Afghanistan analysis: Uzbeks’ Role in Afghan Fighting

Some of the most determined Taliban fighters faced by Australian and allied troops are ethnic Uzbeks, who have gained a reputation for determination and fanaticism.

2nd Feb 2010


Afghanistan analysis: Uzbeks’ Role in Afghan Fighting

Some of the most determined Taliban fighters faced by Australian and allied troops are ethnic Uzbeks, who have gained a reputation for determination and fanaticism. The Uzbeks’ involvement in the Afghanistan war cannot be understood unless one takes into account that they come from two different countries––Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The collapse of the USSR had been a huge blow for most Central Asian countries. The standard of living in Uzbekistan, one of the lowest in the former superpower, had been reduced even further after the collapse of the Soviet Union. From then on, there were no more Moscow subsidies; and the market for Central Asian agricultural goods, such as cotton, all but ceased to exist.

The plight of the populace as well as old ethnic and regional tensions had plunged some regions of Central Asia into chaos already in the late 1980s and this continued into the 1990s. This was especially the case with Tajikistan, which had experienced a bloody civil war. By the late 1990s, the situation seemed to have stabilized somewhat. In the capital Dushanbe, Emomali Rakhmonov’s regime had brought Islamists to government. In Turkmenistan, the regime of “Turkmenbashi” (which means “Head of all Turkmens”), the self-given title of Saparmurat Niyazov, had combined authoritarian harshness with a comparatively broad safety net for the populace. In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the regimes were comparatively moderate and flirted with the West.

Uzbekistan was quite different from all of them. The Islom Karimov model combined the brutality of the regime with a nearly absent safety net. At the same time, following the examples of other post-Soviet regimes, Karimov tried to boost Uzbekistan nationalism as the ideological prop of the regime. Tamerlane, for example, was proclaimed a great Uzbek ruler [he actually had nothing to do with the Uzbeks] and his effigy replaced Lenin’s monument in the Uzbek capital. At the same time, Karimov, different from the majority of Central Asian rulers, became strongly pro-Western and a partner of GUAM (consisting of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova), the quasi-political/quasi-economic organization with anti-Russian and pro-Western direction.

The combination of the hatred of the Karimov regime and the West had turned the nationalistic populace to the only force that opposed them—universal jihadism. And it was Uzbekistan that produced IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), one of the major Islamic organizations in the region. It was led by Juma Namangani, a former Soviet army paratrooper with combat experience, and an Islamic ideologue Tahir Yuldachev, both Uzbeks. The group and similar Islamist organizations were quite heartened by the Taliban’s victory. (Alexei Malashenko, “Landmarks on the Road to Jihad, Russia in Global Affairs” March 23 2003)

The approach of these Islamists to the Taliban could well be compared with that of the early 20th century Western radicals to the Bolshevik regime. The Bolsheviks’ victory indicated to them that a regime based on Marxist principles could exist. And in the case of the Taliban, the message was similar: an Islamic regime could, indeed, be created. Inspired by the Taliban’s example, radical Islamists had engaged in a continuous attack against Karimov’s regime. By the end of the 1990s, there were several terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan and an attempt to invade the country from nearby Kyrgyzstan, which led to increasing repression by Karimov and the regime’s proclamation that the terrorists were trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Lucy Jones “Bombing, Government Crackdown on ‘Islamists’. Dividing people of newly independent Uzbekistan,” Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, July/August1999 pp. 34-35)

The threat from the Taliban as well as from other homegrown Islamists from Central Asia was seen as being quite real, not just by the Central Asian elite but also by the Russian elite. General Alexander Lebed, a major political figure during the Yeltsin era and would-be Yeltsin successor, assumed that the Taliban was an unstoppable force that would wreck the stability not just in Central Asia but also in Russia proper. At the same time, the Uzbekistan Islamists continued to interact with the Taliban and the Afghanistan Uzbeks.

