Can we learn from the recent past?

by Joshua Foust on 11/19/2008 · 13 comments

Now that the war in Afghanistan is 86 months old and the U.S. government is finally, sort of, just now starting to try to get its act together (though the latest memetic scourge infecting DC, “arming the tribes,” is such a terrible idea even the Afghan parliament is begging Karzai and the U.S. not to do it), it might be worthwhile to reflect on what things were like in the heady months after September 11, 2001.

These were the days when Ahmed Rashid was burning up the New York rags with dire predictions of the IMU’s sweep of terror across Central Asia, when Islam Karimov seemed about ready to destroy Kyrgyzstan to destroy Juma Namangani, as Emomali Rahmonov (he had the “ov” back then, remember?) looked on, helpless, at the raging “Islamicist” animals in the territory he could barely control.

Heady days indeed. Rashid wrote an entire book about this, in which we learn, for example, of the Uzbek hunger for Kyrgyz baby meat. [Insert ironic tone] In one sense, it is difficult to fault Rashid too terribly much for his anti-Uzbek racism: after all, Tohir Yuldashev had, at the time of Jihad‘s publication, lived in Waziristan for years—that’d be enough to set anyone against the whole race [end irony].

Luckily, Rashid’s dark vision of an unbeatable wave of Saudi-led and Uzbek-implemented jihadist violence toppling the feckless regimes of Central Asia never came to pass. So here is a neat thought experiment, one I haven’t worked out for myself. Post-Soviet Central Asia clearly did not experience the spectre of rampant Islamist terrorism. It exists in some places, still, but in quantities far smaller and far less threatening than anything policymakers imagined in 2002. So, did this never happen because:

  • Rashid’s activism about the dangers of Islamist terrorism convinced Western and Central Asian policymakers to take decisive steps against groups like the IMU;
  • The U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan led to the death of Juma Namangani, which took the wind out of the sails of the Uzbek-led Islamist resistance movement; or
  • The threat was hyped from the beginning, and even if Rashid was sincere in his concern its vehemence wasn’t warranted given the facts otherwise available at the time.

This can be fun to answer: I readily cop to not being too strong on my late-90s Central Asia. I’d really like to hear what everyone thinks.


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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 13 comments }

Christian November 19, 2008 at 10:01 pm

I think writers like Rashid have some responsibility for western governments swallowing the Uz gov’s line about the “dire threat of Islamic extremists” in Central Asia. They did indeed hype the threat.

Nick November 19, 2008 at 11:04 pm

‘Luckily, Rashid’s dark vision of an unbeatable wave of Saudi-led and Uzbek-implemented jihadist violence toppling the feckless regimes of Central Asia never came to pass. ‘

One British scholar – I believe it was Nick Megoran – wrote a general review article called ‘Calming the Ferghana Valley Experts’ in which he critiqued the the over-attention paid to a possibly spurious and almost certainly overhyped threat. And this was in 2000.

However – Ahmed Rashid is still promoting this gloomy vision! in the publicity and interviews for his most recent tome I believe he was muttering darkly about a massive Islamist underground movement that is ready to sieze power in Uzbekistan when Karimov steps down

Abe November 19, 2008 at 11:06 pm

I would point to number two more than anything. And the US campaign in Afghanistan not only killed Namagani but also a large number of the rank and file of the IMU and stranded a bunch of survivors in FATA.

Not sure if there is any teachable lesson from that, I think Namagani just made a strategic miscalculation in aligning so closely with the Taliban to gain sanctuary that ended up biting them in the ass.

Joshua Foust November 20, 2008 at 12:14 am

Christian,

I think it’s important to realize that Rashid wasn’t the only one hyping this angle — none other than Barnett Rubin wrote a book with Nancy Lubin called Calming the Ferghana Valley (I have never read it).

