On August 7, the government in Tashkent acknowledged that an Islamist rebel force from Tajikistan had penetrated Uzbekistan several days earlier. “Intense fighting,” a government communique announced, is in progress between the rebels and government troops, with “losses on both sides.” According to the official report, the insurgents are members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) under Juma Namangani, operating in several detachments of 70 to 100 each and equipped with submachine guns, sniper rifles, mine throwers and night-vision devices. This force moved into Uzbekistan through mountain passes, seized at least two villages in the Surkhandaria Region and seem intent on establishing a sanctuary area there, some twenty kilometers inside Uzbek territory. They are, moreover, said to be reconnoitering areas outside their immediate control, with a view to preparing base camps and arms and food caches. Such steps, if real, would indicate an intention to advance toward Uzbekistan’s heartland.
The government has concentrated a task force of army, Internal Affairs and state security troops in the region, with a view to isolating the rebel-held area. The authorities admit to having evacuated the population of several villages “for its protection”–but in reality to deprive the insurgents of any base of support among the population. According to Tashkent, its radio intercepts confirm the suspicion that the rebels had until now based and trained in camps on the territory of Afghanistan, then crossed into Tajikistan and made their way in small groups across that country’s Leninobod Region into Uzbekistan.
Tashkent’s initial statements accuse unspecified though “notorious circles” in statements, however, credit other Tajik “structures” with a willingness to support Tashkent’s security measures in the border area. According to the Tajik border troop command, IMU armed groups may be crossing Tajikistan on their way to Uzbekistan’s Kashkadaria Region in order “destabilize the situation” in that region as well.
On the Tajik side, Internal Affairs and border troops have been ordered to interdict rebel movements in either direction across the Tajik-Uzbek border. That measure seems both belated and beyond the ability of Tajikistan’s internal and border troops to enforce. Dushanbe would have to commit army and presidential guard troops to interdict the rebels’ cross-border movements in either direction. Should the crisis drag on, Uzbekistan can be expected to request permission for its troops to operate on the Tajik side of the border. That prospect already impels Dushanbe to demonstrate at least a measure of cooperation with Tashkent. The Tajik government has granted permission for Uzbek helicopters to overfly Tajik territory in search of rebel units which may be on their way to Uzbekistan.
The timing of the rebel operation coincides exactly with IMU’s move into Kyrgyzstan in early August 1999. In that operation, the insurgents were trying to pass through Kyrgyz territory in order to reach Uzbekistan. They had been for several years been based in central and northern Tajikistan, staged that operation from their northern sanctuaries, and were driven back there in October 1999. At that point, Russia entered the game in a strange role that it has yet to explain.
In October-November 1999, Russian troops and their Tajik proteges allowed IMU rebels to move from Tajikistan into Afghanistan. Some of the rebels, however, stayed in those Tajik sanctuaries; and others, apparently, rejoined them by crossing from Afghanistan back into Tajikistan. In April this year, Russian and Tajik troops escorted the entire IMU rebel force from Tajikistan back into Afghanistan–namely, into territory controlled by Ahmad Shah-Massud, the anti-Taliban warlord who is being armed and financed by Moscow and Dushanbe. From that part of Afghanistan, the IMU rebels moved back into Tajikistan in late July or early August in order to reach Uzbekistan. Evidently they crossed the Afghan-Tajik border which is being guarded by thousands of heavily armed, well-equipped Russian troops.
The insurgents have this time achieved the initial goal which had eluded them in 1999–namely, the seizure of an area inside Uzbekistan. At this point, they cannot pose a serious military threat to President Islam Karimov’s government. They do, however, maximize that government’s sense of vulnerability to radical Islam; they will force the government to devote disproportionate attention and resources to internal security problems; and they will keep Tashkent off balance in the regional politics of Central Asia. Therein lies the usefulness of this particular “Islamic terrorist” operation from the standpoint of Moscow and Dushanbe, the joint actions of which helped set the stage for this operation in the first place (Tashkent Radio, Itar-Tass, August 7; see the Monitor, October 27, November 9, 1999, May 10).
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