Legitimate Threat or Excuse for Repression? The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Central Asian Stability Post-2014 – By Lesley Pories

Is Central Asia at risk of falling under the control of anti-Western Islamists, or are these authoritarian regimes exploiting the War on Terror to garner international support for further repression of their political opposition?

Lesley Pories, Fletcher MALD 2013 focuses on Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization as well as International Environmental Resource Policy and is concurrently earning a Master of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Before graduate school, Lesley served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan and has also lived and worked in India with the Deshpande Foundation and Guinea with the Carter Center as well as the World Resources Institute in Washington, DC.  She holds a B.A. from Emory University.

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The Soviet Union’s brutal suppression of religion in predominantly Muslim Central Asia fomented religious extremism after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The most notorious of the homegrown extremist groups in Central Asia to emerge, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), has evolved from a localized organization that sought to overthrow Uzbekistan’s authoritarian president and establish a pan-Turkic Islamist caliphate into a more general ally of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda. As the United States plans its military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, Uzbekistan and neighboring governments assert that the threat posed by the IMU and other extremist groups to regional stability will intensify in NATO’s absence. They use this claim to justify increased support from the international community while simultaneously clamping down on internal political opposition.

How real is the IMU threat to Uzbekistan and regional stability in post-2014 Central Asia? Is the region seriously at risk of falling under the control of anti-Western Islamists, or are these authoritarian regimes exploiting the War on Terror to garner international support for further repression of their political opposition? While the future remains unknown, a closer examination of the IMU and the factors that led to its emergence reveal that Uzbekistan’s political landscape has not considerably changed since 1991, particularly the government’s refusal to allow legitimate forms of political opposition.

In assessing the political and social contexts that gave rise to the IMU, the ways that the international community has engaged with the region, and current trends, one can infer that the IMU’s ability to destabilize the region hinges upon the stability of Afghanistan itself. A security vacuum in Afghanistan will give the IMU greater room to maneuver and infiltrate the tense Ferghana Valley, the core of Central Asian stability. Ultimately, maintaining security in the Ferghana Valley will be just as dependent on political liberalization in Uzbekistan as political order in Afghanistan.

This paper proceeds in three sections. First, it examines the history of the IMU over three major stages: from its inception to September 11th, from 2002 to the massacre in Andijon in 2005, and from the post­– Andijon oppressive response to the present.  It then looks at the role regional governments played in spawning the IMU and how international actors like the U.S. have worsened the situation.  Finally, this paper evaluates current trends and potential scenarios to assess the IMU’s threat to regional stability and provide policy recommendations. Understanding the lessons of the IMU’s rise is vital to addressing the larger and more encompassing danger of militant Islam in the region.

ORIGINS OF THE IMU (1991 – 2001):

Soviet policies repressing religion throughout the USSR drove people to worship in secret.  Unfortunately, moving Islam, the dominant religion of Central Asia, out of the public arena, created an attractive environment for many hardline Salafi Muslims to clandestinely enter the region and recruit disciples via underground (e.g. unregulated) madrassas.[1]  The fertile Ferghana Valley, spanning Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, emerged as the center of Islamic opposition. It boasted a number of religious schools funded by the Ahle Sunnah movement, a Saudi Arabian group that propagates Wahabism, a Salafi doctrine within Hanbali Islam.[2]

In the city of Namangan, the radical group Adolat (Justice) emerged in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to eyewitness Igor Rotar, Adolat modeled itself off of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards: Young men with green headbands took control of the city and persecuted people they judged to be breaking the law.[3] Jointly founded by Tohir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani (née Khojaev), Adolat demanded the overthrow of Uzbek president Islam Karimov and the adoption of shari’a law.  Yuldashev, an underground imam at the beginning of the 1990s, was a talented and energetic speaker and organizer who operated as the spiritual leader of the movement. Namangani, who had served as a paratrooper in the Soviet army during the Afghanistan campaign, was the military mastermind.

When Adolat and several other groups directly challenged President Karimov in 1992, they were promptly expelled along with all militants and foreign “missionaries.”[4]  Like most Islamic militants in Uzbekistan, Yuldashev and Namangani fled to Tajikistan, where they aligned with the United Tajik Opposition.

