Uzbeks Are Scary

by Joshua Foust on 3/14/2010 · 6 comments

Does the IJU Even Exist?
Oh, Actual Terrorists
Talking the IMU in Northern Afghanistan

There’s a pretty interesting essay at SWJ on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Afghanistan. Most of it is fine—I’d seriously question relying on Ahmed Rashid for meaningful information about Uzbeks, for example. There are some bits that are pretty questionable, however, and it makes me wonder just where and how we’re getting our information on this group:

The IMU has its origins in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. The victory of the mujahidin and the collapse of Communism formed a nexus of burgeoning Islamism across Central Asia… It was during this period that the rebel Uzbek movement grew closer to the Taliban and al-Qa’ida, and took on its current character.

So, for starters, that is classic Ahmed Rashid (Capt. Feitt even footnoted the terrible book Jihad). While a complete discussion of Rashid’s questionable grasp of the non-Afghanistan parts of Central Asia is best left for another time—Rashid’s work on the region contains a substantial number of factual errors—we have a broader history of Rashid’s Uzbek scholarship to contend with. Since 2002 or so, he has been screaming from the rooftops that we are on the razor’s edge of a wave of militant Uzbek-led Islamism sweeping across Central Asia and plunging the world into darkness. His bread and butter, aside from the Taliban, is scaring Westerners about Uzbeks, and it’s not just something he did in the fever environment right after September 11: he is still selling that fear to reputable news organizations like Reuters.

But Rashid is a sidenote to what’s really wrong with that paragraph. The IMU’s rise was unrelated to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Neither the “victory of the mujahidin” in Afghanistan—they spent the four years after withdrawal fighting to the death without really caring about the rest of the planet—nor the collapse of Communism formed a “nexus” of Islamism. Jumaboi Khojayev (later Juma Namangani), for example, was a Soviet paratrooper who killed mujahidin during the war in Afghanistan—not the other way around. It wasn’t until he formed Adolat with Tohir Yuldashev in 1991—two years after withdrawal from Afghanistan—that you could really say a “nexus” might have formed. And anyway, the group wasn’t banned until they began demanding Karimov impose sharia on all of Uzbekistan, which was basically a direct challenge to his rule and a major no-no (and they didn’t even become the IMU, an official resistance group, until about 1998).

Anyway, that essay continues discussing the large Uzbek population in Zabul and how it formed a welcoming environment for the IMU in 2003 or 2004 or something. Which is all well and good—Zabul has a big Uzbek population. The Uzbeks in the South have been allied with members of Taliban since its inception in the 1980s—AREU, for example, noted that in the Quetta refugee camps Uzbeks had allied with the Taliban to attack rival groups in neighboring camps. That being said, in Fragmentation in Afghanistan, Barnett Rubin notes that Mohammed Najibullah, the last communist president of the country, used a Uzbek militia to secure the Kandahar garrison prison when the mujahiding seized Spin Boldak. It should be no surprise that Uzbeks in Zabul, many of whom are repatriated from the contentious environment in Quetta, remain a bit restive. There are some brickbats about just what the IMU does and how it interacts with the locals, however, that should be explored.

It is difficult to understate the IMU’s importance to the local insurgency in Deh Chopan. IMU fighters are invariably more disciplined, motivated, and experienced than their Afghan counterparts. The IMU embraces a takfiri ideology dedicated to the overthrow of the secular Central Asian regimes and their replacement by an Islamic Caliphate. Like their al-Qa’ida allies, IMU militants see themselves as footsoldiers in a global jihad.11 Also like al-Qa’ida, the IMU has access to a deep reserve of funding from patrons across the Islamic world, enabling them to outfit their members with superior weaponry and tactical equipment. This allows the IMU to fill a natural role as trainers and advisors for the Afghan insurgency.

It almost sounds like he’s using IMU and Brigade 055 interchangeably. Let us be clear for a moment: the IMU, despite its façade of global Islamism, remains firmly fixated on Uzbekistan. Their takfiri “ideology” is only tangential—a means to an end. And they are so strong in northern Zabul because it is an enclave of Uzbeks in an otherwise Pashtun area. There are also pockets of IMU groups in Baghlan, Balkh, Takhar, and Kunduz—everywhere there are Uzbeks. They may talk global, but they act in pretty tight ethnic solidarity.

Which brings us to language, the only other part of this essay I feel like discussing. The IMU does not primarily speak in Russian. Some of them might, depending on where they grew up. But the IMU would not be able to communicate with local Uzbeks in Zabul with Russian (they most likely use Uzbek or even Dari). And they do not communicate with their followers and funders abroad in Russian. The IMU’s website is entirely in Uzbek. Indeed, speaking Russian goes against much of what the IMU stands for, since again they are primarily about ethnic solidarity and Uzbekistan for Uzbeks (and Islam). In fact, I’d challenge the assertion that the IMU is “no limited to Uzbeks”—especially since in the paragraph before Capt. Freitt alleged that the IMU worked very closely with al Qaeda and the Taliban—neither of which is particularly disposed toward speaking Russian.

Judge the rest of the essay for yourself, however. I found enough weird bits (all sourced to anonymous conversations with Special Forces soldiers), including the call to replicate the Anbar Surge in Zabul, that I’d have to question just how much homework went into this. Referencing a few news stories, Giustozzi, and Rashid is a good start, but the bulk of the information here boils down to “I spoke with some guys in my unit and here’s what they told me.” Which, again, is a good start, but there are so many unsupportable assertions, and a few errors of analysis, that I am skeptical this is much more than the standard old “Uzbeks are scary” line that seems dominant lately

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This post was written by...

– 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 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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Turgai March 14, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Thanks for this.

“much more than the standard old “Uzbeks are scary” line that seems dominant lately”

Well those Uzbeks who run Uzbekistan today are, but for the rest I see what you mean.

Akbar Khan II March 14, 2010 at 2:49 pm

I wouldn’t waste my time on Ahmad Rashid, he is a pawn and everyone including his own daughter who studies law at Sussex University is aware of that.

Toryalay Shirzay March 14, 2010 at 10:51 pm

You got to admire those Uzbeks living in Uzbekistan as they are not fooled by arab-islam bullshit like the vast majority in AFPAK area,sadly.

Akbar Khan II March 15, 2010 at 4:14 am

AFPAK area? I do not recognize any entity starting with Pak.

We will get our property back, the Balochs will become independant, kashmir will become independant and we will let the indians to sod off else we might have to break a statue or two again. Wishful thinking you say? Not really, Americans will make this happen.

Turgai March 15, 2010 at 5:54 am

You mean this scenario? 🙂

Hm I think one should not under-estimate the elasticity of the state of Pakistan.

AJK March 15, 2010 at 10:30 pm

Wilsonian Nationalism! It worked so well the first time!

I’m all for border shifts, but I think they work better organically than Berlin Conference-style. And Peters is kind of paid to say “WAR WAR WAR!” anyways.

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