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Tyrants on the Take


In mid-January, in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, I watched as soldiers of the Northern Alliance swung open the doors of a metal shipping container and set about unloading it. They hauled out bushels of automatic weapons, tangled gas masks, and olive-drab crates stenciled with Cyrillic letters. They stacked the crates in haphazard piles, sometimes flinging open the lids to reveal mines and cartons of bullets and small brownish bricks of explosives that looked like bars of soap. There were sheaves of paper bull’s-eyes for target practice, and rolled-up wall charts diagramming the use of artillery.

But what interested me most were two battered metal trunks filled with documents. Burrowing into one, I quickly came up with several volumes of an Arabic-language manual entitled Jihad in Afghanistan, complete with florid dedications to Osama bin Laden. The illustrations in the books outlined techniques for house-to-house combat or showed how to enter a room with a handgun concealed beneath an open book. Elsewhere I found a few orphaned pages, in English, about the history of the atomic bomb which had been printed out from an American multimedia encyclopedia on CD-ROM.

Finally, and perhaps most disconcertingly of all, there was a copy of a text downloaded from the US State Department Web site on international terrorism. It described the activities of an organization called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and explained why the US government had seen fit to include the group in its official list of terrorist organizations. This was ironic, for the contents of the container had, until shortly before, been the property of the IMU. The terrorists had been using the Internet to read about themselves.

Not very long ago there were few Americans outside of the foreign policy establishment who had any reason to care about the doings of an obscure Islamist guerrilla group in a part of the world most people could barely find on the map. The “Stans,” as specialists like to refer to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan—seemed as distant from day-to-day US politics as any places could possibly be. Then came September 11, and suddenly there was George W. Bush, the man once famed for his geographic fecklessness, pointing the finger at the IMU as one of America’s prime targets in the “war on terrorism.” He had good reason for doing so. Since its founding in 1998, the IMU had been working to export a Taliban-style Islamist revolution into Central Asia. Its military leader, a man who went by the nom de guerre of Juma Namangani, found refuge for many of his fighters in Taliban territory and worked out a close alliance with Osama bin Laden himself. IMU guerrilla attacks in the region over the past three years shocked the leaders of the Central Asian republics and dramatically exposed the profound military and political vulnerability of the five strategically sensitive countries that have just marked their first decade of independence.1

How fast history can change. Now, as the detritus in that freight container illustrates, the IMU’s grand plans for the armed transformation of Central Asia have just suffered a devastating setback. The container stands inside the mud-brick walls of an archaic fort that is still littered with the wrecks of Taliban tanks and heavy weapons pulverized by American B-52 strikes in the days before Kunduz finally surrendered, in the last week of November, as one of the Taliban’s last strongholds. The city’s new Northern Alliance commander enthusiastically described to me how AC-130 gunships, circling over targets at night, had destroyed the positions of the Taliban and the IMU fighters arrayed alongside them in October and November. “Incredibly precise fire,” he told me, shaking his head in bemused admiration. And thank goodness, he added. Juma Namangani’s fighters, as foreigners with nowhere else to go, had been fully prepared to fight to the death. And Namangani himself? “He’s dead,” the commander said. “They took his body to Logar Province and buried him there.”

This was the fifth version of Namangani’s recent fate that I had heard in as many weeks. Some say he’s dead, others that he’s still on the run. (One source assured me that bin Laden himself attended Namangani’s funeral before disappearing into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.) Meanwhile, the highly respected Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, who compares Namangani with Che Guevara in Jihad, his new book about the Islamist threat in Central Asia, reminds us that this is a region where legends often prove more durable, and more relevant, than facts.

What is indisputable is that the strategic significance of the Stans has increased dramatically since September 11. Before the attacks in New York and Washington, Central Asia figured in policy debates primarily because of “pipeline politics”—the geopolitical competition among states for the region’s huge oil and gas resources. That inspired much talk, and much hype as well, about a new “Great Game,” a reprise of the old strategic rivalry between the Russian and British empires in the nineteenth century. Now, at a moment when terrorism seems to be establishing itself as the dark twin of globalization, Central Asia has suddenly leaped beyond the concerns of the oilmen, the diplomats, and the academics. The US military is building a lasting presence in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and perhaps Tajikistan as well—including air bases and intelligence stations—and this development is already causing unease in Moscow, Beijing, and the Central Asian countries themselves. One of the biggest new installations is taking form at Maras Airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where the military has been setting up an elaborate supply base that could ultimately be used by three thousand US soldiers. (According to recent press reports, one reason why the US military managed to move in so quickly was that it was able to build on the network of personal relationships built up by General Anthony Zinni, the former head of Central Command, during his frequent trips to the region well in advance of September 11. The United states spent much of the 1990s cultivating military-to-military ties in Central Asia within the frame of the NATO Partnership for Peace program.) And yet we have few policymakers who speak the languages, know the history, or understand the specific problems of the region. A generation ago, it was a similar ignorance that led us to subcontract out most of the management of the anti-Soviet guerrilla war in Afghanistan to the government of Pakistan, which was only too happy to shape the future in its own interests. One could argue that the result was a string of fateful errors in US policy that ultimately led to the fragmentation of post-Communist Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban. Is there a chance that the US will get it right this time?


