I wanted to do an in-depth post on the Uzbek unrest last night, but a variety of events prevented me from doing so. I figure it's usually better to be as accurate as possible rather than first, so I'll try to provide as best a primer as I can, though I want everyone reading this to understand that the situation and the facts surrounding it are rather fluid and subject to change as things in Uzbekistan and our understanding of them develop. I also want to stress that I am not a Central Asia expert, Nathan is, so I of course defer to him on all this stuff. You can see some of his links in today's Winds of War briefing.
The Uzbek government is claiming that this recent rash of violence and protests are the work of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), an Islamist movement.
There is certainly an Islamist (and in fact an al-Qaeda) connection at work in the current situation, and there is almost certainly an attempt underway to push things in that direction; but as of right now there seems to be a fairly diverse mixture of factions and ideologies in play in eastern Uzbekistan. The majority of the protesters seem to be far more motivated by economic and filial motivations than they are a desire to build a Caliphate in Central Asia.
The origins of Islamism in Uzbekistan date back, not surprisingly, to the fall of the USSR.
A number of Islamist movements had cropped up in Central Asia during the late 1980s and early 1990s and after the fall of the Soviet Union members of the Islamic Renaissance [Would that not be "Baath" in Arabic?] Party started organizing in the impoverished Ferghana Valley. Under the leadership of former Soviet paratrooper Juma Namangani, mullah Tahir Yuldashev, and Wahhabi activist Abdul Ahad, who broke away from the IRP altogether and founded the Adolat (Justice) organization as part of the power bid against Uzbekistan's draconian president-for-life, Islam Karimov. The bid failed, Adolat was broken in the ensuing crackdown, and the group's ruling troika had to flee across the border to the Garm Valley in neighboring Tajikistan to continue their fight, which is where they first met up with al-Qaeda.
As detailed by the 9/11 Commission report amongst other places, al-Qaeda actively aided the Tajik Islamists who were harboring the Adolat remnants in their war against the government and bin Laden's protege Amir ibn al-Khattab (later infamous for his exploits against Russian forces in Chechnya) headed up the al-Qaeda efforts in Central Asia during this period.
Khattab seems to have regarded the Adolat remnants as a kind of kindred spirits and there has been speculation in the (dubiously reliable) Russian media over the years as to the links between the Uzbek terrorists and Khattab's Chechen fighters. In any case, the Adolat leadership remained holed up in the Garm Valley for years, eventually being inspired by the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan (IMT) rebels (since reconciled with the Tajik government) who were harboring them to form the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
Up until about 1998, the IMU was fairly schizophrenic as far as what it wanted to do. Namangani wasn't in the mood for the kind of political deal that the IMT had accepted, while Yuldashev traveled back and forth from their Garm Valley stronghold to Kabul and Peshawar throughout 1996-1997, maintaining ties to various Pakistani jihadi groups as well as the Taliban.
Eventually, the bulk of the IMU abandoned most of its Tajik bases for Afghanistan. Once there, it set up shop in northern Afghanistan and, using $2,000,000 in ransom money paid to the group by Japanese businesses in return for the safety of a group of Japanese geologists kidnapped in September 1999, the IMU was able to purchase better weapons and recruit more members from its ancestral home in the Ferghana Valley. In August 2000, it even mounted a major incursion into Ferghana, seizing control of the strategic city of Kamchik before being forced to retreat back into Afghan territory.
Prior to 9/11, the IMU was in the process of launching a second incursion into Uzbekistan and transforming itself from a national jihadi group into a regional one by actively recruiting Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Turkmen into its ranks.
The US invasion of Afghanistan dealt the region a severe blow, leaving Namangani dead and the group's manpower severely depleted. Unable to hold out in Afghanistan, the group retreated into northern Pakistan with the rest of the al-Qaeda remnants and started working to replenish their manpower and expand their regional profile. The latter was mostly due to the work of Tahir Yuldashev, who has good ties to most of the major Pakistani jihadi groups and is in close collaboration with the non-Arab Chechen al-Qaeda leaders also based in Pakistan like Daniar or Quaran Ata. Under Yuldashev, the IMU has reinvented itself several ties over into the Islamic Movement of Turkestan, Islamic Jihad Group of Uzbekistan (IJGU, sometimes just referred to just as Jamoat or "society," which is the same word in Uzbek or Arabic that we translate as "group" in many cases, ah the wonders of etymology and Romanization ...), and a couple of other permutations on that general theme.
On a more sinister level, Yuldashev also took advantage of the local jihadi training facilities (usually Jaish-e-Mohammed or Lashkar-e-Taiba) to rebuild his organization.
Thus we have the following two groups that have sprung up over the last several years:
- The formation of the Bayyat group in the Soghd region of Tajikistan
- The establishment of the Mujahideen of Central Asia Group based in the remote regions of Kazakhstan to act as a kind of neo-IMU and an umbrella coalition for all nasty Central Asian Islamists
Yuldashev has also been quite busy dealing with a very real battle against the Pakistani military last April as well as reconstituting the IMU ranks as well as directing a low-level terrorist campaign against the Uzbek government under a variety of auspices.
While he's still loyal to bin Laden and was present at the al-Qaeda coffee hour in April 2003 to lay out the organization's priorities post-OIF, his priorities don't seem very much in synch with the global al-Qaeda leadership as say, Zarqawi's. For one thing, while all the major Pakistani jihadi groups and even the Southeast Asian JI have sent a handful of fighters to assist in the Iraqi jihad, but as far as I know, the IMU hasn't sent anybody. Nor have they been particularly focused on fighting the US in Afghanistan or waging the kind of domestic terrorist campaign inside Pakistan as favored by people like Abu Faraj al-Libi or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
This suggests, at least to me, that either Yuldashev is still too weakened to be of much help to al-Qaeda's international agenda, that he has more of a regional than a global strategy, or that he's a lot more patient than other major jihadi leaders we've encountered to date.