While Namangani fought with the Tajik opposition in their civil war,[5] Yuldashev began traveling to other countries in order to deepen his understanding of Islam and make contacts.[6]  One of the important connections he made was with Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI), from whom he received funds as well as sanctuary. Based in Peshawar from 1995­ to 1998, Yuldashev met a number of not only Pakistani and Afghan activists but also pan-Islamic militant groups who later introduced him to Osama bin Laden and other Afghan leaders.[7] In 1998, Yuldashev and Namangani relocated to Afghanistan and founded the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Kabul[8] with the official goal of overthrowing Karimov and establishing an Islamic state. The IMU established training camps in Afghanistan and strengthened ties with both the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The IMU officially entered the international arena on February 16, 1999, when a series of bombs in Tashkent apparently intended to assassinate the President killed 16 civilians instead.  Although some assert that either the government itself or rival clans actually staged these bombings, the IMU was blamed.[9]  Tensions between the government and the IMU intensified. Using bases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the IMU briefly invaded territory in the Kyrgyz Republic from 1999 to 2000.[10]

Given Uzbekistan’s support for anti-Taliban opposition in Afghanistan as well as leader Yuldashev’s shift toward the Taliban’s strict Deobandi interpretation of Islam, the Taliban and the IMU made natural allies.[11] However, this alliance was disastrous for the IMU in the wake of the U.S. terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The war with the U.S. decimated the militants and Namangani was killed in battle in November 2001.[12]  In the aftermath, IMU members scattered throughout the region.


In aligning with al-Qaeda, Yuldashev accepted a broader, more international mandate that sidelined the group’s original intention to overthrow Karimov in Uzbekistan.  As a result, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), an IMU splinter group that emerged in 2002, took up the mantle of the Uzbekistan focused revolution.[13]  The IJU remained relatively unknown until 2004, when it set off a series of bombings in late March in the cities of Tashkent and Bukhara, targeting bazaars as well as the U.S. and Israeli embassies.

In May 2005, armed government forces ascended into the Ferghana Valley city of Andijon and fired indiscriminately upon civilians who were protesting the incarceration of followers of Akramiya, an Islamic political movement that had grown out of the influential, non-violent Islamic political movement Hizb ut-Tahrir.[14] While the Karimov government has prohibited official investigations of the incident, human rights groups estimate that 300 to 800 civilians, including women and children, were killed.[15] Although the IMU was not involved in these events,[16] the Uzbek government tried to blame them for the protests. More significantly, the government has used these events as a pretext to clamp down even harder on real and perceived threats from Islamic militants.[17]


Even though the IMU was not involved in the Andijon events, both the Uzbek government and the greater international community have been actively pursuing and extraditing alleged IMU members.[18] Meanwhile, an IMU contingency that found shelter in Pakistan’s South Waziristan province clashed with pro-government tribesmen in 2006 and 2007[19] and was forced to ally with the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Already significantly reduced in numbers, the IMU was dealt a massive blow in August 2009 when a missile strike by U.S. forces killed Yuldashev.[20] Floundering, the remains of the IMU joined with the Haqqani network in North Waziristan but eventually returned to Afghanistan as allies of the Afghan Taliban.

In 2010, the IMU reappeared on the international scene when it was implicated, with a number of other groups, in a thwarted, large-scale terrorist plot in Europe.[21] While this action—like the majority of IMU activities post-2001—occurred outside of the region, there is no evidence to suggest that the IMU has abandoned its original goal of imposing a pan-Islamic dynasty in Central Asia. In 2011, and the start of 2012, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) reported an unprecedented number of battles with IMU fighters in Northern Afghanistan.[22] In light of this upswing of activity, the IMU’s perseverance and its implications on Afghan stability must be re-evaluated with special attention on neighboring Pakistan. In order to examine the impact of the IMU on the region, it is crucial to see the IMU as a direct product of the region’s Soviet history, economics and geopolitics. The following section addresses how each factor contributed to the IMU’s ascension and perseverance.


Since its official creation in 1998, the IMU has been based in Afghanistan in collaboration with the Taliban. As such, the connection between the IMU, Central Asian stability and Afghanistan is evident. According to U.S. Army Colonel Ted Donnelly, “[a] strategic analysis of the region demonstrates that Afghanistan and Central Asia are inextricably linked, strategically as well as operationally. Strategic success in Central Asia is critical to strategic success in Afghanistan, and vice-versa.”[23] However, Afghan stability also depends upon activity in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a largely ungoverned region of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan and serves as a safe haven for numerous violent extremist organizations. Many of these organizations conduct operations in Afghanistan with direct and indirect support from elements within Pakistan’s ISI.[24]

As explained by U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel William Carty, who served two tours in Afghanistan, rural-based insurgencies, such as the IMU or the Taliban, depend upon controlling the rural areas that serve as sanctuary.[25]  The ability of these groups to periodically retreat, recuperate and strategize in FATA has been a significant barrier to U.S. success in Afghanistan. As a result, FATA is a significant source of Afghanistan’s present instability, and will remain so after 2014.[26] Donnelly further elaborates: “It is difficult to imagine a post–2014 scenario in which Afghan security forces control all Afghan territory and make it inhospitable to violent extremist organizations.  It is quite likely that U.S. withdrawal will create another power vacuum, and precipitate another power struggle.”[27]  In true cyclical fashion, how Central Asian governments prepare for and address this situation may be the very cause of the next power struggle.


