Throughout the 1900’s, Central Asia languished as the remote, relatively unknown backwater of the Russian Empire. Uzbekistan is the most populous of the Central Asian republics and shares borders with Turkmenistan (4,500,000), Kazakhstan (17,300,000), Kyrgystan (5,000,000), Tajikistan (6,500,000) and Afghanistan (25,000,000). After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, US forces were deployed to Uzbekistan to help deter and contain Islamic extremists.
The heart of this Central Asian region is the fertile Ferghana Valley, a 200 mile long, 70 mile wide valley intentionally divided among three different states – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgystan. Nearly 11 million people live in the Ferghana Valley, making it the economic, religious, and cultural center of Central Asia. It’s a place where cotton is king, oil is the heir apparent and Islamist extremism threatens to destroy the government’s feeble attempts at progress.
On March 31, 2004, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a terrorist group associated with the al-Qaeda network, launched a series of suicide bombings and engaged in gun battles with Uzbek security forces, in which 44 people were killed. As economic and political conditions continue to deteriorate additional violence can be expected.
During the 1800’s, Central Asia became the target of Czarist expansion, seeking control of the area’s cotton and mineral resources and to contain Britain’s ever-expanding colonial empire in Asia. Millions of Russians flooded into the region, supported by Czarist armies. Russians appropriated native lands, gained control over commerce and built a railroad connecting this remote region to Russia. The Russians met widespread resistance with brutality and established the basis for continuing future animosity with Russian control.
During the Russian Revolution (1917-18), many Central Asians, opposed to the Czar, supported the Bolsheviks, while others resisted any form of Russian influence in the region. In 1917, Russian forces wrested control of Tashkent and established the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, although rebel resistance remained active.
In 1924 the National Delimitation of Central Asia Republics created several autonomous republics. Adhering to the British “divide and rule” principle, the Russians carved the region into an illogical patchwork quilt as a means to maintain political control over the many ethnic groups.
Under Stalin’s communist regime investments brought modernization of agriculture and industry, along with religious and political repression. Uzbek leaders who mistakenly thought that autonomy permitted them to assert a nationalist identity and participate in government were arrested and executed. Muslims, a huge majority of the population, who sought to practice their religion were brutally oppressed.
Stalin introduced aggressive irrigation schemes to increase cotton production which ultimately wrought environmental havoc, drying up rivers and the Aral Sea and depleting the land. To protect its industry during World War II, Russia moved factories to Central Asia, along with a new wave of Russian workers and subversives exiled from the Crimea, Chechnya and elsewhere. This industrial boom brought little benefit to native Uzbeks.
After World War II, Russia enforced a policy of Russification, oppressing the Muslim religion, establishing Russian as the official language and repressing native culture and traditions, all in the name of communist conformity. Uzbeks that cooperated earned greater privilege and opportunity within government, the Communist Party and in business. The resulting corruption plagued relations with Russia and remains a complicating factor even today.
In 1986, after it was discovered that Uzbeks had been falsifying cotton production, Moscow purged the entire corrupt Uzbek government, which provoked distrust, resentment, while fanning the flames of discontent and nationalism.
In 1978 Soviet forces invaded neighboring Afghanistan and remained mired in a struggle with the Afghani mujahadeen until troops withdrew in 1989. Afghani rebels moved freely across the regions porous borders, protected by rugged, impenetrable mountains. These rebels included fighters from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Chechnya, who brought with them a radical version of fundamentalist Islam. This influence would later lead to the emergence of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
After the outbreak of ethnic violence in 1989, Moscow appointed Islam Karimov as leader of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan and he became president in 1990. As the USSR unraveled, Uzbekistan declared its independence in August 1991 and later signed the Alma-Ata Agreement, becoming a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). After the new parliament selected Karimov as president, he began efforts to reduce the country’s reliance on Russia by establishing international diplomatic, trade and investment relations.
Despite the euphoria surrounding the victory of democracy and capitalism over communism, the Western powers were reluctant to lend the political and financial support needed to resuscitate the flagging economies of the former Soviet republics. Not surprisingly, they took a wait and see approach. Meanwhile, the government holds to the Soviet tradition of strong central control over the economy, an approach that encourages corruption and discourages outside investment.
