The IMU: Fish in Search of a Sea
Islam Karimov must be pleased. Instead of pursuing their proclaimed aim of toppling the Uzbek president's regime, the remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) are fighting for survival. And not in Uzbekistan, but in the rugged, autonomous tribal areas of Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan. And they have little chance of returning to Uzbekistan.
The IMU--or what was left of it--arrived in Pakistan after the government of the Afghan Taliban was toppled by the Americans.
The relationship between the Taliban and IMU is as old as the IMU, and goes back a long way before the attacks of 9/11 that prompted the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban. After the Taliban had captured the Afghan capital, Kabul, in September 1996, Juma Namangani and Tahir Yoldashev--long-time opponents of Karimov--held a press conference in the city to announce the formation of the IMU. Namangani, who had served as a Soviet paratrooper in Afghanistan in the 1980s, became the group's leader (or Ameer) and Yoldashev its military commander. Their aim was to topple Karimov and turn Uzbekistan, and ultimately the whole of Central Asia, into an Islamic state. The Taliban provided them with a place to shelter and train--and to plot against Karimov.
The Taliban were inclined to do this because Karimov was supporting one of their opponents in the north, the Uzbek-Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. Karimov hoped Dostum--a former communist--would serve as a secular buffer between Uzbekistan and the fundamentalist regime in Kabul. But it was not all power politics. The Taliban and the IMU--as well as other foreign militants in Afghanistan--shared the same ideas, believing in a world-wide Islamic state where nationality would be irrelevant. The IMU in Taliban Afghanistan was involved in policy-making. It "had real influence," says Behroz Khan, the bureau chief of the Pakistani daily The News in Peshawar.
This ended with the American invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, when the IMU also suffered heavy losses. Namangani was one of those killed. But Yoldashev led an estimated 250 Central Asian families over the border into South Waziristan, a tribal area in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province where the central authorities traditionally have little power.
FISH IN A DYING SEA
The Uzbeks were not the only ones to arrive from Afghanistan. According to Pakistani sources, Arab and Chechen fighters also fled the country. But unlike many of the Arabs, most Uzbeks and Chechens did not subsequently leave Pakistan. Unable to return to their homelands, they linked up with local militants. And perhaps with Al Qaeda fugitives: According to unverified reports, the Uzbeks served as bodyguards to Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In September 2003, when the Pakistani army started operations against the militants in Waziristan, there were 600-700 foreign militants in the area, of which at least 100-200 were Uzbeks from the IMU. In March 2004, during heavy fighting in which Yoldashev might have been wounded, the Pakistani army intercepted radio transmissions in both Uzbek and Chechen, says the commander of the counter-insurgency operation, Lieutenant General Safdar Hussain.
In clashes since 2003, dozens of militants have been killed and hundreds more are thought to have left the area, usually in small groups. The 100 or so foreign fighters who according to Pakistani estimates remain are believed to be nearly all Uzbeks. And "Yoldashev is still there," says Khan.
Some 70,000 to 80,000 Pakistani (para)military forces are present in the region, but it has turned out to be difficult to destroy the IMU fighters. "They are extremely professional fighters," says General Hussain. They are equipped with Thuraya satellite phones and military maps, and they are well-exercised and battle-hardened. All in all, the task facing the army was more difficult than expected beforehand, says Peshawar-based journalist Rahimullah Yousafzai. More than 200 government forces have been killed in fighting in the area.
If the IMU is to be defeated or forced out of the region, it may be thanks less to military force and more to economic pressure. Sanctions against the tribal areas have made life all but impossible for local people, and they have turned away from the militants as a result.
"Economic pressure has managed to weaken [local] support," says Khan. Most home-grown militants that were still fighting accepted a government amnesty on 7 February. Local support for the Uzbeks is now "a dream," he believes.
AN EXIT STRATEGY?
Khan expects attacks on military installations and convoys to continue in Waziristan because the Uzbeks are still hiding there. But if the theory is right that guerrilla fighters should be as fish in the sea, the IMU has a problem: their sea of local supporters is drying up. "Their network is smashed and they have to move from place to place," says Khan. "Tahir Yoldashev is on the run."
In addition, international support for Islamist activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan is harder to get these days. Most potential (Arab) sponsors of such activities are focusing on Iraq instead, says Yousafzai. Even Al Qaeda--with whom the IMU has been accused of cooperating with in the past--hasn't had much money to spare for the region since the demise of the Taliban.
"To my knowledge, Al Qaeda is not that active here at the moment," asserts Abdur Rashid Ghazi, a Pakistani cleric in Islamabad considered close to the Taliban. "They're focusing on Iraq."
The IMU's focus on survival coupled with their probable financial problems immediately cast doubt on the Uzbek government's claim that the IMU were behind bombings in Uzbekistan in March-April 2004 that left 42 people dead. (Another group initially blamed was Hizb ut-Tahrir, an avowedly non-militant movement that also advocates an Islamic state in Central Asia.) In the end, at a trial in July 2004, a newly reemerged movement, Tabligh Jamaat, was accused by the Uzbek government of being behind the attacks.
Having lost their local support, things are much worse now for the IMU than back in July. They cannot hope to blend in with the local population, who look very different from the Central Asians. Neither can they hope, as foreigners, for an amnesty deal of the kind offered to native Pakistani militants. The United States still considers the movement a terrorist organisation. The road to Uzbekistan is blocked by a now unfriendly Afghanistan. So they do not seem to have any other option but to continue fighting--especially because if captured, Karimov might try to get them.
"If [Uzbeks] are detained [in Pakistan] they should be handed over to the Uzbek judicial authorities," the Uzbek president said at a news conference in March 2004.
Now that the IMU has lost Waziri support, Khan believes they might choose to fight from the Afghan side of the border. Their chances of surviving there look brighter, provided they can get there. In Waziristan alone, there are 80,000 or so soldiers; over the border they would have to elude fewer than 20,000 U.S. and international forces spread thinly throughout Afghanistan. And, since the Uzbeks are a powerful minority in Afghanistan, the IMU would have a better chance of merging into the local population.
Other observers disagree. Scott Richards, the safety advisor for Security Office, which advises NGOs in Afghanistan on security risks, says he would "find it hard to believe a group would look at relocating" to Afghanistan.
But the IMU has few options--and the Taliban, battered and bruised, would certainly welcome back what remains of their old allies.
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