Crackdown in Central Asia Adds Fuel to Islamic Militants' Fire
Although Islamic militants endanger security in Central Asia, the threat is being exploited by regional governments, especially Uzbekistan, in order to tighten their control over their respective societies, according to a new report published by the International Crisis Group. The report, Islamist Mobilization and Regional Security, attempts to assess the Islamic militants' combat capabilities, and measure the governmental responses to armed incursions. The ICG paper suggests that the crackdown on Islam in Uzbekistan may be bolstering popular support for the insurgency. It recommends that the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan make immediate policy adjustments to permit a greater degree of religious tolerance and a more open discussion of social and religious issues in the press. EurasiaNet recently spoke with John Schoeberlein, director of the ICG's Central Asia Project, about the report and about social, political and economic conditions in the region. The text of the discussion follows:
EurasiaNet: Going on the findings of the report, do you feel that the insurgency is more about Islam, or is it about poor economic conditions in and around the Ferghana Valley?
Schoeberlein: I would say that there are two main dimensions to the insurgency. One is more potential than actual at this time. The actual form is what's called the IMU and its allies working from the territory of Tajikistan and moving into Uzbekistan particularly, also through Kyrgyzstan. That dimension is somewhat about Islam, it's also about sheer opposition to the regime in Uzbekistan. But the people who stand behind that go back to people who were Islamic activists in Uzbekistan in earlier times and have grown increasingly militant since that time; so it's certainly about Islam for them in some dimension. As I mentioned, the other dimension of the insurgency the unrealized dimension, in my opinion, which is perhaps likely to be realized over time is the underground Islamic movements which operate more from within the territory of Uzbekistan, and who so far have not even particularly advocated, in most cases, a violent approach to the current regime, but who have spoken out saying that they want to replace the regime with an Islamic regime. And for these people, it's certainly about Islam. But the reason why this movement is becoming more popular on the one hand, it has to do with the repression of the movements themselves, for those people who adhere to them; but it also certainly has very much to do with economic conditions and the fact that the hopes that were associated with independence and a burgeoning economy have simply not been realized for a very large part of the population of Uzbekistan.
EurasiaNet: The second question deals with the potential for the IMU: how much of a threat do you think they pose militarily, and what is their potential capacity for launching offensive operations? They basically have been conducting raids every summer do you have any indication that they are building their capacity? Are they having an easy time, or a difficult time attracting recruits? And, eventually, could they be able to occupy and hold territory?
Schoeberlein: I'm not of the opinion that the IMU is a terribly popular movement doesn't represent a very broad base or anything like that. Although, secondarily, it is becoming more popular, as more people are fleeing into exile, for example people who are fearing arrest within Uzbekistan. And so many of the recruits that they are able to attract are precisely the people that have been driven out of the country by the government of Uzbekistan. In a sense, they're creating their own enemy. But judging from the incursions they have managed to carry out so far, they're not a very numerous movement, nor are they particularly effective that is, they've only been able to hold little bits of territory on the borders, and they're bits of territory that are not of particular strategic significance or anything like that, and only able to do that for short periods of time. So it's not a strong or effective movement, they're probably not receiving as much support from an international Islamic conspiracy as they would like, in contrary to what is often said about them. But on the other hand, the experience of carrying out two years of campaigns against Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan has certainly given them considerable experience, and they seem to show increasing savvy in terms of their military approach; whether they will have larger numbers of recruits per se over the coming time is difficult to know, although the continuing crackdown on Islam and the polarization of Islamic elements within the Uzbekistan against the government is probably going to increase their numbers, and not only increase their numbers but increase the number of people who, either actively or passively, would support them within the territory of Uzbekistan. And it's only under those conditions that they could pose a real strategic threat to the government of Uzbekistan as opposed to just a severe annoyance that repeats itself every year.
EurasiaNet: What are the chances of the so-called "actual" and "unrealized" dimensions converging, creating a much more potent opposition threat?
