The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is well named. The shadowy force that a year ago moved from Tajikistan into western Kyrgyzstan later moved through Tajikistan into Afghanistan, apparently under the protection of Russian and Tajik government forces. IMU members have now moved back through Tajikistan to take up positions in Uzbekistan. The tangled story follows.

The IMU for the past two or three years has made its home in Tajikistan, drawing on support from the United Tajik Opposition and waiting for a chance to move into Uzbekistan to establish an Islamic state there. The IMU effort last August in Kyrgyzstan was aimed at securing a route into Uzbekistan through the Ferghana valley, the native region of most IMU members. That effort failed, and the fighters, who number perhaps 1,000, returned to their Tajikistan strongholds.

The Tajik government feared that the IMU presence would provoke Uzbek government forces to cross into Tajikistan. The Tajik government therefore joined with Russian border troops in Tajikistan to encourage the IMU to move to Afghanistan. In April of this year, with Russian and Tajik escorts, the entire IMU resettled in northern Afghanistan, in a region controlled by anti-Taliban forces financed and armed in part by Moscow.

Over the past several weeks, a few hundred IMU fighters have left Afghanistan, passed unmolested through Tajikistan, and taken control of two villages in eastern Uzbekistan, just a few miles inside the border. This is not a hit-and-run operation; troops are said to be reconnoitering areas outside their immediate control, preparing base camps and building caches of food and arms.

The rebels pose no immediate threat to Uzbekistan’s stability, but their presence will undoubtedly heighten President Islam Karimov’s already extreme preoccupation with the militant Islamic threat. That preoccupation should reduce Uzbekistan’s capacity for asserting itself as a regional power in Central Asia. To that extent at least, the IMU presence in Uzbekistan will be a source of gratification to the strategists in Moscow and their Tajik allies, who set this Movement into motion.