“The real crisis in Central Asia lies with the state, not the insurgents.”[28]

Soviet rule suppressed Islam for 70 years, not only preventing people from engaging in actual worship, but removing them from the Islamic theoretical debates of the time.  Journalist Ahmed Rashid, a leading expert on the Taliban, noted in 1994 that “Nowhere in the world has religious feeling been suppressed for so long and with such brutality and yet been revived with such enthusiasm [as in Central Asia].”[29]  It was exactly this void that allowed militant, well-funded Islam to take hold.

Journalist Sultan Akimbekov observed the connection between Islamic illiteracy and a higher propensity toward militant forms of Islam in Kazakhstan. He notes that in this country, militant Islamic activity has been located largely in the west, an area far removed from the traditionally [non-militant] Islamic southern Kazakhstan.[30] He suggests that southern Kazakhstan has always been more religiously educated than the other parts of Kazakhstan because of its proximity to Central Asia’s religious centers, where better educated spiritual leaders promote a greater understanding of the tenets of traditional Islam. In the north and west, however, religious education is considerably lower, thus leaving those regions of Kazakhstan more vulnerable to radical Islamist teachings. In the south, Akimbekov notes, any Salafi or literalist sermon will be challenged with a more traditional Hanafi sermon.

Thus, newly independent governments could have countered these militant forms of Islam by nurturing the growth of traditional Islam and more open societies.  By choosing to focus on the short-term objective of maintaining power, the Central Asian governments made what Didier Chaudet terms “the same strategic mistake as governments in the Middle East during the second half of the 20th century: they strongly opposed any moderate religious or secular challenge [to their power], leaving the extremists as the only form of opposition.”[31] Ayesha Jalal, historian and analyst of Muslim identity in South Asia, echoes this sentiment by calling for a more public debate about Islam and its role in society.[32] Forcing Islam “underground” ensures that the most extremist forms propagate with little public opportunity to intervene through discourse and debate, resulting in an extremely fragile social situation ripe for manipulation by extremist groups. Along the same lines, Uzbek native Murad Akhmedov asserts that the radicalization of Islamist movements in Uzbekistan is rooted in the general opinion that “forced” secularism, propagated by the government, is not the answer to the problems that plague the region.

In this way, the bombings in Uzbekistan and the IMU and IJU’s support of the United Tajik Opposition were a testament of these groups’ disdain towards Central Asian governments.[33] More eloquently put by Rashid:

“The roots of radicalization in Central Asia lay in the appalling policies of leaders such as Karimov, who waged war against all political dissent and anything remotely Islamic.  In Uzbekistan there was a total ban on all political parties, trade and student unions, and political gatherings. More than ten thousand political prisoners filled Uzbek jails, where torture and death under interrogation were common.  Anyone appearing too Islamic or even saying his prayers five times a day could be arrested and tortured.  As long as such regimes considered secular democratic parties a threat, it was natural that a violent Islamic underground would flourish.”[34]

Unfortunately, these early mistakes have resulted in a vicious cycle of power through oppression, which has not abated in more than 20 years of independence. Moreover, current regional leaders, two of whom have been in power since before the collapse of the Soviet Union, show little inclination to change their approach.

Another critical, but less commonly discussed, component of the post­–USSR power vacuum is the issue of state-building and nationalism as defined by membership in a state, not an ethnic group.  As noted by Rashid[35], independence or liberation attempts have historically been processes through which leaders and elites proved themselves and gained experience as well as popular support, welding the goals of the elite and the masses and resolving local differences.

The very act of struggling towards independence unified people and enabled groups to weather the transition into new states. However, “Central Asia experienced no such political process, its peoples were barely touched by political events and the enormous gap between the rulers and the ruled only grew wider.  Even that initial euphoric welding of people and nation that takes place immediately after independence was totally missing.  Central Asian countries did not go through any of the natural pangs of state-building and thus their identity is at best confused.”[36]  Stalin purposefully drew these countries’ borders in order to keep various groups from unifying against Moscow, thus enhancing feelings of alienation among, as well as between, peoples.  These feelings lend themselves to religious militarism, especially when coupled with extreme financial hardship.


The collapse of the centralized Soviet system and subsequent exodus of the Russian population that had managed many of the industrial and other economic activities left the five newly independent Central Asian republics largely without the technology, infrastructure and human capital necessary to function independently. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan had little option but to continue monoculture cotton cultivation on land that was heavily degraded due to Soviet command economy practices.[37]  As a result, rural unemployment remained significantly high. Land reform – dividing up collective farms amongst a large population – remains a contentious issue that politicians studiously avoid.  Rashid notes, “[E]ven more critical to the IMU’s growing strength was the continuing repression by the Uzbek regime and the desperate poverty of the Uzbek people.”[38]