For thousands of years the great civilizations of the Eurasian landmass have overlapped in Central Asia, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. The proximity of Central Asia to the wide grasslands of what is today Mongolia, southern Siberia, and Kazakhstan has always made it a tempting target for the mobile armies of the militant nomads—Huns and the Mongols among them—who periodically erupt out of the Eurasian heartland. But Central Asia’s well-watered valleys have also made it a place where sedentary cultures developed early, and invaders often succumbed to the temptations of settled life. For thousands of years the main trade routes linking East Asia, South Asia, and Europe crisscrossed in this region—at least until the growth of sea power rendered the overland trade uncompetitive a few centuries ago. Later generations would speak in romantic shorthand of the Silk Road, but there was never only one road and never only one kind of good that traveled along it. Important ideas and inventions—from the stirrup to paper money to gunpowder—have also tended to diffuse through the region. So too have diseases.2

And yet, despite all these complicating influences, what’s striking about Central Asia is just how long it has been characterized by an overriding cultural and spiritual unity. The Arab invaders who came in the eighth century dubbed it Mawarannahr, “beyond the river” (meaning the land to the north of the Amu Darya, the classical Oxus River). But the name that has stuck, revealingly enough, is one that goes beyond geography: Turkestan, the “land of the Turks.” Most of the people who inhabit Central Asia today, the speakers of mutually intelligible Turkic languages like Uzbek and Kazakh, are the descendants of nomad invaders who originally came from the depths of Siberia. They often collided, and sometimes melded, with Persian-speaking peoples who had moved up into the region from their original settlements in South Asia. Many of these early Iranians were either absorbed by the Turkic peoples or moved on to points west. The Persian speakers who remained behind in the high mountains of the Pamirs or in the valleys of northern Afghanistan became the people we know today as the Tajiks (three of whom now have high positions in the cabinet of the transition government in Kabul).

Unlike the Iranians in Iran, though, the Tajiks never adopted the ways of the Shia Muslims. Like the Turkic-speaking peoples with whom they have lived and mingled over the centuries, the Tajiks are Sunni Muslims with a strong inclination toward the tolerant habits of Sufism. In fact, the regional version of Islam has tended until recently to be comparatively mild, and it has been another strong unifying force over the ages. Ahmed Rashid is entirely justified when he points out that the present-day borders in the region, much like national boundaries in other post-colonial parts of the world, are both random and recent. The current “arbitrary boundary divisions,” he writes, were drawn in the 1920s by Stalin, who “created republics that had little geographic or ethnic rationale….” The brilliant French scholar of Central Asia, Olivier Roy, recently published a perceptive analysis of the confusions that resulted when the Soviets tried dividing up Central Asians into “nations” in the 1920s and 1930s. That blurred sense of identity may be why Central Asians showed little popular enthusiasm for the idea of independence from the USSR prior to 1991.3

Paradoxically, the men who led them into independence were mainly Communist Party apparatchiks who had spent much of the perestroika period struggling to preserve close ties with Moscow and suppressing bona fide nationalist dissidents. When the Soviet Empire came to an end in 1991, they were in a position to take power. Many of the borders shared by the five republics have yet to be conclusively demarcated, and each country in the region contains large shares of ethnic minorities from the other republics.

The psychological and geopolitical center of the region, the fertile and densely populated Ferghana Valley, is divided up among three republics, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. In 1989 and 1990, when the collapse of the USSR first seemed a real possibility, the valley was the scene of at least two bloody ethnic conflicts involving Meshketian Turks and Uzbeks and, later, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz that took thousands of lives. Rashid quotes former Clinton National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, who once described the Ferghana Valley as one of the world’s three “hottest danger zones.” He could have also mentioned Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has spoken of the region as a possible “new Balkans.”

  1. 1

    All five became independent between the August 1991 putsch attempt and the official dissolution of the USSR at the end of that year. Four of their leaders—with the exception of Kyrgyzstan’s Askar Askayev—either welcomed the Moscow putsch attempt against Gorbachev by hard-line Communists or simply refrained from comment until it became clear who had won.

  2. 2

    One of my favorite books on the region is Central Asia in World History (St. Martin’s, 1993), a polemic by the New Zealand scholar S.A.M. Adshead, who gives Central Asia the responsibility for such crucial developments as the spread of Sufism and the transmission of the bubonic plague.

  3. 3

    The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations (NYU Press, 2000), p. 1.

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