This is where Megoran got the title for his review essay (found here, pdf). He again recently picked up the subject (pdf), it turns out (I’d never heard of him until Nick mentioned him). (I am sorry for all the parenthesis.) It is absolutely about that, and written in 2000. Nick, if you recall, I’m still kind of poking fun at Rashid for not updating his thesis since history has progressed forward.

Anyway, I lean toward hype, but that’s more because I assume people hype things. That doesn’t mean it was actually hyped — is it possible that the hype scholars like Rashid and Rubin generated (odd how long they’ve been in synch, no?) helped spur on actual policies that had a concrete effect on Islamism? I share Christian’s concern for reinterpreting that into excusing the abhorrent behavior of Karimov (among others). But that doesn’t make it untrue.

Turgai Sangar November 20, 2008 at 9:00 am

Ahmed Rashid is a very good journalist and scholar as far as Pakistan and Afghanistan go. But he’s clearly out of his elment north of the Amu Darya-Panj river.

Much alarmism about an imminent Islamist tsunami in Uzb, Taj, … comes from traumas about what happened in Iran, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.

In that sense, I agree with Christian yet also think (cf. Joshua) that Rashid is not the only one inflating the threat. It was also eagerly hyped by the Starrs, Jarviks and several European diplotwats and parliamentarians to bluntly legitimize the regime in Uzbekistan.

It’s time to realize that the real security threat in that part of the world is not the IMU, Yuldash or Al-Qaeda. It’s the Karimovs.

Peter November 20, 2008 at 10:07 am

I am with Turgai on this. Rashid is extremely strong on his home turf and Afghanistan. Incidentally, his latest book is largely devoted to how the U.S. _didn’t_ follow up on his advice, which would apparently absolve him to any great degree of blame for the failure of pacification efforts in Afghanistan.
Regarding the Ferghana Valley, the situation there is perhaps not quite so simple as choosing to describe it either as a hotbed of Islamic radicalism or a hapless victim of Karimov’s despotism. There is limited evidence to suggest that any extremist groups ever had any scope for fomenting a successful uprising in the area in the late nineties. Nonetheless, it is also beyond dispute that Ferghana has long been fertile soil for a radical brand of political Islam and that local power brokers have in earlier times (and possibly even now to some extent) managed to wield their influence independently of Tashkent.
Uzbekistan _is_ susceptible to collapse and internal conflict. In that respect, hypothesising some kind of post-Karimov meltdown is not science fiction, but a necessary scenario to consider. Islam could absolutely play a key role in any prospective strife, but that is not to say it would be the primary cause.
Having said that, I would have to contradict myself, and argue that this outcome seems patently improbable. The general population in Uzbekistan has been so extensively terrorised by its leadership that it is quite likely that any in-fighting would take place between the various pillars of power currently balanced by Karimov _ the army, secret police, regional leaders and other assorted hoodlums. These people are Soviets at heart and consequently well-versed at the art of conducting their power-grabs bloodily but with a certain degree of discretion.
With Rashid, it is just that he does not have a sense of what makes post-Soviet Central Asia and its people tick. While he understands quite how brutal the Uzbek regime is, he seems unable to grasp to what extent its kingpin has hollowed out virtually all forms of opposition or independent organizations. He also overlooks the workings of Central Asia’s political elites and their ability to co-opt, marginalize and even compromise when it is imperative to do so.
Actually, since he wrote Jihad, Kyrgyzstan did endure a revolution. But it was a far smoother transition of leadership than is commonly believed, because it really consisted of little more than a handover from one set of Akayev apparatchiks to another. Armed militants adopt violent strategies because they are excluded from the unseemly waltz of power-broking and also, in part, because ultimately they have very little traction in post-atheist societies.
So, to adress the question in the post, the answer might be that there is some truth in all three options on offer.

Turgai Sangar November 20, 2008 at 1:35 pm

Thanks Peter.

