State Department Skeptical Of Central Asian Counterterror; Less So Of Azerbaijan
The U.S. State Department is skeptical about how Central Asian governments perceive the threat of terrorism in their countries, according to the department's annual review of terrorism around the globe.
The department's Country Reports on Terrorism were released this week, and the overall headline was that global terrorism is up 43 percent. In Central Asia and the Caucasus specifically, however, there is no such precise measurement.
In language similar to last year's report, the State Department said that "The effectiveness of some Central Asian countries’ efforts to reduce their vulnerability to perceived terrorist threats was difficult to discern in some cases, however, due to failure to distinguish clearly between terrorism and violent extremism on one hand and political opposition, or non-traditional religious practices, on the other." But this year it added a bit of texture with a mention of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: "[T]errorist groups with ties to Central Asia – notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union – continued to be an issue even as they operated outside of the Central Asian states." (For some serious analysis of what threat the IMU poses, see this post at the Afghan Analysts Network.)
The theme of exaggerated threat assessments continued in the various country sections. In Kazakhstan, "Broad, vague definitions of terrorism and so-called 'religious extremism' sometimes led to the arrest and prosecution of individuals and religious groups that are peaceful." In Turkmenistan: "Broad, vague definitions of terrorism and so-called “religious extremism” are sometimes used by the government to target internal dissent." And Uzbekistan: "The Government of Uzbekistan restricts information on internal matters, making it difficult to analyze both the extent of the terrorist threat and the effectiveness of Uzbekistani law enforcement’s efforts to combat it.... Furthermore, Uzbekistan’s counterterrorism effectiveness is undermined by its lack of respect for fundamental human rights, ineffective and overly bureaucratic institutions, and slow progress in establishing the rule of law. These factors increase the country’s vulnerability to the appeal of violent extremism."
The report also outlines what sort of counter-terrorism cooperation the U.S. has with the countries. The descriptions weren't very detailed, but they provide a bit of insight into Washington's thinking. "The Government of Kazakhstan has expressed an interest in increasing counterterrorism cooperation with the United States, particularly in the areas of information sharing and law enforcement cooperation, and in the development of Kazakhstani capability to conduct special counterterrorism operations." The report makes no mention of how favorably disposed to those sorts of programs the U.S. may be. Tajikistan got a similar mention: "Tajikistan sought to increase military and law enforcement capacity to conduct tactical operations through bilateral and multilateral assistance programs, including with the United States."
Turkmenistan has been wary of cooperation, even on a small scale: "Turkmenistan has been reluctant to work with the State Department, however, participating in only two out of five Antiterrorism Assistance courses offered in the past three years." And the Uzbekistan portion of the report, interestingly, failed to mention anything at all about U.S. cooperation.
Only in Kyrgyzstan did the report talk about what the U.S. actually did: "The U.S. military conducted eight counterterrorism training events with the GKNB, the Interior Ministry, the Defense Ministry, and the Border Service. These events were designed to teach units to perform typical military tasks while respecting human rights and the safety of noncombatants."
As you would expect, in the Caucasus the terrorism risks (or "risks") were smaller, while the amount of cooperation with the U.S. was greater. "Georgia continued its close cooperation with the United States on a wide-range of counterterrorism-related issues. ... Cooperation on counterterrorism activities has remained steady following the change in power, and all signs indicate the new government will continue to work closely with the United States and other international partners in the fight against terrorism."
And: "Azerbaijan maintained its strong counterterrorism cooperation with the United States and actively opposed terrorist organizations seeking to move people, money, and material through the Caucasus." (For whatever reason, Armenia seems to be completely omitted from the report.)
And curiously, the level of skepticism that the State Department used with respect to Central Asian governments didn't extend to Azerbaijan. The report lists a number of alleged Iranian plots that were foiled, without mentioning the common belief that the government hypes those reports for its own benefit.
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
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