Corruption is pervasive, leading to an uneven distribution of wealth in resource rich areas.  Kazakh political observer Sultan Akimbekov links a series of violent acts in 2011 by militant Islamists in western Kazakhstan as a logical outgrowth of economic dissatisfaction in addition to low levels of religious education: “First, there is certain frustration there about the way the oil wealth [in western Kazakhstan] is distributed. Second, in the west there is a more serious rise in prices: the region has no agricultural base, unlike the other regions. They have to import everything and consequently food is getting more expensive there.”[39]


In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, various actors within the international community jumped to engage with Central Asia.  Some were interested in Kazakhstan’s nuclear weapons (U.S., Iran, Israel), others in developing a pan-Turkic Islamist community (Turkey, Saudi Arabia), and others more generally in resource extraction.  But this initial surge of interest gradually waned in following years as other issues rose to prominence and the resources required to develop a real relationship did not materialize.[40] Instead, attention was spent, to a certain extent, on Central Asian governments’ persistently poor human rights record.  National Defense University professor Sylvia Babus notes that this lack of progress prompted the the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)’s to reorient its efforts in 2010 towards supporting NGOs, open media and similar projects.[41]

These relations changed after September 11.  Political scientist Alex Cooley argues that, from the outset, the United States treated Central Asia primarily as a lever to be utilized in support of the coalition effort in Afghanistan. The U.S. established supply bases in Karshi-Khanabad (K2) in Uzbekistan and at Manas airport in the Kyrgyz Republic. It further secured flyover rights and refueling agreements from all of the Central Asian states. U.S. defense officials also launched a host of cooperative programs with Central Asian security services to provide training and resources for counterterrorism and border management.[42]

Babus calls attention to the massive surge in funding for Central Asian states following the U.S. entry into Afghanistan.[43] However, she also reveals that most of this funding was designated towards security assistance rather than democracy-building.  Donnelly has also reflected that paying regional governments “rent” for the use of their territory, whether as direct payments for bases, indirect aid packages tied to the use of bases, or fees for air and ground transit reinforces the short-term nature of U.S. interest and commitment, which only encourages more rent-seeking behavior by regional governments.[44]

After the United States joined in international condemnations of the Uzbek government’s actions in Andijon, it promptly lost rights to the K2 base. The U.S. adjusted its behavior accordingly, and international human rights organizations now complain that U.S. diplomats are too reluctant to raise rights-related issues with certain Central Asian governments for fear of jeopardizing these precarious security arrangements.[45] However, empty recommendations to restructure assistance without either serious financial aid for implementation or sanctions for transgressions would likely achieve few other outcomes.[46] It is impossible to know how U.S. and other international aid to Central Asia would have been different without the “tempering” effect of Afghanistan over the past eleven years. Little evidence suggests that the U.S government had the political will to invest the necessary resources.


Assuming that the U.S. and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan (ISAF) withdraws as currently planned in 2014, Afghan forces’ ability to contain the IMU in Northern Afghanistan will determine the security of Central Asia in the second half of this decade.[47]  As Lieutenant Colonel William Carty noted, “The autonomy of the IMU is inversely proportional to the power or ability of the Afghan government to control them.”[48]

An undercurrent of opinion from military strategists and others believes that categorically announcing the pullout date was bad for regional security.  Giving an exit incentivizes groups like the Taliban and the IMU to be patient and wait it out a few more years.[49]  As the U.S. and ISAF forces begin to reduce their presence in Northern Afghanistan in light of the upcoming exit, the IMU is already starting to reclaim many of its former bases along the Northern Afghanistan frontier.[50]

Not only will the IMU help the Taliban reassert its authority in Northern Afghanistan; it will also be in prime position to launch operations into Central Asia. Within striking range of its historic nemesis, it is likely that the IMU will once again act to destabilize the Central Asian regimes.[51]  Donnelly further emphasizes that it is “difficult to envision a future scenario in which Ferghana based terrorist groups are not emboldened, empowered, and strengthened by the U.S. withdrawal in 2014.”[52]

At the same time, others suggest that the group is too fractured internally and strapped financially to pose a serious threat.  Zokir Munsorov, an analyst at the Uzbek National Security Service (SNB), estimates that the group is only 200 – 300 members strong.[53]  However, other experts fear that the IMU may plan a large terrorist attack to reassert its presence and attract new members and funding.[54]   On October 18, 2012, IMU militant Abuzar Afallah made a statement to the Pakistani media on behalf of the IMU fully supporting Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)’s attempted assassination of 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai.  Several analysts insist that this statement was designed not to encourage more civilians to join their cause, but rather to publicly demonstrate that the IMU is still active and to attract donor funding from the TTP and similar organizations.[55]  This bolsters the argument that the group lacks serious financial resources to be a threat, but also justifies fears that the IMU might plan an attack to attract financing. Some evidence suggests that the IMU is strengthening its relationship with the Pakistan-based Haqqani network.[56]  Regardless of its effectiveness, the IMU’s efforts to mobilize are clearly simmering.


