Uzbekistan has implemented a series of practical measures in Namangan Region (Eastern Uzbekistan, bordering Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), aimed at raising public confidence in the ability of the local authorities to cope with the threat posed by terrorism. The regional law-enforcement bodies have established close cooperation with locals and Uzbek border guards. Indeed border control, vital to any effective counter-terrorism plans, has been enhanced through information sharing with neighboring states. Locally, twelve anti-terrorist information teams have been formed, consisting of diverse individuals ranging from public figures to scientists; their task is to explain the need for combating terrorism at local meetings of concerned citizens. Meetings and round tables have convened in these border areas on topics such as “Protect your home yourself,” resulting in active discussion. Moreover, 120 groups of “neighborhood guards” formed by the Kamolot youth social movement are involving themselves in nighttime “public vigilance” operations (Uzbek Radio First Program, September 23).
That such activists are appearing within the Uzbek regions is hardly surprising, given how rapidly violence spread from Tashkent to Bukhara this year. It suggests that the authorities are taking seriously the potential for unexpected terrorist incidents while publicly downplaying threat levels. Locals are becoming involved in security measures, with intellectuals and other professionals explaining the need to protect the local populace by developing partnerships with citizens. At a macro level these developments seem to indicate sensible planning and reflect the danger of living adjacent to neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The Uzbek authorities, however, like to project an image of control and knowledge concerning their security environment, as anything less would imply weakness and flawed governance. Unfortunately, the authorities are no longer sure exactly who or which organizations may strike against their state. The traditional suspects, namely the IMU and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which receive much official blame, may not be the source of future attacks. On the contrary, a disaffected student or unassuming worker may be the culprit. To cope with this fluid and uncertain environment, the intelligence service (SNB) will whip up a climate of fear and suspicion that will encourage individuals to monitor their friends and colleagues. To expect anything else is to misunderstand the regime.
Information and border security undoubtedly are key to effectively countering terrorism in the region, but the Uzbeks do not comprehend how best they can set about achieving these goals. This is adequately demonstrated by Tashkent’s recent troubles with Tajikistan over mining its common border. Only Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have signed the Ottawa Convention banning the use of anti-personnel mines; Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan still use them.
According to Tajik authorities, Uzbekistan has mined around 70% of the Uzbek-Tajik border. Tashkent argues that it is an important component of its border security and stems the flow of drug traffickers and militants. Uzbek authorities tend to overlook the fact no militants or traffickers have been killed crossing the border, only civilians. It even covers up evidence that its own personnel have been injured as a result of mining. Dushanbe, however, argues that such an excessive border policy overly militarizes the perimeter and serves to stir ethnic tensions (Varorud, September 15).
In this context, Uzbek officials met with NATO officials in Brussels to discuss their draft Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP). Uzbekistan is clearly anxious to strengthen its partnership with NATO, given the re-stated strategic importance of the region at the NATO Istanbul Summit in June 2004. As actively as these officials pursue greater levels of cooperation and support from NATO, they cannot change the realities of the domestic counter-terrorist policies of the regime. These seem all too uncoordinated and outdated. NATO can supply help to the local military formations and enhance border security, but Uzbekistan will need to be equally keen to reform some of its security policies and structures (Interfax, September 21).
The measures currently being enacted in Namangan may seem sensible to planners in Tashkent, but they also reveal the level of fear pervading Uzbekistan’s security structures, which are still shaken by the terrorist attacks of spring and late July 2004. But until the Tashkent regime faces its international critics, who demand the release of Hizb-ut-Tahrir members or relatives currently held captive in Uzbekistan, marking a volte-face in President Islam Karimov’s approach to security, there is only so much that Western countries and multilateral security organizations may do to assist Uzbekistan. Indeed, public confidence in Karimov’s regime may be boosted at a local level by taking the message of counter-terrorism to the citizenry, but it will soon evaporate in the wake of more attacks.