for a number years in the nineties for the UK Foreign Office in Europe. Though perhaps the fact that this was Murray’s first ambassadorship is remarkable not so much because it casts Murray as a diplomatic naif (he isanythingg but), but because that seems to be what the British Foreign Office wanted for Uzbekistan at the time. Despite the sudden importance of Uzbekistan to Britain and the US and this unique opportunity to gain a foothold in Central Asia for any number of security/energy reasons, the choice of Murray by 10 Downing Street seems oddly whimsical, even perfunctory.

But step in he did, and right away began doing the work of an ambassador: setting up the office, being greeted by the political elite, meeting local business people (who apparently had gone uncourted by the previous ambassador), giving and attending parties, sending off communiques, etc. But almost before the busy-ness of work was completed, Murray saw that there was something rotten in Tashkent. The more he talked with people, the more he learned that the Karimov regime was not what it appeared to be. The “Islamic extremists” that were routinely rounded up, imprisoned and, more often than not, tortured, seemed to have no connections to the fundamentalist Islamic groups in the region. And the torture itself…of that we do have evidence…

One of the main images that haunts this book is that of a torture victim who was found boiled to death. Murray sees photographic evidence of the result. It is one of the earliest and most haunting images of brutality in the book, haunting because Murray can’t stop thinking about it, whether he is arranging the dinner seating at some embassy function or dallying with Nadira. We see it emerge at several key moments in the book and yet the only person who seems bothered by it is Murray himself, thus adding to the surreality of the situation. The foreign office knows the reports and has seen the images, but their job is to set policy and see that it gets carried out through its ambassadors, not to address individual cases of abuse or torture. And so, nothing.

Balancing personal outrage with the duties of public office is a Quixotic and thankless task. In the life of the diplomat, for whom staying on message of the government you work for is of primary, singular concern, this balancing act can come with a price. For many of the diplomats with whom Craig Murray associates or in whose footsteps he finds himself walking, this price is their own perception. The blindness required of a British diplomat comes not from the brutal Karimov regime, for example, but from the governments whose diplomats these are. And yet Murray finds he can’t remain blind and will not remain dumb, as he informs the Foreign Office time and time again of the Karimov regime’s use of torture and suppression of dissidence. He does this not out of righteousness but so that the British Government can more accurately see what is going on and set their policy accordingly. The blank silence or the curt or angry responses he gets from his superiors surprise Murray, but it doesn’t put him off. He increases his interactions with the people of Tashkent.

This method of mixing daily business with the outrage of a statesman makes for some very clunky prose at times. As, for instance, when he eyes up the sister of a torture victim before he realizes who she is. But Murray injects these awkward and unprofessional scenes as an antidote to the way in which he was villified. He does not persistently refute the charges brough against him or beg the question: he looks at the girl and then looks where he is supposed to look, at the evidence. That his superiors stopped short at the girl says more about them. Beyond the ocassionally (rarely, really) salacious, Murder in Samarkand is filled with interesting information, about people for whom the salacious, had they engaged in it, would make them seem at least human. We learn, for instance, how after the Rose Revolution in Georgia, Edward Scheverdnaze went out of his way to personally warn Karimov of the dangers of the NGOs to the stability of his government. Raised to political awareness during the years of perestroika and glasnost, I had always seen Scheverdnaze as a statesman of the first order. Sure, I had heard of the charges of government corruption, but I decided to remain blind to it, because I didn’t know enough. Another shattered illusion…

Murray calls what he as done an “experiment — I believe a successful one — in a more dynamic style of ambassadorship,” adding to the myth that this was seat-of-the-pants statesmanship; but Murray has been doing the diplomat’s job all along, don’t let him fool you. The stories that circulated about the boozing, or the Tashkent clubs, or his wandering eye, are the irrelevant salacious details put into circulation by Machiavellian, Puritan scolds. Murray went, saw and, unfortunately, was conquered. If the experiment was successful it was because he was able to show the limits of good work in a world overrun by politicians who base their decisions on nothing more tangible than gut feeling.

And perhaps that is the point: the eye of Craig Murray, as likely to look down a girl’s top or up her dress as it is to descry the blatant brutality of a corrupt dictatorship or the hypocrisies of his colleagues and superiors, is an eye that is needed. “Intelligence” after all has been one of the biggest casualties in the post-9-11 world, whether it in the halls of power in Washington or, apparently, 10 Downing Street. Policy relies on intelligence, which emerges from clear sightedness, on an accurate and clear perception of what is out there. Policy decisions can be debated, and to a degree so can “what has been seen,” but this debate must range on the evidence that is out there, not the willful and claustrophobic speculation of abstract concepts.

More than two years after Murray lost his job and more than a year after the events at Andijan, it seems that things haven’t changed a bit in Uzbekistan. Western “diplomats” are more willing than ever to be led by the nose by Karimov, and are often seen sniffing around his table. This even after Karimov kicked the US out and is back to courting Moscow. Now THAT is realpolitik!

And not a peep, not a peep…

Murray did indeed fight the system and lose: he lost the battle over the importance of accurate intelligence, he lost his job, he lost his health, he, for a time, lost his reputation, and yet with this book, this communique, one would hope that these losses are easier for him to bear; because these losses were both the result of, and met with, a bravery that is unique in these days.

I only wish Murray’s bravery had allowed him to post a picture of him wearing his kilt.