While its strength and popularity are debatable, the IMU should not only be viewed as a lone, rogue organization, but as a proxy for Islamic militancy in Uzbekistan and the rest of the region.  The IMU need not act alone, and increased proximity with the rest of Central Asia could lead to coalitions with other unsatisfied regional organizations.  Dr. Theodore Karasik, Director for Research and Consultancy at INEGMA in Dubai, asks, “So, after the removal of troops from Afghanistan, where are all their fighters going to go next?  What about the remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and what has it become today?  Where are these people going to go?  They are going to go back to Central Asia to try to cause trouble.  And depending on whether these groups are within the Islamic universe of violent Sunni extremism, they might link up with other groups.”[57]

Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), one of the largest political opposition groups in Central Asia, originated in the Ferghana Valley around the same time as the IMU. Today, the HT has between 15,000 to 20,000 members. Unlike the IMU, HT advocates peaceful means to achieving an Uzbek Islamic state. The Uzbek government ignores this distinction, sometimes jailing HT members for IMU actions and getting the United States to add HT to its international terrorists list. Further radicalization of HT could lead to coalescing between the opposition group and IMU fighters, with serious implications to regional security. Even a HT splinter group militarizing and joining with the IMU could have devastating impacts on stability and security: Akramiya, the movement that instigated the Andijon incidents, originated as a pro-violence offshoot from HT. The IJU also continues to maintain a presence and a commitment to a regional Islamic state.


Within Central Asia, the effects of the U.S. withdrawal will be felt most strongly in the Fergana Valley. As mentioned above, the Fergana Valley is Central Asia’s strategic center of gravity. This is due to its central geographic location, extremely fertile soil, dense population, strong religious influence, persistent instability, and lack of effective control by central authorities. While IMU activity and regional stability after 2014 will initially depend upon the IMU’s freedom to maneuver in post-US Afghanistan, it will soon thereafter orient itself towards the Ferghana Valley. As articulated by Didier Chaudet, “Not all Islamist groups are the same: the problem is specifically coming from the Hydra constituted by the IMU, the IJU, and the Central Asian jihadist cells in the Ferghana Valley. Together, they could be a destabilizing factor in ‘Greater Central Asia.”[58]  Donnelly agrees: “The Valley’s central location, mixed ethnicity, and shared political status guarantees that any instability in the Ferghana Valley will affect at least these three countries.  It is not at all a cliché or overly simplistic to state, ‘as goes the Ferghana Valley, so goes Central Asia.’”[59]

With a population of nearly 12 million, the region accounts for close to one-fifth of the former Soviet Central Asia.[60] The valley’s high population density feeds its political, economic and religious importance. Even before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Ferghana Valley has traditionally been the hotbed of Islamic militarism.  Although the valley is technically divided between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, it is generally considered to be one “cultural unit.”[61] Uzbekistan possesses most of the fertile valley floor, Kyrgyzstan owns the foothills and some major population centers, and Tajikistan controls the approaches. Purposefully designed by Stalin to prevent cultural solidarity and consolidation, these borders zigzag across a mountainous landscape and cut across ethnic concentrations.[62]  The government of Uzbekistan’s poor relationships with both the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments, recently intensified in the wake of Uzbek-Tajik water resource disputes and increased anti-Uzbek violence in Kyrgyzstan, make regional cooperation harder to achieve.

Chaudet points out that the small number of jihadist militants active during the Andijon crisis was not crushed by the government crackdown: they simply moved their activities to the Kyrgyz and Tajik parts of the Ferghana Valley.  Ethnic Uzbeks also constitute substantial ethnic minorities across Central Asian countries.[63] Accordingly, insecurity in Uzbekistan directly impacts the stability of surrounding states. The relationship between Afghanistan and Ferghana is sometimes described as inverse: the increased presence of IMU fighters in Fergana is often put forward as evidence of success in Afghanistan. Essentially, as coalition forces pushed into previously uncontested areas in south and west Afghanistan, they crowded violent extremists such as the IMU back into Fergana.[64]  This relationship poses a real dilemma for the region post–2014. The critical difference between the present Fergana and post-2014 Fergana is that the IMU and related movements will not face military pressure from Afghanistan.[65]

Donnelly paints three potential scenarios for post–2014 Ferghana after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.  In the worst-case scenario, the IMU launches a full-scale offensive in the valley and all three governments fall to Islamists within one to two years. While he acknowledges this is unlikely, it cannot be entirely discounted in the event of a quick collapse of the Afghan government in the post-2014 period.  At the same time, Donnelly finds the best-case scenario, in which the region is completely stable and all militant organizations wither away or join formal political processes, even less likely. He foresees the Fergana Valley increasingly resembling FATA, consisting of significant ungoverned space and  safe haven, breeding ground, and staging area for violent extremist organizations and militants.


