The hostilities, pitting Islamist insurgents against government forces in Central Asia, continue in a low-intensity mode while acquiring a protracted character. With rebel strength obviously insufficient for deep penetration into Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, the goal now seems to be to maintain a physical presence inside those countries and lines of communication with the insurgent sanctuaries in Tajikistan.
Fighting has subsided in recent days between Uzbek ground troops and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) guerrillas. Government forces are confining their actions to air strikes against suspected rebel positions in the mountainous area of the Surkhandaria Region. Those strikes seem more often than not to miss their targets, and the air reconnaissance apparently yields poor results. The planes and helicopters are not equipped for all-weather and nighttime operations.
The troops have cordoned off the area, but are having difficulty in pinpointing the small and mobile rebel groups. To avoid casualties, the military seems to refrain from conducting aggressive search-and-destroy operations on the ground. On the outer perimeter of the combat zone, troops are systematically blowing up entrances to caves to prevent the insurgents, should they slip out of the encirclement, from using them as hideouts. The troops are mining, or installing posts in, certain mountain passes on the border with Tajikistan to cut off the rebels’ path of retreat into that country, from which they had entered Uzbekistan in early August. Because the insurgents do not seem to be attempting to return, the authorities are concerned that the IMU leadership may be planning to send more fighters into Uzbekistan from presumed sanctuaries in Tajikistan or Afghanistan. Tent camps have sprung up to accommodate the population evacuated by the authorities from the combat zone. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Red Crescent has begun providing humanitarian aid to the displaced population.
A small insurgent group continues to elude detection in the Tashkent Region. Internal Affairs troops and security agencies are heavily guarding the approaches to Tashkent to prevent rebel infiltration of the capital city. Such a move would force the authorities to prepare for dealing with an urban guerrilla problem.
In the country at large, official propaganda is exhorting the population to display vigilance, to more actively cooperate with the authorities, and to not fall prey to political misuse of the Islamic religion by militants. State mass media portray the Islamist insurgents as mercenaries, highly paid in dollars to commit crimes, and carrying out foreign orders.
On the occasion of Uzbekistan’s independence anniversary last week, President Islam Karimov issued an amnesty decree which, however, excluded crimes against the state–a concept which, in Uzbekistan, can cover unauthorized political and religious activity as well as violent opposition to the authorities. But on September 6, Karimov issued a further decree, offering pardons to members of “terrorist groups,” on the condition that these individuals turn themselves in and submit statements of regret over their deeds. In accompanying comments, Karimov and other officials are indicating that the offer is aimed mainly at young militants, who were “misled” by leaders or “innocently fell for” antistate propaganda disguised as Islam. The president is now urging such militants to return from Tajikistan and Afghanistan and embark on “normal” lives in their native Uzbekistan (Vatan Parvar, Khalk Sozi, Uzbekistan Ovozi, Uzbek Television, Tashkent Radio, Itar-Tass, Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostey, September 1-7; see the Monitor, August 8, 10, 29, 31; Fortnight in Review, September 8).
Fighting in Kyrgyzstan has also seen a lull in recent days as both sides seem to be reconsidering their tactics. Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) guerrillas have at least for now given up their attempts to break into the interior of the Batken Region and further afield. Government troops successfully repelled those small rebel groups in combat engagements which were characterized by mobility on both sides. In the last few days, however, the troops are mainly relying on sheer mass to confine the rebels to a narrow strip of territory along the border with Tajikistan.
As in Uzbekistan, and for similar reasons, the Kyrgyz military is often unable to pinpoint rebel positions or detect the movements of small rebel units. Using the few helicopters in its inventory, the military can send landing parties to reinforce threatened outposts and to mine some border passes in the insurgent’s rear. However, the length of that border and the number of those passes preclude any effective mining. Kyrgyz officials complain that the insurgents continue moving across the border in both directions, using sanctuaries in Tajikistan as supply and recuperation bases.
Official briefings in the last few days mention four fighter-bomber jets striking presumed rebel positions. The four jets almost certainly belong to Kazakhstan, as Bishkek admitted when a first pair of jets began flying such missions. Some of Kazakhstan’s air force pilots are Russians, and at least some of them are likely holders of Russian citizenship. Russia’s Defense Ministry for its part is not known to have airlifted any of the promised combat supplies to Kyrgyzstan. In 1999, too, Moscow was slow to send military assistance while Kyrgyzstan was fighting the first rebel intrusion.
The Defense and the Finance Ministries complained publicly on September 4 and 5, respectively, that the costs of military operations have already exhausted the military budget for 2000, that funds are being switched from other budgetary chapters to the military, and that Kyrgyzstan may find it impossible to meet its foreign debt obligations this year (Slovo Kyrgyzstana, KyrgyzKabar, Bishkek Radio, Itar-Tass, Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostey, September 1-7; see the Monitor, August 8, 10, 29, 31; Fortnight in Review, September 8).
Even as Moscow and Dushanbe denounce Afghanistan as the main source of instability in Central Asia, the facts point to Tajikistan as the source, with Russia as its protector. The Tajik government controls only some portions of territory–mainly the Khatlon-Kulob area (home to President Imomali Rahmonov’s ruling clan) and a part of Soghd (historic name recently restored to the Leninabad Region). Even in the Dushanbe, the government’s control is shaky. Various local groups, hardly accountable to the government, control much of the country; some areas are beyond any control; and three mountainous areas–in Tavildara, Karategin and Jirgatal seem to be under the sway of irreconcilable forces of the former United Tajik Opposition (UTO). Those areas have from 1996 to date harbored the expatriate Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, whose fighters staged the 1999 incursion in Kyrgyzstan and this year’s operations in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
In the fall of 1999, the IMU force withdrew from Kyrgyzstan back into Tajikistan, only to be escorted by Russian border troops and Tajik troops across Tajik territory to Afghanistan. It wintered in the Afghan territory controlled by Ahmad Shah-Masood, an ally of Moscow and Dushanbe. This year, IMU’s fighters filtered back into Tajikistan, then moved northward into Kyrgyzstan and eastward into Uzbekistan to mount their current operations. They seemed to cross Tajikistan’s territory and borders with impunity.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has taken the lead in calling for hot-pursuit operations by Uzbek and Kyrgyz forces against rebels based in Tajikistan. The Tajik government has staunchly opposed such a move. Moscow is also opposed, for two apparent reasons: first, to avoid any increase of Uzbekistan’s influence in the region; and, second, in order to keep Tashkent, Bishkek and Dushanbe insecure and dependent on Russian backing (Itar-Tass, Tashkent Radio, Asia-Plus, September 1-4; see the Monitor, November 9, 1999, May 10, 2000).
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