For the past nine years Juma Namangani, the military leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), has lived and fought in the Karategin and Tavildera valleys, deep in the heart of the Pamir mountains, northeast of Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe. For the past three years, during his campaign to overthrow the Uzbek government, Namangani and his followers have utilized the region as an advance base as they ranged out of Afghanistan to launch raids into the Ferghana Valley. The harsh climate and extreme terrain of the Pamirs offer Namangani's insurgents an ideal environment in which to operate. At the same time, regional conditions make it virtually impossible for Tajik government forces, or anyone else, to dislodge the IMU militants.
A major route into the Tavildera Valley is a treacherous dirt road that clings to a sheer mountain slope. Far below the path, a roaring river looks like a thin brown muddy thread. Even in spring, the temperature struggles to climb above freezing, and the Valley is so narrow that helicopters are unable to operate in many areas. That road is littered with the hulks of destroyed tanks and trucks that belonged to government forces. The valley was one of the strongholds of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) during the 1992-97 Tajik civil war, and was the scene of several futile government offensives against the opposition forces.
Halfway down the valley, in a long narrow gorge, lies the village of Sangor, where Namangani's forces maintain a fortified camp with a permanent garrison of about 50 guerrillas. Half a dozen men could hold off an army at the mouth of the gorge, which offers ample cover from artillery and aerial bombardment. Namangani himself is now reported to be in Afghanistan, along with the bulk of his forces. However, officials and citizens alike are bracing for a resumption of hostilities this summer.
Last November, Namangani caused a stir by arriving in Sangor from Afghanistan with 400 men.
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.