Despite the growth of militant Islam in response to the Uzbek’s government’s repression of religious expression and the influx of significant financial resources from the Wahhabi religious schools in the region, support for the IMU and other extremist groups remains limited to certain pockets in Central Asia.[66]  Due the historical diversity of Islamic interpretation found in the region, those living in the area often resist the strict form of Islam advocated by Islamist militant organizations.   The majority of Central Asian Muslims are Sunnis of the Hanafi school, not the Hanbali school of thought in which the militant Islamic groups are grounded.  Moreover, Sufism, a more mystic branch of Islam, is experiencing its own revival.  While militant Islamists deplore Sufism as too tolerant of non-Islamic influences and corrupted by Buddhist, Zoroastrian and even Christian influences, the average Central Asian sees Sufism as being an ancient component of Central Asian culture. In contrast to Sufism’s association with cultural revival, ‘fundamentalist’ Islam promotes a puritanical form of Islam that is alien to the region. Rashid summarizes: “the militants maintain a narrow and highly sectarian view of Islam, which will bring them up against not only the government but other Islamic groups in the future.”[67]

Moreover, as stated earlier, radical forms of Islam are generally understood to breed in places of high economic distress.  Akhmedov observes that the large-scale immigration of Uzbeks and Tajiks to Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan for work reduces unemployment, especially in rural areas and keeps many potential converts away from radical Islam by alleviating financial hardship back home.[68] [69]

Another impediment to the spread of militant Islam, ethnic nationalism operates as its own potential flashpoint for regional instability.  Uzbek people are particularly susceptible to ethnic nationalism, as Stalin’s aforementioned borders deliberately ensure substantial Uzbek minority communities exist in all Central Asian countries in addition to Afghanistan.  According to Rashid,[70] ethnic minorities will not join a movement led by an ethnic majority and vice versa. Moreover, even within ethnic groups, tribal and clan politics are still influential in this region; Soviet methods of governance actually strengthened and perpetuated these networks to ensure the functioning of the Communist Party. With these divisions, unifying multiple groups under one militant Islamic movement would be difficult. Ethnic cleavages have already reportedly led to fracturing of the IMU within Afghanistan.[71] At the same time, increased ethnic tensions, as exemplified by anti-Uzbek riots and violence in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, pose a different threat to regional stability.


Stability in Uzbekistan and Central Asia will be contingent upon the ability of Afghan forces to maintain control over Afghanistan after the departure of U.S. and NATO forces in 2014.  As noted by Lieutenant Colonel Carty, “The autonomy of the IMU [and any other group of that nature] is inversely proportional to the power or ability of the Afghan government to control its country.”[72] He further points out that as long as sanctuary exists for the Taliban or IMU in neighboring Pakistan, it will be much harder for the Afghan government to assume and maintain control.

A resurgence of the Taliban would further embolden the IMU and inspire other Islamic militant movements to join the cause.  However, regardless of whether that happens, the Uzbek government will undoubtedly increase its repression of all expression of Islam in order to prevent the IMU or other groups from materializing as a significant force. Unfortunately, this tactic will only radicalize the movement Karimov seeks to suppress.  The 2014 military withdrawal leaves little time for outside aid to achieve any objectives that could counterbalance the government’s hardline approach.

As noted earlier in this paper, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan has devastated the IMU. What was not mentioned, however, is that since 2004, much of the U.S. campaign in southern Afghanistan as well as FATA has been conducted via controversial drone attacks. Akhmedov suggests that the US will try to secure a full-fledged military base in Uzbekistan post­–2014; perhaps the former K2 base in Karshi.  If they are unable to achieve this, however, a feasible alternative is that the US will negotiate a drone base for future flies over northern and central Afghanistan to destroy training camps and otherwise keep the IMU, IJU and the Taliban at bay.[73]  While perhaps effective in terms of the stated objective, the Pakistani reaction to continued and increased U.S. drone activity will only heighten existing tensions and may inadvertently lead to more unofficial support and shelter for the Taliban in Pakistan.  Moreover, the high rents that the Karimov regime will inevitably demand for such use of a base are likely to be reinvested into the Uzbek army and its continued suppression of all forms of political dissent and religious expression.

A fundamental problem is that popular dissatisfaction with the Uzbek government and quality of life remains relatively unchanged since independence.  Indeed, at this point in time, a softening of the government’s behavior and political liberalization would have little effect on IMU or other established militant Islamic groups’ attitudes, although it could potentially undermine their wider support in the long run.  However, the public would likely view government efforts to “democratize” with considerable skepticism after more than two decades of unabated repression.  Moreover, such actions could possibly energize the militants by signaling that the government fears them.