The position of Afghanistan Uzbeks was, in a way, contradictory. On one hand, the Uzbeks were a minority; and this led some of them to be hostile to the Taliban. Some saw Taliban as primarily a Pashtun force—the representatives of the major ethnic group in the country. For this reason, some of them had joined the Northern Alliance, the force that had opposed the Taliban, and who controlled part of Northern Afghanistan throughout the Taliban rule. On the other hand, other Uzbeks had approached the Taliban differently. They saw the Taliban as “proletariate internationalists,” if one would use Soviet Marxist parlance. They emphasized that the Taliban discouraged ethnicity and emphasized the solidarity/friendship of all true Muslims, regardless of their ethnicity. These are the Uzbeks who joined the Taliban; and they continue to do this mostly due to the influence of jihadist “internationalists” from Uzbekistan, together with other Muslims from the former USSR. It was not surprising that the Taliban apparently courted them and clearly sent emissaries to both Central Asia and the Caucasus. Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of bin Laden’s close lieutenants, had been in the North Caucasus and later published an interesting document about his views - and apparently those of other members of the Taliban elite - of the former USSR, especially Central Asia and the Caucasus. In this document, they emerged as Lenin’s proverbial the “weakest link.” Indeed, Lenin had disregarded Marx’ assumption that a proletarian revolution as a global phenomenon would erupt simultaneously all over the capitalist world. In Lenin’s view, it was “the weakest link”––the country/countries with more tensions than others and where the hold of the elite over the masses was the weakest—that would crack first. A revolution started in these regions would then spread all over the capitalist world and would acquire global dimensions. Zawahiri’s views on Russia followed the same line of thought. He believed, at least according to the document, that the collapse of regimes in Central Asia and the spread of jihadism in the North Caucasus would play the role of a catalyst that would lead to the spread of a jihadist revolution all over Eurasia.

It was not accidental that the Taliban has courted jihadists from the former USSR. When in power in Afghanistan, the Taliban had recognized the Chechen regime and seen in Chechens as well as in other jihadists, including those from Uzbekistan, an important force. Indeed, Uzbek jhadists from Uzbekistan moved to Afghanistan where they fought bravely during the American invasion. At that time, Juma Namagani, the leader of IMU, was killed (late 2001) and replaced by Tahir Yuldachev (as reported by Rahimullah Yusufzai, a leading Pakistani journalist). And, recently, Yuldachev himself was also reported killed. While some observers assume that he escaped an attempt on his life, others believe that he was, indeed, killed. (“Tahir Yuldachev is dead: bodyguard,” The News, September 30 2009.)

At the same time, the Taliban apparently had no problem receiving an influx of fresh recruits from Uzbekistan. The point is that Karimov’s regime, with his policy of Uzbek nationalism and implicit anti-Islamism and brutal repression following the spat of terrorist attack since the late 1990s, had “Talibanized” increasing numbers of Uzbeks. (Paul Tumelty, "Analysis: Uzbekistan’s ‘Islamists’,” BBC News, May 15 2005.)

The Andijan event in 2005 was the turning point in the Uzbeks’ dissatisfaction with the Karimov regime. The spark for the disturbances was the local protest against the imprisonment of a local peace activist. Still, the reason for the protest was much deeper. One of my Uzbek acquaintances stated that many people in small provincial cities, quite a few of them government employees, had not received salaries for months. The only place where people could get paid jobs and decent living wages was in Tashkent—the capital. Still, not only were provincials not able to get resident permits to live in the capital but law enforcement/army forces prevented the starving provincials from entering the city. Thus, it was not accidental that protests in Andijan soon erupted into riots; the authorities claimed that some of those who had participated in the disturbances were armed. According to a local source, Karimov was afraid that the rioting could spread and the regime could be toppled; he saw the riot as the handiwork of jihadists who were engaged in terrorist attacks just before the Andijan riot (Alisher Ilkhamov, "Mystery surrounds Tashkent explosions,” Middle East Report Online, April 15 2004; Andrew Apostolou, "Tashkent Terrorists,” National Review Online, August 2 2004; Igor Rotar, "Why Extremism is on the rise in Uzbekistan,” Terrorism Monitor, Volume 2 Issue 16 2005.) Consequently, Karimov had a plane ready in order to escape if the riots started to spread. He also gave orders to put down the riots with the utmost severity. At the same time, the crowds, several dozen thousand strong - at least by some reports - and including women and children, were quite confident. It was assumed that Karimov would not dare to employ troops against such a multitude for this would prompt Karimov’s downfall. Still, the authorities not only deployed troops but followed orders to open fire with heavy machine guns. Hundreds, if not thousands, were killed. And the regime survived.