“Having said that, I would have to contradict myself, and argue that this outcome seems patently improbable. The general population in Uzbekistan has been so extensively terrorised by its leadership etc…”

Well, it depends on what you understand under meltdown: something like happend in Tajikistan or Afghanistan? Yes that is patently improbable. But it does not has to go that far. I personally think more of a Ceaucescu scenario: a palace coup by figures unknown so far, combined with a relatively brief but intensive orgy of street violence, score settlings, looting and lynchings.

Do not under-estimate the huge undercurrent of cropped-up hatred, frustration and anger in Uzbekistan. True, people are terrorised. But submission out of fear can quickly turn into aggression. No need ot have a phd in social psychology to know that. One can not keep the lid on by terror forever, especially not in this age where even people in Uzb do have contact with the wider world (sat tv, labour migration, … ). In hermetically closed societies like North Korea maybe. But Uzb and the rest of Central Asia are not North Korea.

Either case, sooner or later Karimov will fall and the full horror of his rule will come to light. I look forward what the Starrs and the Jarviks will have to say then…

Peter November 20, 2008 at 11:54 pm

Turgai,

Again, I think that you are probably right in your analysis, although committing a prediction to writing is as sure a guarantee of future embarassment, if my experiences are anything to go by. I would add one more nuance, however, which is that while it is feasible that street protests and violence could take place in a post-Karimov scenario, it is depressingly likely they will be directed or exploited by the camps seeking to grab power.
And also, while I hope I am wrong, I do not put excessive store in persistent rumours about Karimov immiment decline in health and impending death. If nothing, he has consistently demonstrated throughout his decades of rule to be nothing if not cold-blooded and calculating. In a perverse kind of way, he remains a party man married grotesquely to mantra of stability and continuity at all costs, regardless of what it actually means for his people. Not to say he and his ghastly daughter haven’t pilfered along the way, but even the most hidebound Soviet ideologue was not averse to pampering themselves over the years.
I expect some political development (i.e. the potential groundwork of a succession strategy) there before the old goat kicks the bucket. After all, whatever disease he is meant to be suffering from is likely degenerative rather than a “heart condition” like the one that did Niyazov in. Of course, how that strategy for the future will pan out is anybody’s guess, although if Karimov wants my advice, investing in an escape pod for Gulnara would probably not be a bad move.

Hoss November 21, 2008 at 3:55 am

Ahmed Rashid is officially advising the Centcom and the Pres of Pakistan. He hyped certain issues at certain times and the timings coincided with some actions on the ground.

Turgai Sangar November 21, 2008 at 6:42 am

“although if Karimov wants my advice, investing in an escape pod for Gulnara would probably not be a bad move.”

:)))) Well yes. Look at her recent move from the Moscow embassy to ambassador to the UN in Geneva (that also tells a lot about the UN really…). She is especially detested in Uzbekistan. Much more so than her father.

Turgai Sangar November 21, 2008 at 6:46 am

“although committing a prediction to writing is as sure a guarantee of future embarassment”

So be it. No guts, no glory. 🙂

“although if Karimov wants my advice, investing in an escape pod for Gulnara would probably not be a bad move.”

:)))) Well yes. Look at her recent move from the Moscow embassy to ambassador to the UN in Geneva (that also tells a lot about the UN really…). She is especially detested in Uzbekistan. Much more so than her father.

Once the time comes and she’s in exile beyond teh popular wrath in Uzb, there are creative solutions for that. It’s called a death squad.

“in health and impending death. If nothing, he has consistently demonstrated throughout his decades of rule to be nothing if not cold-blooded and calculating.”

No I don’t buy into these leukaemia rumours either. For the rest, scores of deposed African dictators (Mobutu, Siad Barre, … ) were as cold-blooded and culculating so…

Laurence Jarvik November 21, 2008 at 5:43 pm

I’m flattered that Turgai Sangar puts me in the company of Fred Starr and European diplomats. Maybe it will help book sales for “Who Lost Central Asia?”…

Turgai Sangar November 22, 2008 at 10:22 am

Yes, or perhaps you can all team up into a book promo consultancy for Karimov’s official biography. Available from amazon.il

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