Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 9

The Uzbek, Kyrgyz and other authorities in Central Asia are concerned over reports that guerrillas of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), under its military leader Juma Namangani, have reentered Tajikistan from Afghanistan. The Central Asian summit, held in Almaty on January 5 (see the Monitor, October 9, 2000), discussed that problem in its closed-door session, according to postsummit reports. That helps explain Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s public warnings at the summit against a repetition of the “1999 and 2000 scenarios,” in which Tajik and the Russian troops in that country allowed IMU’s detachments to reach Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan via Tajikistan.

The reports suggest that some 300 IMU fighters entered Tajikistan in late December from the northern Afghan territory, controlled by Afghan Tajik forces of the anti-Taliban opposition under Ahmad Shah-Masood. They crossed the Panj River, which forms the Tajik-Afghan border and is guarded by Russian border troops. This would be the third time–after October 1999 and May-June 2000–that Russian border troops let the IMU through. The guerrillas are now said to have reached their traditional sanctuary in central Tajikistan’s high-altitude Tavildara district, formerly controlled by the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), now a no-man’s land after the UTO disarmed itself and entered the official political processes in Tajikistan

At the turn of the new year, the former UTO chairman, now leader of the Islamic Rebirth Party of Tajikistan, Saidabdullo Nuri, warned that IMU’s presence may re-ignite violence in Tajikistan and also embroil the country in a conflict with Uzbekistan. Nuri blamed the Russian border troops for failing to stop Namangani’s fighters at the border.

Following the outcry at the Almaty summit, the Tajik government sent to Tavildara a high-level inspection group formed of state security officials and co-opted leaders of the former UTO forces. Returning to Dushanbe the commission reported ambiguously that the situation in Tavildara is normal and that it did not see IMU fighters. That response is a carbon copy of those offered by Dushanbe’s inspection groups last year regarding IMU’s presence in Tavildara.

The Tajik government’s troops never venture there, while government officials dare do so only in the company of former UTO leaders. Both sides–now reconciled–condone the IMU’s use of Tajik territory because of a shared hostility to Uzbekistan. By the same token, they fear that a visible IMU presence and the government’s own double game may provide cause for Uzbek intervention. Beyond Tajik politics and Tajik-Uzbek tensions, Russia’s attitude can make the decisive difference. It seems clear by now that Moscow allows the IMU a certain latitude to operate in order to keep Uzbekistan under pressure. Moscow seeks to cajole President Islam Karimov into rejoining the CIS Collective Security Treaty and allow Russia to maintain military installations in Uzbekistan under the banner of “antiterrorism.”

On January 4 and 10, Uzbekistan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued statements restating the country’s “opposition to turning the CIS into a military bloc” and resolve to resist the “bandit detachments of Islamic extremists.” In recent days, the Uzbek government and military have launched defense preparations in the two areas that IMU’s guerrillas had penetrated last year: the Surkhandaria Region opposite Tajikistan and the Tashkent Region which borders on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In both regions, the authorities are concentrating internal affairs troops and multiplying checkpoints, as well as forming vigilante detachments based on the “neighborhood (Mahalla) guards.”

Kyrgyzstan is also stepping up military preparations, for which it heavily depends on outside military assistance. On January 5 and 6, China sent several planeloads of equipment to Bishkek, as part of a package which Beijing has promised last year to donate. The consignment just flown in includes uniforms and boots for some 5,000 Kyrgyz soldiers and prefabricated huts for the border troops which are stationed on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. The Chinese military also offers to hold joint exercises with the Kyrgyz. Although Karimov–and, behind closed doors, Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev–are warning that it would be “impermissible” to allow the IMU to attack their countries again, they are making preparations for coping with just such a scenario. (Asia-Plus, January 3; Bishkek Radio, January 5-6; Kabar, January 10; Narodnoye Slovo (Tashkent), January 10; Daily Telegraph correspondent’s report from Islamabad, January 11).