Regardless of these complications, external actors should focus their efforts over the next several years on stabilizing the Ferghana Valley as the lynchpin to regional security.  Donnelly argues that, “By making a stable Fergana Valley the primary objective, the U.S. also aligns itself with regional governments. This makes the second lesson easier to implement, namely that regional governments should have the lead, as partners, rather than the landlord (them)—tenant (us) approach that the U.S. has pursued for the past ten years.”[74] As such, the U.S. must reinforce successful security cooperation, development, and public diplomacy programs.  Military-led security cooperation should be reduced and focus exclusively on building the capabilities required to secure and stabilize the Fergana Valley.  Border security and intervention to isolate the valley from Afghanistan-based insurgents is integral to stabilizing the region.  Further, counterterrorism training should focus on those units that fight insurgents in and around Fergana.

Counterterrorism operations must be paired with counternarcotic efforts to cut off funding sources for the IMU and other militant organizations.  Finally, disaster preparedness and response bodies should be strengthened.  However, such pointed efforts run the risk of making the U.S. and other international actors specific targets of IMU violence, which they have not been previously.  In addition, any continued U.S. military presence in the region is likely to engender hostility from regional strongmen Russia and China, who have long resented Western intrusion into what they deem as their traditional sphere of influence.[75] Therefore, concerted and widespread diplomatic efforts will have to accompany these activities, and the U.S. cannot expect to effectively implement these targeted actions with no human costs.

The above recommendations for the U.S. and the international community only address the threat currently posed by existing IMU and other militant Islamic forces. The deeper issue of how to reduce the likelihood of growing radicalization within the region’s population, however, is much more complicated, given the role that government oppression has played and continues to play in the process. As noted throughout this paper, these Central Asian governments, particularly the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan, will likely intensify their use of oppressive tactics as the NATO withdrawal deadlines draws closer. The combination of increased oppression and heightened radicalization could be a fatal mix for the region.

Although little can probably be done to minimize political repression, improved economic security may increase people’s overall levels of satisfaction and lead them to value economic growth over political reform. Carty refers to this approach, employed to reasonable success in parts of Afghanistan, as “the creation of irreversible momentum,” in which the people of a region now have more to lose by supporting militant organizations such as the Taliban or the IMU than by opposing them. This erodes local support and pockets of sanctuary for militant groups, thus lessening their overarching threat.[76] Problems with local corruption notwithstanding, targeted development and assistance programs that improve the economic self-sufficiency and, subsequently, quality-of-life of Ferghana Valley residents should be a primary focus of any serious attempt to promote regional stability.

International actors could place conditional requirements on their aid packages, emphasizing institutional reform.  Up to this point, several analysts and diplomats have noted that American dependence on military bases and infrastructural support in Central Asia undercut efforts to push regional governments to increase transparency, accept political opposition, promote free media or protect human rights.[77] With no overarching military need in the region post-2014, the roles will be reversed, and the U.S. and other governments or institutions may be able to tie much-needed financial support to institutional reforms. That approach, however, assumes these governments will look to Western or other pro-democracy entities for support in lieu of Russia and China. This is by no means guaranteed. As noted earlier, Uzbekistan is already calling for increased U.S. support along its Afghan border in the face of the Islamic threat. The U.S. needs to exert itself and truly promote regional stability by requiring the Karimov government to embark on serious internal reforms if it wants the same level of access to U.S. funding moving forward.

Reports have been circulating for over a year that the U.S. might leave some of its military equipment with the Uzbek army when it pulls out of Afghanistan.  On one level, this option is likely the most cost-effective. A Russian newspaper recently reported that Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would be given a host of military materiel, predominantly tanks and trucks, some of which would reportedly be stored at local installations.  In addition, the Pentagon plans to provide Afghanistan’s neighbors with medical, communications and housing-related equipment.[78] This gift is partly intended to facilitate lower transit rates on the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a web of Central Asian road, rail and air links connecting Afghanistan to the rest of the world and which has been the primary supply route of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. However, providing military assistance and equipment to these governments poses a number of ethical questions, especially considering that the Uzbek government in particular has given no indications that it will be changing its current course of political repression, thus suggesting that this equipment can be turned against any and all political threats—militant Islamist or not.

In June 2012, the Open Society Foundation’s report “Central Asia’s Border Woes and the Impact of International Assistance”[79] noted that a decade of Western support to make Central Asia’s frontiers more secure and open for trade has done little in the face of widespread corruption other than whetting local regimes’ appetites for handouts. The conflict in Afghanistan has facilitated this trend by enabling the Central Asian governments to exaggerate the threat posed by the Afghan situation. In conjunction with their key strategic logistical position, Central Asian governments have extorted maximum benefits and aid from international donors without meeting the corresponding and theoretically imposed conditions. The above mentioned equipment transfer amplifies the concerns voiced by George Gavrilis, director of the Hollings Center for International Dialogue, who notes that the upcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan will pose new dangers: “It is in this transition where we run a huge risk – that international and Western aid will transfer even more security sector aid to Central Asia, increase the leverage of the authoritarian regimes there, and in the process have little to show for it.”[80] Alex Cooley further emphasizes, “Western security assistance has made the Central Asian states more authoritarian and more corrupt, while these trends are only likely to deteriorate as the drawdown of U.S. and ISAF forces accelerates.”[81]

