The recent violent attacks in Uzbekistan should not have been a surprise. They were the direct result of the repressive and anti-democratic policies of the authoritarian Uzbek government; a disgruntled, unemployed and alienated youth; and growing international terrorist links with Central Asia. What is new is the nature of the attacks -- female suicide bombings -- which reflects the evolving tactics of terrorists worldwide.
The violence also demonstrates that current U.S. strategy in Central Asia is not working.
It is time for a more balanced strategy, one that focuses less on military might and support for authoritarian regimes and more on intelligence-sharing, law enforcement and combatting the underlying conditions of terrorism.
Post-Soviet Central Asia sits at the strategic crossroads between Russia, China, Afghanistan and the Middle East and borders the oil-rich Caspian Sea. Its largely Islamic peoples are divided into five authoritarian states. Despite significant differences, the states are very poor and weak, increasingly vulnerable to attack by criminal elements. Besides terrorism, the potentially serious threats include narcotics, arms, and human trafficking. Uzbekistan is the region's largest and most powerful state, so it is vitally important that the United States gets its policies there right.
Since their independence in 1991, Central Asian states have suffered several violent attacks linked to extreme Islamic groups. The main radical Islamic groups of concern in the region are the armed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the unarmed Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Both have ties with foreign terrorist groups. The recent terrorist acts in Uzbekistan were most likely the work of the IMU or perhaps even a new group within the dynamic and amorphous al-Qaeda network.
The IMU is dedicated to overthrowing the Uzbek regime and establishing an Islamic state in the Ferghana Valley, which straddles Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It was responsible for small-scale military attacks in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000. Although the IMU was severely weakened in 2001 during the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, it is believed to be currently regrouping and has allegedly been involved in recent attempted attacks in Kyrgyzstan. Many IMU members, including a key leader, Tokhir Yuldashev, may be hiding along the Pakistan-Afghan border.
The Uzbek government blames recent violence on the much larger and so far nonviolent group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT). Headquartered in London, HT is an underground movement that advocates peaceful means to create Islamic caliphates based on Sharia law throughout the Muslim world; it is thought to have as many as 10,000 members and is now actively recruiting and distributing propaganda pamphlets throughout Central Asia. There is a real fear that the little-understood HT may switch tactics, and begin to advocate violence. Its secretive and decentralized structure would then makes its activities very hard to combat.
Uzbek policies are partly to blame for the current escalation in violence and rising discontent. President Islam Karimov, the head of Uzbekistan's secular government, has pursued a vigorous anti-terrorism policy, sending thousands of Uzbeks to prison and into exile.
Roundly condemned by human-rights groups, the government's heavy-handed actions, combined with the lack of political opportunities, is increasing popular resentment and making membership in outlawed groups more attractive -- and may encourage HT to adopt more confrontational tactics.
Misguided U.S. strategy has also contributed to the rise of extremism. U.S. policy in Central Asia has primarily focused on military means to fight terrorism.
After Sept. 11, the U.S. created military bases in key Central Asian states to act as staging points for the war in Afghanistan, and to combat terrorism in the region as a whole. Uzbekistan has received the greatest share of the U.S. aid. And U.S. military presence in Uzbekistan has helped to train and equip the Uzbek military forces. However, as the recurrence of terrorist acts shows, traditional military force is of limited use in combatting terrorists who are organized in small and loosely affiliated cells.
The U.S. bases also have the paradoxical effect of increasing anti-American sentiments though their very presence.
The United States is perceived by many people as hypocritical in its rhetorical promotion of democracy and human rights. The military bases are symbols that the United States is aligning itself with authoritarian states and providing training and funds to their repressive security structures. That fuels recruitment for extremist organizations, especially since they are the only avenues for dissent.
U.S. policy and tactics should be much more balanced, nuanced and focused on helping the peoples of the region. Terrorists cannot be defeated through military means or safer borders alone. Current international efforts to help Central Asian states to improve their criminal justice systems -- in law enforcement, intelligence-gathering and legal institutions -- are to be applauded. Significantly more such co-operative efforts are needed. What is missing is an international consensus to put in place a long-term human-security strategy. More sustained efforts are needed to address the underlying causes of terrorism -- such as economic dislocation, youth unemployment and the breakdown in domestic governance.
The United States is the major foreign player in the region, and needs to balance its military approach by more aggressively promoting tolerance, respect for the rule of law, democratic values and human rights in Uzbekistan. If the Americans fails to amend their strategy, there's a real danger that Uzbekistan and other weak Central Asian states will continue to attract and nurture terrorists and other criminals with global reach.
Nicole Jackson, currently based at the Centre of International Relations, University of British Columbia, is author of 'Russian Foreign Policy and the CIS'. She is writing a book on combatting terrorism and illicit trades in post-Soviet Central Asia, and has just returned from the region.
© Copyright 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.