While the United States and others in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization confront the challenges of building a stable democracy within Afghanistan, other governments worry about potential disturbances from groups that fought alongside Afghanistan's Taliban militia. Uzbekistan still faces a threat from the insurrectionist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU); Russia is persisting in efforts to suppress Chechen rebels; and China claims the Uighur separatists, eastern Muslims who have never formally advocated violence, are working in concert with the IMU. But Tajikistan, which has a fairly porous border with Afghanistan and which has seen the IMU cause trouble in the past, may be more immediately vulnerable than any of these states to destabilizing attacks by extremists.
Officially, Tajikistan rid itself of the IMU when the country's northern and southern factions ended their civil war in 1997, and when the US-led coalition reportedly killed the IMU's chief in the first several weeks of the Afghanistan campaign. But neither outcome is terribly firm. IMU fighters supported the United Tajik Opposition throughout the five-year war, and had to leave after the war ended. Russian border guards lifted more than 500 ethnic Uzbek fighters and their families by helicopter from the Karategin valley in Tajikistan to Mazar-e-Sharif, the administrative center of Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Here, many IMU soldiers joined the Taliban and fought for years alongside Uighurs and Chechens against the Northern Alliance, which consists mostly of ethnic Tajiks.
After the antiterrorism coalition took Mazar-e-Sharif in November 2001, American and Afghan spokespeople declared that IMU leader Juma Namangani and most of his fighters had died in the battle. [For more information, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. While Interfax ran a report specifying that Namangani had been buried near Kabul, though, the leader's death has remained unconfirmed. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, at a Tashkent press conference on December 27, promised that Afghan special forces would "create conditions" to spur an "expert examination" and identify his remains if necessary.
But no body has become available, and absent a corpse both American and Tajik officials have begun to issue warnings that Namangani may remain at large. An Internal Affairs officer from Tajikistan, who did not disclose his name, expressed similar doubt. The official said that there is information indicating that some IMU fighters, possibly including Namangani, have survived. The real fright for the Rakhmonov government is that the movement, with or without its chief, may regrouping on Tajik soil. Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned in a January 11 brief that "during the last few months, many of the movement's leading fighters have returned to their long-term base in Tajikistan, bribing their way across the Afghan-Tajik border to recruit new supporters for future forays into Uzbekistan."
But if officials cannot find Namangani's body, where can they find new IMU cells? Some IMU regiments may have moved in late 2001 to Tajikistan's Tavildara valley, which has become a second home for many IMU veterans. Dodojon Atovullo, a dissident Tajik newspaper editor, told the Russian newspaper Kommersant on January 19, 2001 that the Rakhmonov government had let Namangani settle in Tavildara; on March 29 of that year, Kyrgyz Colonel Talant Razzakov told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty something similar. Even if authorities exiled Namangani and his deputies to Afghanistan, Uzbek President Islam Karimov's noticeable silence about these reports suggests that he did not strenuously object to the idea of the movement regrouping in Tajikistan. Uzbekistan has won promises of ongoing American aid and military support since the war on terrorism began.
Nobody knows how the IMU or other extremist groups may surface, but Tajikistan would probably seek Russian help in flushing out such groups while Uzbekistan cements its ties to the United States. A high-ranking Tajik intelligence officer told EurasiaNet that American military leaders are detaining IMU fighters in Afghanistan, arousing curiosity from Chinese and Uzbek security services.
Davron Vali is the pseudonym of an independent journalist based in Tajikistan.