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COMMENTARY: New York City terror attack puts obscure country in the spotlight

Once upon a time, the American press knew a disparaging concept known as Afghanistanism — filling pages and broadcasts with events in faraway places at the expense of news closer to home. Critics of the press focused on Afghanistan because it was an unimaginably remote place both geographically and in the consciousness of most readers.

But the once-useful term for irrelevant news was an idea whose time came and went. Afghanistan thrust itself into the world’s headlines as a hotbed of general chaos, international terror and a horrific lasting war that has killed more than 6,000 American and allied military.

The dreadful news from New York City last week of a terrorist attack that killed eight people puts the focus on another faraway place as remote geographically and, perhaps, in American consciousness as Afghanistan once was — Uzbekistan.

This former Soviet central Asian nation is the homeland of Sayfullo Habibullaevich Saipov, 29, the man accused of driving a truck into cyclists on a lower Manhattan bike path as he shouted “Allahu akbar!”

Saipov came to this country as a legal immigrant from Uzbekistan under the so-called diversity lottery program that grants legal residency — known as a green card — to residents of countries that traditionally have low rates of immigration to the United States.

Uzbekistan, home to the fabled cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, is one of the heaviest users of this foolish program among countries whose citizens are eligible to apply for diversity visas.

Last month, as part of an overland trip through central Asia from China, I spent 10 days in Uzbekistan.

I realized an almost-lifelong dream to trek the ancient Silk Road network of trade routes that connected Europe and distant Asia as long ago as the Roman Empire.

I marveled at the glorious architecture of golden Samarkand, once capital of the mighty 14th-century warlord Timur, who was fictionalized as Tamburlaine in a play by Shakespeare’s contemporary Kit Marlowe.

I visited Bukhara, the ancient and beautiful seat of learning and culture that was among the first cities to face the wrath of Genghis Khan’s marauding Mongols in the century before Timur. And I walked and walked along the boulevards and in the parks of Tashkent, the capital city of this former constituent republic of the crumbled Soviet Union.

In all those places and in the buses, cars and remarkable trains (including a wonderful bullet train) that I used to travel through Uzbekistan, I talked and made friends with Uzbeks — at any rate, those who could speak English. I found them friendly, hospitable and open to strangers from afar.

I am acutely aware that a 10-day visit does not necessarily impart a great deal of Uzbekistan knowledge. As a journalist based in South Africa in the days of apartheid, I remember well a proverb about visiting reporters from London and New York who would shuttle in, sum up the place and then fly home to turn out mammoth pieces about South Africa.

You cannot become an expert on South Africa in two weeks, we would say. It takes at least three weeks.

That said, perhaps readers can forgive some observations on Uzbekistan by one who recently has traveled there and who has affection for the people and for the country’s history and wishes a great future for it.

Uzbekistan, with its remarkable history and its mainly Iranian and Turkic population and Muslim religion, never really sat well within the former Russian Empire, then Soviet, ambience. After some 150 years of rule by Moscow, it shrugged off Russian control in 1991 as the Soviet Union crumbled.

Islam Karimov, the last leader of Uzbekistan under the Soviets, declared independence in 1991 and won the first independent presidential election (with 96 percent of the vote) the same year. He ruled independent Uzbekistan with an iron fist until his death in September 2016.

Karimov’s clamping down on just about everybody may have helped spur the growth of Islamic fundamentalist groups in this overwhelmingly Muslim country. A group called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, initially formed to overthrow the dictator, since has transformed itself into an ally of al-Qaida, the Taliban and the Islamic State and now mostly bases itself in other Islamic countries.

Saipov’s links, if any, to Islamic militant groups in Uzbekistan or elsewhere remain to be seen.

Since Karimov’s death 14 months ago, the new leader, Shavkat Mirziyoyev has moved swiftly on efforts to liberalize the country.

He has abolished what was, in effect, slavery in the vital cotton industry, amnestied many political prisoners and begun to rationalize the country’s nutty monetary system that requires people to carry huge wads of low-value bank notes for even the smallest purchases.

In a move to cheer the hearts of travelers, Mirziyoyev announced almost immediately after Karimov’s death that Uzbekistan would cease requiring visas for many international visitors, including those from the European Union and for older Americans.

It was, however, too good to be true. Within months, the announcement was revoked, and visas will be required until at least 2021. Uzbeks told me that the move was delayed because Uzbekistan does not yet have the infrastructure to deal with hordes of new visitors.

And so it is still relatively difficult to get into Uzbekistan. Americans must pay $160 for a visa, and the law still requires all visitors to have official certificates from hotels or other accommodations for each night they spend in the country. In practice, though, under the new Mirziyoyev regime, border guards barely even glanced at the authorizations I had carefully collected, then returned them to me.

But leaving Uzbekistan for the United States — as Saipov did — still appears to be big business. Everywhere I visited, I noted big signs on notice boards marked green cards, apparently offering the services of go-betweens to aid people in getting to America’s bounty. In Tashkent one day, I walked past an office festooned with signs in English offering easy paths to green cards and thus life in America.

Reading between the lines, I deduce that these offers are associated with the diversity lottery that brings to America each year some 50,000 immigrants who would not, otherwise, be eligible.

This loony system, enacted by Congress in 1990, simply plucks 50,000 people at random and offers them a life in America. Meanwhile, skilled and qualified residents of countries that share America’s values and who clearly would be of great benefit to this country are left to dangle for years in a broken immigration system.

Saipov, incidentally, is not the first terrorist to enter the United States under the aegis of a diversity visa.

On July 4, 2002, Hesham Mohammed Hadayet began firing two Glock pistols at customers and staff at the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport. He killed a customer service agent and a passenger before the Israeli airline’s security staff shot him dead.

Hadayet, a fundamentalist Muslim from Egypt, had been denied political asylum in the United States, but he continued living here under a diversity visa issued to his wife that granted him a green card.

The sclerotic Congress has made feeble efforts for several years to end the daft diversity visa program. With the sudden focus on it in light of Saipov’s action, the time is right for President Donald Trump and the Congress to act — I hope as part of a comprehensive immigration and border security overhaul.

Bernard Hunt is a retired journalist who recently traveled to Uzbekistan. He writes from Las Vegas.

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