Central Asian authorities have assailed Afghanistan's Taliban movement for providing logistical support to Islamic insurgents operating in the region. Those same officials, however, have been tight lipped about what role the local civilian population is playing in the insurgency. They also have been less than candid about the capabilities of the armed forces to confront the insurgency.
Pinpointing popular attitudes about the insurgency is difficult, especially in Uzbekistan, given the closed political systems and the unreliability of information gathering. Nevertheless, there are indications that militants have received support from at least a segment of the civilian population. In one instance, residents of two Uzbek districts Sariosiyo and Uzun reportedly have acted amicably towards the militants. The insurgents were even said to have purchased food supplies from local farmers.
Local support for the insurgent cause is by no means universal, however. A report distributed August 23 by the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR) said that insurgents resorted to burning two villages in the hills about 60 miles from the Uzbek capital Tashkent, after residents refused to welcome them.
Human rights experts have said repressive government policies, combined with widespread poverty, have fueled discontent, which in some cases is transforming into sympathy for the insurgent cause. In many rural areas of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, civilians live in conditions of extreme poverty. And a severe drought this summer is intensifying the desperation felt by many rural residents.
The militants reportedly belong to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a guerrilla group dedicated to overthrowing the Uzbek government of President Islam Karimov. So far, government forces from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have managed to largely contain the insurgents, whose numbers are estimated in the hundreds. However, despite repeated government claims that anti-insurgency operations had entered the "final stage," the militants appear to have maintained the ability to conduct offensive operations.
An indicator that authorities are concerned about civilian loyalties is the fact that some residents have been evacuated from combat areas. According to an August 23 report by Kyrgyzstan's Kabar news agency, 39 families dwelling along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border "have been moved to a safer place." Some regional observers have suggested that officials are resorting to forcibly removing civilians in order to facilitate government operations against the insurgents.
In recent days, Central Asian leaders have admitted that defeating the insurgents will be more difficult than originally envisioned. "Our servicemen, above all our commanders, did not take this [the preparedness of the insurgents] into account during the first days," Karimov said in a television interview August 22.
Government forces have attacked the insurgents with aircraft and artillery, but many observers say the effectiveness of such heavy weaponry has been limited, in large part because the insurgents can find ample cover in the mountainous terrain. Others cite a lack of military preparedness.
Troops are not well equipped to conduct operations in mountainous terrain, and a lack of reconnaissance has hampered both air and ground operations, the KCHR report said.
Russian military officials have said that a lack of coordination among the forces of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan has impeded the three states' response to the threat. Regional leaders on August 14 announced the establishment of a joint command center to respond to the security threat, based in the Leninabad region of Tajikistan. Until now, however, the joint command exists only on paper.
Indeed, rather than focusing on cooperation, Central Asian military and political leaders have bickered over responsibility for insurgent successes. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have been critical of Tajikistan, charging that the insurgents have used Tajikstan as a transit nation to launch their military operations. The accusations have damaged inter-state relations, causing the postponement of airline service between Tashkent and Dushanbe for an undetermined time. In addition, Uzbek diplomats have reportedly been recalled from Dushanbe.
On August 25, CIS defense ministers gathered in the Astrakhan region of Russia to discuss the security situation in Central Asia. The main aim of the talks was to strengthen a coordinated regional strategy to thwart the insurgency, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev told the Interfax news agency.
The situation "remains complicated and requires additional efforts to improve the control system on the basis of joint command of newly formed anti-terrorist agencies," Sergeyev said.
The Russian defense minister warned that the insurgents' fighting capacity was building. He said there were up to 5,000 Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan militants, many of whom were still training at bases in Afghanistan.
Karimov and other Central Asian leaders have called on international organizations, including the United Nations and the OSCE, to urgently address the issue of stabilizing Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The Taliban denies actively supporting the Central Asian insurgents.
Despite such denials, international experts insist the Central Asian insurgents have received aid not only from the Taliban, but also from radical Islamic activists from Arab nations and Pakistan. Notorious terrorist Osama bin Laden is reputed to be one of the insurgents' major sponsors.
The latest military operations carried out by militants in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan may be seen as an effort to probe the weaknesses of Central Asian states' armed forces. It is also possible that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is seeking to show its sponsors that it is an effective fighting force.
The insurgency additionally is diverting attention away from Taliban efforts to win control over all parts of Afghanistan.
Marat Mamadshoyev is a correspondent for the Asia-Plus news agency in Tajikistan.