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.”
It is surely no coincidence that the Ferghana Valley is also the birthplace of Juma Namangani and many of his comrades in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Namangani is the main character of Rashid’s new book, and Rashid should be credited for providing the most comprehensive account to date of this central figure in the recent history of the region. He shows how Namangani and the IMU’s political leader, Tohir Yuldash (or Yuldeshev), rose from their modest beginnings as Islamist vigilantes in the Ferghana town of Namangan at the beginning of the 1990s to become the leaders of a feared guerrilla movement. (Namangani, born Jumaboi Khojiev, took his pseudonym from the name of his hometown.)
Ironically, the authoritarian leaders of the five republics—foremost among them the merciless President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan—are, in effect, doing everything in their power to promote the rise of religious militancy by cracking down on every sign of real or imagined dissidence, ultimately leaving fanatical militancy as the only remaining avenue for the expression of discontent. “The real crisis in Central Asia,” says Rashid, “lies with the state, not with the insurgents.” As he points out, what’s particularly striking about the radical Islamist ideologies that are now growing in popularity throughout the region is their rejection of national borders.
The IMU started as a local, religiously motivated vendetta against President Karimov. It has since gradually transformed itself into a small international army, numbering at its height around two thousand fighters, aimed at establishing an Islamic state centered on the Ferghana Valley. As the IMU has expanded, its forces have come to include not only ethnic Uzbeks but also representatives of the other national groups, including even Chechens from the Caucasus and Uighurs, a Turkic people who mainly inhabit the western Xinjiang province of China. Meanwhile, an even odder group by the name of Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami (the Party of Islamic Lib-eration) has made considerable inroads among young people with a still more utopian program: revival of the Caliphate, the community of believers, founded by the Prophet, that knew no ethnic or national divisions.
The IMU leaders, who are notoriously shy of publicity, have never published a clear statement of their aims or ideology. When Namangani and Yuldash first organized a revolt against Karimov in the early 1990s, they spoke of introducing sharia law and, as Rashid writes, “[made] people say their prayers regularly and insist[ed] that women abandon their colorful Uzbek shifts and cover themselves head to toe in white veils.” The IMU’s interpretation of Islam has clearly been strongly colored by its leaders’ alliances with the Taliban, bin Laden, and the Saudi and Pakistani intelligence services. Evidence suggests, for example, that the IMU has adopted the extreme anti-Shia positions characteristic of bin Laden and Mullah Omar.
Though he shies away from predictions, Rashid draws a drastic picture of the Islamist threat, and the reader could easily come away from his book persuaded that the Central Asian republics are ripe for a religiously motivated insurrection. That conclusion would be premature. Rashid is certainly correct to argue that the popularity of the Islamist groups is growing, but from my own visits to the region I would contend that there is still little evidence that the Islamists have made substantial inroads into the population at large. As soon as we begin to examine the likelihood of, say, an Iranian-style takeover of any of the Stans, objections immediately arise. Tajikistan is the one country out of the five where Islamists have made a serious grab for power, and their attempt was a miserable and bloody failure. In 1992 their rivalry with the country’s Russian-backed Communist leadership deteriorated into a five-year civil war that left sixty thousand dead. No sooner was the conflict over than the Islamists discovered that their once broad support within Tajikistan had faded away.
Few in the West took notice of the carnage, but the lesson was not lost on people elsewhere in Central Asia. The Central Asian countries also have no real equivalent for the extensive system of madrasas, the religious schools that have contributed such an impressive flood of angry young men to the jihadi cultures of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rashid makes the perceptive point that the Islamists in Tajikistan neglected to set up a madrasa system, and the omission will probably cost them dearly in the long term. Finally, Namangani’s own armed attacks in the region have been small and localized, and his forces were numerically relatively modest before they were hammered by the US Air Force.