Schoeberlein: Well, the IMU on the one hand the actively militant group and the Hizb ut-Tahrir on the other hand - the so far non-militant underground movement operating within Uzbekistan but with increasing popularity these two groups have made some attempts at a rapprochement and to seek a common strategy. However, until now, the Hizb ut-Tahrir and other groups within Uzbekistan have not come out for violent approaches for reaching their goals, and there seem to be some real differences of approach and differences of values, most likely, between these two elements which have prevented concerted action between them, until now. If, however, the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement is increasingly antagonized and persecuted within Uzbekistan, this will undoubtedly drive them toward forming an alliance, in my opinion, over time.
EurasiaNet: Is there anything that can be done to persuade the regional governments specifically Uzbekistan to alter their existing policies concerning how they regard Islam and the expression of Islam and religious freedom in general?
Schoeberlein: The government of Uzbekistan is very firm and seems to be very convinced of the correctness of its approach; and that approach precludes any possibility of any kind of negotiation or accommodation with the groups which are validly opposed to them, and which are organized on the basis of Islam. And that extends further to an increasingly oppressive policy against Muslims within their own country, who may or may not be activists against this regime. So they seem to be moving steadily in the direction of greater antagonism and greater polarization. The only thing that would suggest a possibility of some kind of accommodation or some kind of solution to this would seem to be if the Islamist movement grows increasingly strong, and then ultimately is able to really put pressure on the government - to threaten to take territory, to threaten to carry out serious acts of terrorism, within the state of Uzbekistan and so on.
EurasiaNet: Why do you think regional governments again, specifically Uzbekistan are exaggerating the Islamic threat?
Schoeberlein: Well, they may not think that they are exaggerating it. That is, the government of Uzbekistan is very concerned to retain its position in the country, and it has been very uncompromising with any kind of opposition. But the only group that really constitutes a serious opposition to them, the only group that has at any point posed a credible threat to their monopoly on power, is precisely the Islamic groups. So for them it may not be perceived as an exaggerated threat. On the other hand, they do derive some benefit from speaking about an Islamic threat to Western governments and to international organizations, who they hope will sympathize with their position, and will support the more draconian approaches to dealing with the Islamist problem.
EurasiaNet: What's your opinion of this Uzbek overture toward the Taliban? Do you think that this initiative has any chance of success, in terms of providing stability in the region?
Schoeberlein: Well, one of the key questions for the stability of the region is whether there will be a resolution to the long-standing civil war in Afghanistan. And the Northern Alliance, which has been fighting against the Taliban, is now reduced to a very small bit of territory in Afghanistan, and although it's difficult to see how they could be completely exterminated from the territory of Afghanistan, they seem to be playing an increasingly limited role. And for that reason, I think it's a matter of realism on the part of the authorities in Uzbekistan that they see the Taliban as a permanent, or at least enduring, element of the political geography of the region. And so out of that realism, they're starting to explore ways to find some kind of accommodation with them. I think these explorations are serious, and they could lead to greater stability in the region in the sense that there could be a reduction in the tension between the government of Uzbekistan and the Taliban. And secondarily, I think this could contribute to a normalization of the position of Taliban government in the region more generally, where they may not be treated as pariah state by all their neighbors, aside from Pakistan.
EurasiaNet: But isn't a dichotomy where Karimov refuses to deal with the IMU and Islamic militants trying to overthrow his regime, yet those very militants are, by all accounts, sponsored by the Taliban, and he's willing to deal with the sponsors but not the actual militants?
Schoeberlein: It's possible that another factor behind the overtures to the Taliban, or the steps toward a dialogue with the Taliban, are out of a desire to limit or eliminate their support that they have given to such groups as the IMU. There may be hopes that, if normalized relations can be established between the Taliban government and Uzbekistan, then there won't be sponsorship, or support of whatever kind, for the incursions. So perhaps it's not paradoxical in that sense.
The full text of the report can be found on the ICG website at: http://www.intl-crisis-group.org/projects/showreport.cfm?reportid=245.