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Who defends British values? Craig Murray in Uzbekistan

Iain Orr
17 July 2006

The bookshop browser who looks for Craig Murray's account of his experience as British ambassador in Uzbekistan, Murder in Samarkand, in the crime section is only half-mistaken. There is plenty of criminal activity – but it is not fictional.

The different strands in Murray's account of his residence in Tashkent from 2002 to 2004 make nonsense of conventional genres. This is not a "diplomatic memoir", the incidents selected to show the author only in a favourable light. Nor is it a rounded analysis of the Uzbek dictator, Islam Karimov, and his impact on regional and global politics: the author does not pretend that the British embassy in Tashkent has the only perspective that matters. However, he knows enough of academia to realise that his forced early retirement from the diplomatic service was an opportunity to share this invaluable primary source material of a disturbing period in British (and United States) foreign policy.

The reader who buys the book on Amazon or from any other source is thus in Murray's debt: it takes courage to write with such candour of the stressful intermingling of official and personal life that is the reality of diplomacy. His account will provide valuable footnotes for future historians confronting the many paradoxes of the "war on terror"; for anthropologists analysing a profession wedded to transparency and secrecy, privacy and opening your home to strangers; and to political scientists identifying how the levers of power are used and abused by democratic governments.

Iain Orr is the founder of Biodiplomacy. He worked in Britain's foreign and commonwealth office (FCO) for many years

Also by Iain Orr in openDemocracy:

"The Chagos islanders: Britain's historic injustice"
(5 June 2006)

There is a wonderfully close–textured feel for the closed–circuit dramas of life in a small, under–resourced, British embassy in central Asia; and for the Kafkaesque language of Whitehall mandarins defending their patch. Once he heads outdoors, the author is a warm guide to engaging with Uzbek history, culture and people.

Murder in Samarkand deserves to sell well for other reasons: its narrative and descriptive vigour. The British director Michael Winterbottom, who will direct the forthcoming film based on Murray's experiences, and his screenwriter David Hare, will have a rich palette of material to draw on: from car–chases and risky open–air confrontations in Uzbekistan to just–as–menacing encounters in foreign–office (FCO) committee rooms.

This extract – describing a meeting where Murray is discussing with two senior FCO officials the quality of intelligence extracted from Uzbek dissidents by the Tashkent regime – suggests that much of the script will need only a gloss:

"I think we have the legal view (on the use of intelligence material obtained under torture) and that is very plain. Michael, could you be so kind as to write to Craig to confirm it?"
"Certainly."
"Good. Now, Matthew, could you give the view of the security services?"
Matthew purred in: "Certainly, Linda. The view of the intelligence services is that this intelligence material is operationally useful."
"But it's nonsense", I interrupted. "The intelligence is crap. It exaggerates the strength of the IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) and is full of false information about the so-called links to Bin Laden. It's just the stuff the Uzbeks want the Americans to believe so that they will continue to give the Karimov regime military, financial and political support."
"On the contrary" – Kydd again, still more silken – "I can assure you this has been considered at the very highest level, and there is no doubt that this is operationally useful material."
"Thank you", said Linda, herself still more clipped, "I think that clears this up. We needn't detain you gentlemen. Could you stay a moment please, Craig."

A culture of secrecy

But this is more than a good summer read for those who like high politics in exotic locations. It raises three serious issues.

The first is the way in which the British government has used letters from its legal representatives, the treasury solicitors, to intimidate the author and his publishers. They claim the right to sue for "breach of Crown Copyright" any use of material already legally released to Craig Murray, either on his own or any other websites. A government that has initiated a campaign against bullying in schools might apply to itself some of its own slogans, among them "Bullies and bullying thrive on ignorance – don't let that ignorance be yours" and "Abuse and corruption thrive in a culture of secrecy".

The second issue is the lamentable return by the United States and United Kingdom governments to the cold–war immorality of "my enemy's enemy is my friend". Murray points out that regime change in Afghanistan, with the Northern Alliance's Rashid Dostum as its strongest western ally, was the first "success" of the post-9/11 "war on terror". This is the same Dostum who is just as devoted to torture as Islam Karimov and who exchanges with the Uzbek dictator "vehicles that are never searched" that take "narcotics out (of Afghanistan) and arms, money and chemicals for heroin manufacture in".

The third is the sacrifice no one can afford to make. British and US soldiers are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan to defend western values. Politicians should not sacrifice these values on the altar of what is "operationally useful".

An actor, not a messenger

Readers are entitled to know a reviewer's biases. I am a retired member of the British diplomatic service. I know Craig Murray as a colleague. He succeeded me as deputy high commissioner in Accra, Ghana, from where he was promoted to his ambassadorial post in Tashkent. He is a United Kingdom patriot; and fond of the FCO.

He was also brave enough to say aloud what many were thinking. A strong body of opinion in the foreign office (and in other relevant state agencies – the ministries of defence, finance, international development [DfID], and the environment [Defra], and the domestic [MI5] and overseas [MI6] intelligence services) was always concerned that in the post–9/11 era, Britain was being driven to fight a misconceived war against enemies the west had helped and was helping to create, backed by false friends it was foolish to trust.

In that light, the controversial speech Craig Murray gave at Freedom House in Tashkent on 17 October 2002 – which broke the carapace of evasion surrounding Britain's Uzbekistan policy, and is reprinted in full in the book – was not that of a maverick out–of-control idealist. Murray had, skilfully, made sure that those in control of the more enduring British values (the Whitehall human–rights community) were able to keep the Realpolitik rats from nibbling away at the text.

A delicious if also terrible irony is that while senior figures in the FCO at the time – sensitive that the real centre of British foreign policy was moving decisively across to 10 Downing Street – were to criticise Murray for this engineering of approval to make the speech, the stolid, reliable departmental workhorses were to ensure its reproduction as one of the achievements of British diplomacy in the FCO's Annual Report on Human Rights for 2003.

Craig Murray's book reinforces the truth that diplomats are not just messengers; they are also observers and actors. It is conventional wisdom that they represent (whether in overseas posts or in London) "UK values and UK national interests". Murder in Samarkand shows that the attack on western values is not just (or even principally) external. Some FCO officials indicated their own acquaintance with crime fiction in the "evidence" they invented, designed to try to secure Craig Murray's dismissal on disciplinary grounds.

In a brief political thaw in China in 1983, Peng Ning's film based on Bai Hua's novel Ku lian (Unrequited Love) used a phrase which resonated strongly among those who had been unjustly treated by the authorities in China: "You love the motherland, but does the motherland love you?" I find it disturbing that Murder in Samarkand, while a riveting account of crimesin another part of Asia, came unbidden to mind as an appropriate epigraph. The clues in this "whodunit?" point to more culprits than Islam Karimov.

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