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.