AFGHANISTAN SPECIAL REPORT: What Impact Will Fighting Have On Uzbekistan?

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 8 November 2001

'Mercenaries from many former Soviet republics are fighting with the Taliban, particularly fighters from Chechnya and from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU),' declares the Northern Alliance's foreign minister Abdullo Abdullah. 'We think it is pointless to suggest that these people should leave Afghan territory, as the situation in the states that border our country could then become less stable,' he told Keston News Service on 24 October in the northern Afghan town of Khwaja-Bahawudin, 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the Tajik border. The fact that IMU fighters are indeed fighting alongside Taliban forces is confirmed not only by Northern Alliance leaders, but also by refugees.

On 25 October Keston visited a refugee camp in the small town of Konkushlan, on the outskirts of Khwaja-Bahawudin. The camp is home to around 1,100 people, who fled from the town of Khuzhega, 60 kilometres (35 miles) from Khwaja-Bahawudin, about a year ago, when it was seized by Taliban forces. Practically all the camp's inhabitants are from Afghanistan's ethnic Uzbek minority. 'When the Taliban entered the town, they started to go round the houses, telling people to give up their weapons,' an Uzbek refugee from Khuzhega, 35-year-old peasant Khamidulo Khayit, told Keston. 'But we are simple peasants and we do not have any guns. We were frightened that the Taliban would kill us, and we fled to Khwaja-Bahawudin.' According to Khayit, IMU fighters appeared alongside the Taliban forces in the town. 'They proposed that we should fight with them in Uzbekistan. But these people came to Khuzhega with the Taliban, who are enemies of Afghan Uzbeks, and so we did not trust them.'

The war in Afghanistan has been caused by conflicts not so much of politicsas of nationality. The overwhelming majority of Taliban fighters are Pushtuns, while the Northern Alliance that opposes the Taliban unites Afghan Tajiks and Uzbeks, who are concentrated in northern Afghanistan. Uzbeks and Tajiks live in the town of Khwaja-Bahawudin, and all of the several dozen inhabitants of the town questioned by Keston supported the bombing of Taliban positions by United States forces. 'Of course, it is bad that peaceful Afghans will be killed by the US bombing campaign. But war is war. The most important thing for us now is to destroy our enemy - the Taliban,' Keston was told on 26 October by Sayid Muhamad, an ethnic Tajik who lives in Khwaja-Bahawudin.

Northern Alliance military commanders also stress their common cause with the US. 'We have managed to establish that the Taliban and their ally Osama bin Laden drew up a plan under which the murder of our leader Ahmad Shah Masoud would act as a signal for the launch of terrorist action in the United States,' Major-General Khabibula Alayar told Keston in Khwaja-Bahawudin on 26 October. 'Today, we and the US have a common enemy in the Taliban, and so we are allies.' The Northern Alliance leadership seems prepared to join forces with any opponent of the Taliban.

Speaking to Keston on 26 October in Khwaja-Bahawudin, the head of the Northern Alliance's department for the assistance of virtue and prevention of vice, Jalal Fahri, declared that the IMU is itself forcing Uzbek president Islam Karimov to take repressive measures against Muslims.

However, if the inter-ethnic nature of the conflict in Afghanistan gives grounds to hope that the US intervention will not lead to the destabilisation of the north of this Islamic state, the situation in the neighbouring Central Asian countries is not so clear-cut. The most volatile regions are in the Fergana valley, which is shared between three states: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The IMU originated in the Uzbek section of the Fergana valley, and although the movement's fighters are currently in Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan, many of its supporters are likely to have remained in Uzbekistan itself.

The radical international Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir is also active in the Fergana valley. Banned in all the Central Asian states, it aims to unite Muslims world-wide under a single caliphate regulated by Shariah law. Before the start of the US-led military action in Afghanistan, this party condemned the use of force, but since the start of the bombing campaign, the party leadership has decided to change tactics. On 9 October, Hizb-ut-Tahrir distributed a declaration on the Internet declaring: 'The time has come for you to defend the domains of the Muslims... The time has come for you to liberate the Ummah [community of believers] from the evil of these renegade clans that have permitted loyalty to Kufr [infidels] at the expense of supporting the Muslims. It is forbidden for you to obey them in fighting the Muslims. Rather it is obligatory on you to work to liberate the Ummah from them, and to support your Muslim brothers in Afghanistan and elsewhere by standing on their side in confronting America, Britain and their allies in their brutal war against Islam and the Muslims.'

This declaration could be interpreted by its Central Asian members as a call to armed conflict with the authorities. Hizb-ut-Tahrir is perhaps the most popular political organisation in the Fergana valley. Moreover, extreme fanaticism is a characteristic of its members, who are predominantly young people from traditional Central Asian society. In court cases against Hizb-ut-Tahrir members, the accused almost always say they are not frightened of prison and that they would happily endure torture in the name of Allah. In such a situation there is no doubt that if Hizb-ut-Tahrir's Central Asian members receive an order to commit an act of terrorism, they will carry it out, regardless of their own fate. (END)