The Makings of a Quagmire in Central Asia

With sporadic fighting continuing between government forces and Islamic insurgents, Central Asia faces the prospect of becoming embroiled in a long-term conflict.

The first clashes this summer occurred August 7 in the mountainous Sukhandarya region of Uzbekistan. Since then, fighting has spread to the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan, the scene of a prolonged hostage crisis involving Islamic militants in 1999. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. The insurgents reportedly have infiltrated the region from bases in Afghanistan, via Tajikistan.

The fighting has displaced at least 1,000 civilians, according to Human Rights Watch. There are no reliable casualty figures, although it appears that dozens of Uzbek and Kyrgyz government troops have been killed. The insurgents are believed to be members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which aims to oust Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government.

At an emergency meeting August 20, convened to discuss the crisis, the heads of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan adopted a statement that committed the states to an armed response. "We firmly state that terrorist actions will be crushed using the most decisive measures," the statement said.

But some observers contend that in opting to attempt a military solution, Central Asian leaders may end up exacerbating, rather than alleviating the underlying conditions fueling the conflict. In addition, others suggest that the region's military establishments are incapable of defeating the insurgents.

"The Afghan war and the Chechen conflict do not seem to have taught staff officers anything," a Kazakh Commercial Television commentator said on August 21.

On August 14, Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek officials established a joint headquarters in the Leninabad region of Tajikistan to coordinate the intergovernmental response to the insurgency. In mulling their military options, regional planners face a strategic dilemma concerning Afghanistan.

Central Asian officials assert that the Islamic insurgents are receiving critical training and support from the Taliban movement, which controls most of Afghanistan's territory. Eliminating the militants' supply and training bases in Afghanistan would appear to be a key to achieving the military victory sought by Central Asian leaders. Yet, those same leaders are categorically opposed to taking armed action against the Taliban.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov downplayed statements made in the spring by Russian officials, who suggested that Moscow would be willing to conduct air strikes against targets in Afghanistan, as well as supply anti-Taliban forces. Such statements "have done us more harm than good," Karimov said during a news conference August 20. "We are not going to wage war against anyone, or invade anyone's territory."

Central Asian governments face additional complications in their relations with Russia. The August 20 joint statement tacitly called on Russia to aid the reinforcement of Central Asia's southern borders, including Tajikistan's boundary with Afghanistan. At the same time, Russia was openly invited to join the Tashkent anti-terrorism pact. In appealing for Russian aid, Central Asian leaders are running the risk of having to surrender some of their sovereignty, some experts say. In recent years, Russia has sought to bolster its military presence in Central Asia, as well as enhance its political influence in the region.

The situation "provides Russia with lots of leverage and presents opportunities," said Michael Ochs, a staff analyst in Washington for the US Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He added that Central Asian leaders would prefer to keep Russian involvement to a minimum. "They [Central Asian leaders] don't want to let the Russians back in."

What role Russia assumes in the counter-insurgency remains to be seen. What is known is that Russian officials remain committed to a hard-line approach to the Taliban. "What I said in May is just as topical today, and the events taking place here [in Central Asia]

Justin Burke is the editor of EurasiaNet.

The Makings of a Quagmire in Central Asia

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