From then on, Karimov clearly saw Muslim jihadists or any dedicated Muslims, as major enemies. As a matter of fact he became quite similar to the Shah of Iran, who saw Islam, not the non-Islamic opposition, as the major threat to his rule. And certainly the Shah, who would lose his power as a result of the 1979 revolution, had reason to be apprehensive. Whether Karimov was influenced by the Shah’s fate is not clear. What is clear is that prayer from minarets was outlawed, and the Islamic dress code for women was prohibited or, at least, looked at with disfavor by authorities. In fact, Karimov’s drive against Muslims was the strongest among all Central Asian rulers, (Saltanat Berdikeeva, "Myth and Reality of Islamist Extremism in Central Asia," Eurasia 21 p.8.)

The arrest of dedicated Muslims followed a repressive policy that might have scared some. At the same time, for others, it could well have had the opposite effect. It could have solidified their beliefs and the desire to follow the road of martyrdom. And while some of them would stay in Uzbekistan waiting for their chance, others went to Afghanistan, for example, where they believed they could best serve the cause. Karimov’s foreign policy had provided them with such incentives. After the Abidjan massacre, Karimov’s regime was blasted by the West; and at that time, Karimov turned to Russia. Still, the flirtation with Moscow did not continue for very long; and, soon, Karimov once again became increasingly close to the West, including the USA, which was ready to forgive his human rights abuses because of the pragmatic considerations of the war in Afghanistan, a war that had increasingly gone awry.

One of the major problems for the coalition forces in Afghamistan – including Australia - is getting supplies to troops. The route through Pakistan has become increasingly difficult. Russia’s cooperation in regard to providing supply routes was also questionable due to the Kremlin’s deep suspicion of the USA as well as NATO. In the minds of the Russian elite, even those members who understood the danger of the Talibanization of Central Asia, the USA was not an honest broker and the USA’s desire to establish bases in Central Asia was not due just to a desire to defeat the Taliban but had other motives. The USA, in the views of the pundits, used the fighting against the Taliban as an excuse to establish a presence in this strategically important region.

For this reason, Moscow has created problems for the US and NATO, making it difficult for them to keep the military bases in Central Asia. Moscow is also believed to be behind recent American problems in preserving its bases in Kyrgyzstan. All of this led to the recent USA and Uzbekistan rapprochement with Karimov. At the same time, for jihadists, Karimov’s image blended with that of the USA. In the minds of the local jihadists, Tashkent and Washington, instead of Moscow, became the two heads of one monster that oppressed Muslims in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. This provided many Uzbek jihadists an opportunity to go to Afghanistan to fight their common enemy. As the war progressed, the role of Uzbek fighters from Uzbekistan became clear. One local observer noted: "We have seen more suicide bombers in Afghanistan who were supposed to be Uzbeks from Uzbekistan," (Alisher Sidikov “Pakistan blames IMU Militants for Afghan border unrest,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 2 2008.) IMU played a considerable role not just in Afghanistan but in nearby Pakistan, in Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold. Here they fought as a part of “internationalist” brigades of a sort, which includes the jihadists of a variety of ethnic origins, including a considerable number of Chechens (Michael Heath and Khalid Qayum, "Pakistan says Uzbek, Chechen fighters aiding Taliban in Swat,” (Bloomberg.com, May 22, 2009.) Tatar jihadists were also among them; and, when Tahir Yuldachev presumably was killed in the fall of 2009. There had also been rumors that he was arrested in 2007 in Afghanistan. (“Afghanistan: Presumably, Uzbek Islamists’ leader Tahir Yuldachev has been arrested,” Ferghana.ru, March 8 2007.) he was quickly replaced by Zubair Ibn Abdurakhman, an “ethnic Tatar from Russia.” (“Uzbek Islamists' leader killed in Pakistan drone attack,” Circling the Lion’s Den. A glance at the conflict in Afghanistan, October 2 2009, http://circlingthelionsden. blogspot.com/2009/10/uzbek-islamist-leader-killed-in.html.)

Thus, by the peculiar logic of events, Uzbekistan has become one of the hotbeds of jihadism in Central Asia and, in this capacity, is playing a considerable role in the war in Afghanistan. It could play an even bigger role if the entire geopolitical arrangement in the region starts to crumble – a disturbing possibility.

APDR at a glance