As far as the Hizb-ut-Tahrir factor is concerned here, I'll be quite up front and say that I don't trust them, period. They claim to be both non-violent and apolitical, but my own opinion is that they are neither. So while I don't approve of the methods that Central Asian governments have utilized in stamping them out, I more than understand the rationale for doing so. Hizb-ut-Tahrir in power in any country would produce an Islamist version of Pol Pot's Cambodia with probably a similar body count. They could well be behind this recent wave of violence as likely as not, but either way it doesn't make them a benign influence for the region ... nor does it justify the steps that Karimov has undertaken to suppress them.
Like I noted earlier, there is definitely an Islamist and probably an al-Qaeda allied component to what's now going on in eastern Uzbekistan. Still, the Uzbek line that this is all being orchestrated by Hizb-ut-Tahrir out of London or the idea that this is the work of Tahir Yuldashev down in Waziristan that they're trying to pass off to some Western governments should definitely be taken with a whole shaker of salt.
While a lot of the reporting out of Uzbekistan has been pretty good since the crisis first broke, the news blackout that Karimov has attempted to impose while his troops move in to crush the protesters/rebels is keeping much of the information from getting out. Notice how the death toll has risen from a few dozen to at least 500 in such a short time and that we now have something a refugee movement going on?
Right now, all we're dealing with is a mixture of rumors, Uzbek (and Russian) propaganda, and Islamist propaganda on the other hand and it's likely to be some time (if ever) that we actually figure out the truth of what's going on there.
One of the main questions I have is that while I understand that the Andijon townsfolk were up in arms over economic issues, has anybody figured out yet who exactly raided the military barracks for weapons and then shot up the prison? That isn't something that you just plan overnight in a place like Uzbekistan, which leads me to suspect that either the attackers had been planning their actions for awhile and took advantage of the protests, the protesters (backed by the local business magnates?) were involved in the attack, or the whole thing happened spontaneously riot-style.
Any help on figuring out the chronology here would be of great assistance.
The important thing to understand when looking at all of this is that what is now going on in Uzbekistan is the result of a conflict that's been brewing for quite awhile now, whether the actual cause is Islamist or economic in nature.
Karimov runs an exceedingly tight and draconian ship, but until quite recently (perhaps inspired by events in Kyrgyzstan?) the majority of the population was hesitant about standing up to him either because they thought that he may be a tyrant and a strongman, but that in so doing he held the country together and prevented it from descending into chaos. I certainly don't agree with that view (which also seems to be how a lot of Iraqi Sunnis view Saddam Hussein), but it's definitely out there and worth noting.
This is one of the reasons why this protest/rebellion, regardless of the cause, is such a significant development: it means that for a growing number of Uzbeks, the view of Karimov as being a necessary evil has now weakened to the point where large numbers of them are able to protest or even take up arms against his government, with the latter in particular being a pretty big indication that somebody in Uzbekistan thinks they have a chance of bringing down his regime. I notice there still haven't been any definitive figures as to the number of dead Uzbek soldiers killed in Andijon...
The willingness to stand up to Karimov (the fact that these protests are even occurring is a sign of the impotency of his fearsome police state) is probably a good thing in the long run in the sense of eventually producing a stable democracy in the country. On the flip side, it also provides some definite windows of opportunity for Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the IMU to exploit if they can move quickly, since both groups have been at the forefront of visible opposition to the regime.
As in Kyrgyzstan following the ouster of Akayev, the current situation in Uzbekistan is one of both opportunity and peril. If the protests were based largely around economic issues, which seems to have been the case on the surface, then their continuing after the Uzbek military was sent in may well mark the beginning of the gradual democratization of the country. If it is Hizb-ut-Tahrir or the IMU, however, the 500 or so that we know were killed may only be the beginning of what will eventually be a far larger body count.
A number of recent media reports have pointed out that there's an ethnic split in al-Qaeda in Pakistan between the Arabs on one hand and the heavily Uzbek Central Asians on the other.
That's quite true, and one might even argue that the al-Qaeda practice of organizing its cadres into ethno-nationalist cliques called "families" during training contributes to these divisions. While al-Qaeda is far more meritocratic and egalitarian than most Middle Eastern organizations (which is how a petty thug like Zarqawi attained the status he now holds), there are also national divisions even among the various ethnic groups, which the bulk of the organization's senior leadership being made up Saudi and Egyptian nationals. The Javanese Indonesians similarly dominate JI and the Uzbeks run the Central Asians, and so on and so forth.
It now appears that the US has been able to exploit these divisions on the local level, such as in the case of Abu Faraj al-Libi's IMU bodyguard unit, though I would be extremely hesitant to make anything more out of these divisions than a squabble among thieves.
The main reason that many Uzbek IMU/al-Qaeda tend to dislike the Arabs is because
1) they saw most of the fighting against the Pakistani army last April and sustained heavy losses as a result,
2) the Arabs are the ones with the direct connections to the al-Qaeda financiers in the Golden Chain and hence the Uzbeks are largely dependent on them for cash, and
3) the rank and file Arab al-Qaeda, particularly those from the Gulf States (though al-Libi also exhibited this behavior even though his former boss KSM did not) tend to regard themselves as superior to most Central and South Asians, it isn't exactly racism and the closest analogy I can think of off-hand is the way that some Japanese regard non-inhabitants of the main islands.
In any event, this convergence of factors leads to a lot of resentment among bin Laden's Uzbek acolytes and it's a good thing that the US is now trying to exploit it.
So Nathan, how'd I do?