The collapse of communist control opened doors for religious expression and a renewed Islamic fervor. As the stagnating and deteriorating economies of Uzbekistan and the surrounding states brought poverty and discontent, Islamist extremists have exploited the deprivation to recruit militant followers. In 1996, a regional vice governor was assassinated, and in late 1997 a number of police officers were killed, prompted a government crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists. As a result of the growing Islamist threat, Uzbekistan’s President Karimov renewed the religious oppression reminiscent of the communist era and further stoking the fires of discontent as Karimov declared, "Such people must be shot in the head. If necessary, I'll shoot them myself."
The wars in neighboring Tajikistan (1992-97) and Afghanistan (1979-96) attracted mujahadeen from throughout the Muslim world and an increase in Islamic fundamentalism. These Muslim fighters helped foster a form of Islam based on the radical Wahhabi doctrine that originated in Saudi Arabia. Amid a region suffering from poverty and unemployment this militant Islam offers a rebirth of a once glorious past and promise of eternal martyrdom, combined with convenient scapegoats for today’s problems. For young males provides a form of masculine expression and identity otherwise unavailable. The region’s conflicts also brought an unrelenting flow of weaponry, supplied by Russia, the U.S., Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
After the Russians withdrawal from Afghanistan, civil war raged between various ethnic groups and warlords until the Taliban gained control. Under the Taliban Afghanistan became an extremist sanctuary and base of operations for rebel incursions into nearby states. Central Asia and the Ferghana valley in particular, became the nexus for an unsavory mix of ethnic disputes, drug trafficking and Islamist terrorism.
Afghanistan is the world’s leading producer of opium poppies and heroin destined primarily to Europe, and drug trafficking offers one of the only options for escaping the region’s endemic unemployment and poverty. Opium production has also expanded into the Ferghana Valley, with tacit support and active participation of corrupt government officials, the police and military. Wealthy drug traffickers and well-armed terrorists form an easy alliance, where drug money pays for security and protection for drug lords but not the general public.
In 1999 the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) commenced operations in a concerted effort to disrupt the government and cause inter-state friction. In the capital of Tashkent a series of car bombs killed 16 and were followed by terror campaigns in 2000 and 2001. By 2000, the IMU had an estimated 60,000 avid supporters and thousands of armed fighters. According to Pakistani sources the IMU may have supplied Usama bin Laden with Russian fissile material for manufacturing an improvised nuclear explosive device.
The IMU leadership includes mullah Tahir Yuldosh as the spiritual leader and former mujahadeen Juma Namangani as military leader. They were behind the attempted assassination of Uzbekistan's President Karimov in February 1999 as part of their plan to establish an Islamic state. After the failed attempt on Kiromov, the IMU set-up a training camp inside Afghanistan and later expanded their goal to establishing Islamic rule throughout all of Central Asia and is believed to have ties to Hizb-e Tahrir, another, more secretive, militant Islamist organization.
When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, most of the IMU fighters answered the call to arms in support of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Karimov was more than happy to see them leave and eagerly invited U.S. troops into Uzbekistan hoping to prevent their return. Many of the fighters were decimated by American forces and achieved their goal of martyrdom. Like most of the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, the IMU all but vanished after the U.S. invasion, however Islamic fundamentalism has continued to gain influence throughout the region, especially in the Ferghana Valley.
Uzbek journalist Abdulkhamid Khojayev has written that, "This place resembles the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. It is calm at the surface. ... Everyone knows something will happen, but no one knows what." In March 2004, the IMU resurfaced with a series of suicide bombings and gunfights with police in which 44 people were killed. Uzbek authorities claim the violence was the work of al-Qaeda, which has close ties with the IMU.
This was the first outbreak of violence since the United States established a military base housing an estimated 1500 troops near the Afghan border. It’s unlikely to be the last.
According to the International Crisis Group, “International engagement with Uzbekistan's regime has resulted in continuation of extensive human rights abuses and encouraged economic decline. There has been no real progress towards meeting (reform) benchmarks or the commitments to political and economic liberalisation in bilateral agreements with the U.S. and EU. Torture remains systemic, and the corrupt, non-transparent economy continues to be controlled by an elite while 80 per cent of the population live in poverty. The regime has been given too free a ride because it is seen as a partner against terrorism and Islamist extremism but engagement must become more critical and investment increased to civil society in order to stem long-term damage to Western credibility in this predominantly Muslim region.”