Is the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan still alive? There are no answers yet, but the Kyrgyz authorities are boosting their military activities.
--by Hamid Toursunof
OSH, Kyrgyzstan--Kyrgyz troops held a three-day military exercise on the country’s southern borders in early July, shortly after Kyrgyz Defense Minister Esen Topoev stated on 28 June that about 300 members of the terrorist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) were preparing to resume military attacks within Kyrgyzstan.
Military concerns were also heightened in late June by the Afghan government, which said that the leader of the IMU, Juma Namangani, who was thought to have been killed in Afghanistan last November, might be operating along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan.
These alerts come several weeks after Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev told the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Eurasian affairs, Lynn Pascoe, that he was afraid the IMU and another banned organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Party of Islamic Liberation), might be increasing their activities in the south of the country. He linked this to the political tensions that have wracked the country all year, claiming that the two groups might be stoking regional discontent with the government in Bishkek.
The IMU was founded in August 1999 and brings together militant Islamic extremists from across Central Asia’s various nationalities and ethnic groups. Its aim is to create a caliphate in the Ferghana Valley, parts of which lie within three Central Asian countries--Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The group's attacks were focused on Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Following IMU incursions into both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 1999-2000 and several kidnappings (including the abduction of Japanese citizens), the U.S. government labeled the IMU an international terrorist organization in September 2000. How many members the group has is unknown; however, before the events of 11 September, sources estimated that the IMU included several thousand active members.
The group’s goals are the same as those of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an underground Islamist party that is active in the Central Asia. However, Hizb ut-Tahrir is not a militant organization. The U.S. state department does not consider it a terrorist organization, though it is banned in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
According to the Monterey Institute of International Studies, the IMU is part of a broader network of fundamentalist Islamist groups throughout Central and South Asia. The United States, Russia, and China believe that the Taliban aided the group, at least by harboring the militants and providing training camps. The IMU also reportedly received money from Osama bin Laden and trained in Afghanistan at camps associated with bin Laden's Al Qaeda group.
IMU members were thought to have fought alongside the Taliban and Al Qaeda around the Afghan cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz last November. At the time, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek Afghan fighting with the U.S.-led coalition, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Russian daily, that IMU leader Juma Namangani, along with the majority of his 5,000-man army, had been killed in fighting around Kunduz.
However, in late June 2002, Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti that Namangani is alive and is hiding either in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Tajik Deputy Defense Minister Anatoliy Kuptsov disagrees, asserting to Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Namangani, who served as a Soviet commando during the campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s, is dead. He suggested that the Afghan authorities might be able to provide his body for identification purposes.
During a recent trip to Uzbekistan, General Tommy Franks, who commands the U.S. anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan, said that the IMU’s military capacity had been significantly degraded after Namangani’s death, but that the group still posed a threat. He promised to do “the best to neutralize the IMU guerillas.”
The chairman of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council, Misir Ashyrkulov, told the Bishkek-based Moya Stolitsa daily that Kyrgyzstan’s citizens need not panic. However, he warned them to be prepared for the IMU to renew its military struggle in Kyrgyzstan. He argues, in contrast to Afghanistan’s defense minister, that the natural place for the IMU to regroup is the Ferghana Valley, rather than Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Despite those warnings and other high-level statements during the week, the Kyrgyz public remains calm. Makhmudov Sadyk, an Osh-based legal rights activist, told TOL that he believes there is no serious danger that the IMU might launch attacks given the presence of U.S. and other Western military units in Kyrgyzstan. “I do not think that now, with a military base in our country with 2,000 foreign military servicemen, Kyrgyzstan is in danger of a foreign military intervention,” Makhmudov said.
A trader from Osh, a former secondary-school teacher who wished to remain anonymous, told TOL that the “authorities are trying to suck money from international donors, exploiting … events that took place three years ago.” Moreover, only “with difficulty” did the Kyrgyz army at the time “manage to banish IMU guerrillas from our country on its own.”
Few people share any optimism in the fighting efficiency of the Kyrgyz army, partly because of the pay. On 6 July, Kyrgyz national TV reported that a Kyrgyz conscript is paid 180 soms (roughly $4) a month, while a professional soldier earns 2,500 soms ($55).
Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan is receiving military aid from an increasing number of countries, including former Soviet states. On a recent trip, Norwegian Defense Minister Kristine Devold said that another 18 aircraft from Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway would be sent to the Manas military air base. The base currently houses forces from the United States and 11 other countries.
On 28 June Topoev said that another air base, 14 kilometers outside Bishkek in the town of Kant, would be upgraded for use by rapid-deployment forces from the former Soviet Union. Topoev said he expects most of the funding to come from former Soviet states. On 29 June, RFE/RL reported that Ukraine would provide $2 million in military aid to Kyrgyzstan in 2002-2003. Kyrgyzstan also receives military help from Azerbaijan, Russia, and Belarus.
Topoev said the presence of such a broad group of forces and different military coalitions is not against anyone’s interests. According to an RFE/RL report from 1 July, the U.S. assistant secretary for international security policy, Jack Crouch, said the new level of cooperation between Washington and Central Asia was beneficial to both sides and promised that the United States would maintain a presence in the region. He did not give any time frame.
Apart from added security and military funding, the interest for Kyrgyzstan may be the hope of more economic aid to help it out of its deep economic crisis. According to Kabar news agency, an official from the UN Development Program's mission in Kyrgyzstan said that between 1992 and 2001, Kyrgyzstan received $1.69 billion in foreign loans. To cut poverty by 10 percent by 2005, Kyrgyzstan would need $2 billion, the head of the Finance Ministry’s press service, Aijan Imankulova, announced on 27 June. At present, the average monthly wage in the country is $20. Another representative of the Finance Ministry, Birjan Chukin, told the Agym newspaper that Kyrgyzstan’s total debt is $1.56 billion. The country has a population of 5 million.
Transitions Online, July 2 - 8, 2002