And yet the fact remains that the IMU has managed to set an entire region on edge. Uzbekistan’s tyrannical President Karimov has accused the leaders of neighboring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan of harboring the IMU fighters who have sworn to bring him down. That has induced him to build Berlin Wall–like fortifications along his borders with his two neighbors in the Ferghana Valley, causing serious damage to the cross-border trade that locals depend upon for their already meager livelihoods. As Rashid points out, dozens of innocent Tajik and Kyrgyz peasants have been killed or wounded by Uzbek mines that were laid in border areas as part of Karimov’s counterinsurgency effort. At one point Karimov’s planes even bombed villages in Kyrgyzstan that he claimed were serving as hideouts for Namangani’s men. And all this has been happening in a region where the competition for scarce resources, particularly water, is growing, and where the boundaries between countries have yet to be recognized to everyone’s satisfaction. The IMU has already served as the spark that could trigger a larger conflagration throughout the region. There may be ways of preventing that from happening, if local leaders—and their new American allies—can find the courage.
The fact is that Central Asians have some advantages over some other undeveloped regions. For one thing, the Soviet system left the citizenry of the republics with a relatively high level of education. Both basic literacy and university-level education are far more widespread than in typical post-colonial states. At the time of independence, the five countries (with the possible exception of Turkmenistan) had an assortment of democratic nationalist parties that offered various opportunities for a new legitimacy. In Tajikistan in 1991, voters gave 34 percent of the vote to the main opposition candidate, a democratic nationalist who was backed by a coalition of parties that also included the Islamists. (The election result was all the more impressive when we consider that the ruling Communists used all the huge resources at their disposal to swing the vote their way, and leaders in the other Stans took note.)
But, as Rashid writes, Tajikistan’s democratic movement was soon ground to pieces by the polarizing extremes of the civil war, and today most of its members live in exile—many of them in Moscow, a place that looks liberal in comparison. In the late 1980s Uzbekistan had two moderate nationalist parties, Erk and Birlik, which at the time looked much more promising than the infant Islamist parties. Now they, too, have been crushed by President Karimov, who brutally rejects anything that looks remotely like dissent. In both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, leaders with Communist Party backgrounds feared that the nationalists could undermine their authority by unearthing Soviet-era grievances.
In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, moderate nationalists tried to use the consensus-building habits of their traditional nomad cultures as selling points for a democratic post-Soviet identity. To be sure, it was probably too much to expect the immediate creation of American-style pluralism overnight. But it was comparatively easy to imagine that the new possibilities of identity politics would lead the new republics down more complex, gradualist paths in the direction of democracy. Turkey, Taiwan, or South Korea were all examples that came to mind.
Indeed, in the case of Central Asia, Olivier Roy argues that the Soviets were remarkably effective in conjuring up “nationalities” where there had been little consciousness of them before. Moscow-based engineers of nationality policy—Stalin first and foremost among them—codified languages (in some cases even creating new alphabets for them), built parliaments and national libraries, and instituted affirmative action policies for “local cadres.” All of these innovations and institutions were tainted by Soviet dictatorship but add up to a legacy that might, if intelligently managed, be a powerful force for a new sense of cohesion, identity, and national pride. But it is a big “if.” As much recent experience has shown, in the Balkans and elsewhere, nation-states can also become allies of the forces of destruction.
If anything, the present leaders of the Central Asian republics have only managed to discredit the politics of national identity—while failing to offer anything meaningful in its place. Martha Brill Olcott, in her study of Kazakhstan, refers fittingly to “unfulfilled promise.” Just as in the other four republics, the president of Kazakhstan, the former Soviet official Nursultan Nazarbayev, has appointed himself the standard-bearer of his own eth-nic group’s nationalist ambitions—but without any true sense of democratic accountability, or consistent tolerance for minorities, which might have made his promotion of identity politics a genuine force for national stability. These days, to judge by some of the polls cited in Olcott’s book, even ethnic Kazakhs (not to mention non-Kazakh minorities) feel betrayed by the venality and cynicism of their all-powerful leader, and it is correspondingly hard to imagine what sources of identity this new state will be able to draw upon as it faces growing challenges to its stability from neighbors eager for a share of its huge natural resources.
