Juma Namangani and about 250 of his Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) fighters have been airlifted by Russian and Tajik military helicopters back to Afghanistan, ending their dramatic five week sojourn in Tajikistan. Namangani's presence in Tajikistan had caused consternation amongst Central Asian leaders, who feared a reprise of the IMU incursions that occurred the past two summers.
Namangani's forces, which are fighting to oust the government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, arrived in Tavildera in late December with some 250-300 well armed guerrillas and it was unclear what his intentions were. Tajikistan's coalition government declined Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan's demands that Tajik government forces attack Namangani's camp. Instead some government ministers, who are members of the United Tajik Opposition - the Tajik Islamists who fought the Dushanbe government from 1992-97 -- traveled to Tavildera and held several weeks of negotiations, which resulted in the departure of the IMU forces in late January. The Tajik government delegation was led by the Minister for Emergency Services Mirzo Ziyoev, himself a former UTO commander and close personal friend of Namangani.
The arrival of Namangani's followers in Tajikistan triggered the meeting of four Central Asian leaders on January 5 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where officials pledged to step up efforts at collective action to counter the Islamic radical threat. Namangani's arrival also helped prompt the provision of international military aid to Central Asian governments. In early January, China provided Kyrgyzstan with three cargo planes full of military equipment to help reequip its army, and on January 26 the US delivered USD 300,000 worth of communications equipment to the Uzbek armed forces, as part of a counter-terrorism aid package given by the former Clinton administration last year. The IMU has been declared a terrorist group by the US government because of the alleged help it receives from the Taliban and wanted Saudi terrorist Osama Bin Laden.
The IMU's penetration into Tajikistan had important implications for Afghanistan's relationship with other countries in the region. Firstly, it signaled the failure of recent secret talks between the Taliban and the Uzbek regime, which had asked for the extradition of the IMU from Afghanistan. In addition, by giving Namangani's forces permission to cross the border, their Taliban hosts appeared to be sending a signal of defiance to Russia and the Central Asian Republics, just as the UN Security Council was due to impose fresh sanctions against the Taliban.
Based in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, the IMU strength has grown from some 600 fighters and family members when they first crossed into Afghanistan in November 1999 to about 2,000 fighters and family members at present. The IMU has continued to attract new Uzbek recruits from the Ferghana Valley, as well as Kyrgyz and Tajik youth and a handful of Chechens, Dagestanis and Uighurs from Xinjiang province in China.
A large IMU contingent (estimated to be 800 fighters) fought for the Taliban in its offensive to capture Taloqan from the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Masud during the autumn of 2000. IMU forces continue to help garrison Taloqan, which Masud is trying
to recapture. The IMU has also developed close cooperation with Bin Laden's 55 Arab Brigade and extremist anti-Shia groups from Pakistan, including the Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, who are also fighting for the Taliban. The IMU has now become a multi-national Pan-Islamic force enlisting militants from all across the region.
According to US and UN officials, the IMU has further expanded the network smuggling heroin into Central Asia and onwards to Europe. After Taliban leader Mullah Omar issued a decree banning further cultivation of poppy (which is converted into heroin) by Afghan farmers last year, the IMU along with Arab and other mafia groups bought up massive stocks of refined heroin
from the Afghan market left over from last year. The UNDCP estimates these stocks at 220 tons, which is now stockpiled in and around Kunduz. The UN and US are urging the Taliban to destroy these stocks.
It is uncertain what Namangani's aims in Tajikistan were, but Central Asian leaders have no doubt that there will be another IMU offensive this summer. The IMU continues to maintain a staging base in Tavildera, and a network of underground supporters in and around the Ferghana Valley. Namangani, 33, has never been photographed or interviewed, and has not outlined his goals. However Tahir Yuldeshev, the political and spiritual leader of the IMU, spoke on the party's aims in an interview last year. ''The goals of IMU activities are firstly fighting against oppression within our country [Uzbekistan], against bribery, against the inequities and also the freeing of our
Muslim brothers from prison. We are therefore now shedding blood and the creation of an Islamic state will be the next problem."
"We declared a Jihad in order to create a religious system, a religious government. We want to create a sharia system." Yuldeshev continued in the interview, broadcast by the Voice of America in October 2000. "We want the model of Islam which has remained from the Prophet, not like the Islam in Afghanistan or Iran or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. - these models are nothing like the Islamic model."
Uzbek authorities have recently downplayed the growing strength of the IMU. When Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov arrived in Islamabad on January 25 to sign an extradition treaty with Pakistan, he said there were only 150 IMU members in Afghanistan, adding that he was asking Pakistan to extradite another 30-35 IMU members who he believed were in Pakistan.
The continued presence of the IMU is creating major problems for Tajikistan, even as Tajik authorities face a parallel threat from the Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement, another Pan-Islamic organization that aims to set up a Caliphate in all five Central Asian Republics, emulating the idealized period in Arab and Muslim history immediately after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. More than 150 Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists were arrested in 2000 in Tajikistan. On January 4, a court in Khodjent sentenced 14 Hizb-ut-Tahrir militants to up to 14-year prison terms for subversive activities. (They had been apprehended distributing radical Hizb-ut-Tahrir pamphlets). On January 16, the Supreme Court in Dushanbe sentenced another 8 members of the group to up to six years in jail. Subsequently, another 11 Hizb-ut-Tahrir members were taken into custody in Dushanbe on January 31.
Tajikistan's fragile coalition government is facing mounting economic problems as the severe drought, food shortages and lack of international aid has exacerbated famine conditions in some regions. The economic stress has helped provide additional recruits for militant Islamic movements.
Namangani's brief foray has done little to improve relations between the Central Asian states. Uzbekistan is locked into increasing tensions over border disputes with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and has frequently cut gas supplies to these Republics. There still appears to be little coordination amongst the Central Asian states, which does not augur well for the expected summer offensive by the IMU.
Ahmad Rashid is the author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Based in Pakistan, he writes frequently on developments in Afghanistan and Central Asia.