Ironically, Nazarbayev’s efforts to consolidate his power have been made much easier by his having inherited an omnipresent national security apparatus from the Soviet era as well as a bureaucracy experienced in the dissemination of propaganda. “Despite the absence of a strong democratic tradition in Kazakhstan,” Olcott writes, “the country could have developed a pluralistic or quasi-pluralistic political system and a transparent market economy if its leaders had only shown the will to discipline themselves.” Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence in the book is a chart showing the Nazarbayev family’s extensive holdings in the national economy. It is a list reminiscent of Suharto or Marcos at their most rapacious.
Olcott probably knows more about Kazakhstan than anyone else in the West. In contrast to Rashid’s highly readable account, her book is frequently marred by political science jargon; but her work offers usefully nuanced analyses of the broader political setting while Rashid allows himself some questionable generalizations about Russia’s role in the region, at one point describing Vladimir Putin as a “hard-line nationalist” whose appointment by Boris Yeltsin “laid to rest the hopes of Russian liberals for a more neutral foreign policy.” This view is at odds with some of Putin’s own recent pro-Western policy positions, which are anathema to a broad range of Russian nationalists.4
Equally skewed is Rashid’s pronouncement that during “the war with the Chechens, Russia launched a virtual crusade against Islam, portraying it as an evil beyond redemption or acceptance.” For all the incontrovertible brutality of his war in Chechnya, Putin has made a point of saying that most Muslims are to be respected as peaceful citizens. It could hardly be otherwise in Russia, a country whose population includes some twelve million Muslims. For her part, Olcott has no illusions about Russia’s often destructive role in Central Asia, but she believes that “Russia’s potential influence in the region may always have been exaggerated.” Still, her ultimate conclusion is strikingly similar to Rashid’s: “For all the talk of foreign threats, the greatest source of instability for Kazakhstan lies within the state itself.” The greatest danger to these new nation-states, in other words, comes not from Russia and not from Osama bin Laden and his allies, but from their own leaders.
Sadly, the forceful new US presence in Central Asia, and its seemingly unconditional antiterrorist alliance with the dictators, could well end up dealing a final blow to regional dreams of pluralism. In the most egregious case of all, the US has been lavishing praise and benefits on Uzbekistan’s Karimov—notwithstanding devastating and credible analyses of his conduct by human rights groups, who accuse his security forces of systematically killing, kidnapping, imprisoning, and torturing real and presumed political opponents. Needless to say, US military aid for antiterrorist activities in countries like Uzbekistan will invariably provide their leaders with resources that can be turned indiscriminately against their own populations. And that, paradoxically, as Rashid warns, will end up driving the discontented toward the only political alternatives that are radical enough to put up a fight.
As both Rashid and Olcott rightly note, militant Islam is not the only threat facing this part of the world. In all the states in question, failure to carry out comprehensive market reforms is impoverishing vast sections of the population. All five of the republics face dangerous environmental problems; the scarcity of water, in particular, is already becoming a source of conflict in the Ferghana Valley. The cross-border trade in Afghan heroin is aggravating the general political and social crisis by increasing corruption among local officials and endangering security.5 Rashid makes a persuasive case that the United States can help to counter these problems by developing an integrated strategy that views the region and its problems as a whole.
Fighting terrorism without dealing at the same time with problems of human rights or economic development is a self-defeating proposition. And it may not be a fight worth fighting if local elites aren’t willing to look after the broader interests of their citizens. “The Central Asian regimes are at a critical crossroads,” he writes. “They can ignore the lessons from Afghanistan and the collapse of the Afghan state and watch terrorism, instability, and famine increase in their countries as it did in Afghanistan. Or they can take advantage of the global community’s new engagement with the region to rebuild their countries.” This choice now seems clearer than ever. If the region’s leaders, and their new allies in Washington, fail to appreciate what is at stake, this will, sadly, not be the last time that we will be hearing bad news from Central Asia.
April 11, 2002
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. ↩
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. ↩
The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations (NYU Press, 2000), p. 1. ↩
When I recently met with Putin, along with eight other US journalists, he forcefully argued that past geopolitical confrontation between the USSR and the US in Central Asia had led directly to the present-day crisis in Afghanistan. ↩