The Open Society Foundations’ Cornelius Graubner asserts that international strategies of increasing security assistance to Central Asia in order to combat drug trafficking and the export of religious extremism will not address the real causes of instability in Central Asia. They may even exacerbate existing problems: “There is very little to indicate that Afghanistan’s evil twins [drug trafficking and religious extremism] after 2014 will influence the security situation in Central Asia more than they do already.”[82] Instead, he draws attention to the local context of violent religious incidents in Central Asia over the past two decades and their function as a reaction to repression of religious and other fundamental civic and economic rights of Central Asian citizens by their governments.  The first step towards providing real assistance to regional stability, he argues, would be to acknowledge the homegrown nature of the threat (i.e. the repressive governments) instead of blaming Afghanistan.

Lastly, the international community needs to somehow work with the Karimov regime to establish and support a veritable line of succession. At 74, Islam Karimov will not realistically be president for much longer.  While rumors formerly suggested that his daughter, Gulnara, was being groomed to assume his role, financial controversy and general public disfavor currently make her an unlikely candidate. Moreover, the extremely patriarchal structure of Uzbek society questions whether she was ever a legitimate candidate.  A more realistic scenario will see various regional clans vying for power. Nevertheless, the current absence of a clear successor leaves just as much space for the IMU or other Islamic militant groups to wreak havoc as lingering political uncertainty in Afghanistan.


The case for long-term Central Asian stability post-2014 seems bleak.  There are numerous factors in this geostrategic soup, and many of its flavors contradict. The ability of the Afghan government and military to maintain control over the country is crucial.  Much of their success will depend upon how militant groups based or hiding in the FATA region of Pakistan will respond to the new security regime. Ultimately, a less stable Afghanistan motivates, emboldens and enhances the ability of groups like the IMU and its allies to recruit, train and launch incursions into Central Asia via the Ferghana Valley, the axis of regional stability. At the same time, regional governments, fearful of such activities, will undoubtedly clamp down even harder on political opposition and all expressions of Islamic faith in the run up to NATO withdrawal, thus fostering an environment that perpetuates further radicalization and support for the IMU. Uzbekistan’s looming succession crisis is just the sort of event that could ignite the region as the IMU or other militant Islamic organizations jostle for power.

Measures that can help prevent these worst-case scenarios are limited.  First, in addition to continued support to the nascent government in Afghanistan, international actors must prepare long-term strategies for Central Asia that center around the stabilization of the Ferghana Valley, economically as well as militarily. International initiatives that improve living conditions at the household level are the best means to decreasing local support for the IMU.   While some military presence will be necessary, this should be kept as limited as possible. The U.S. or other actors should engage the entire region, including Russia and China, to alleviate diplomatic tensions on this issue as far as it is possible.

Second, donor governments must move away from financing Central Asian governments purely to support war efforts in Afghanistan and shift, instead, to delivering financial assistance for real institutional reforms to which they hold governments accountable. While it is uncertain whether real governmental reforms could materialize in the upcoming year or how local populations might respond their announced implementation, this is what democratic governments and entities should have been doing all along rather than supporting oppressive regimes.  These monetary incentives can be hard to resist, and changing public opinion about these governments may curtail support for militant alternatives.

Finally, the international community should try to work with the governments of Uzbekistan as well as Kazakhstan to help develop plans for presidential succession.  Leaving less confusion and space for groups such as the IMU to assume power is another vital component regional stability.  However, it is unlikely that these governments will be willing to accept outside advice on this vital domestic issue.

The future of post–2014 Central Asia is less than optimistic.  While the IMU and other militant Islamic groups do pose a viable threat, the real danger to the region is the Central Asian governments themselves and the oppressive tactics they employ to impose their political dominance. These tactics inadvertently promote the Islamic militarism they fear. For too long, these governments, particularly in Uzbekistan, have exploited their geographic proximity to Afghanistan to gain the maximum resources with minimal concessions in return.  The time is now ripe for the U.S. and other international actors to reassert their commitment to democratic values by tying their future assistance to real reforms.  This may do more to further regional stability than any military assistance.

The views and opinions expressed in articles are strictly the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent those of Al Nakhlah, its Advisory and Editorial Boards, or the Program for Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization (SWAIC) at The Fletcher School.

Works cited

[1] Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia

[2] Ahmed Rashid, The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism?  and Vitaly Naumkin, Militant Islam in Central Asia: The Case of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan

[3] Igor Rotar, Will the Fergana Valley Become a Hotbed of Destabilization in Central Asia?

[4] Vitaly Naumkin, Militant Islam in Central Asia: The Case of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan

[5] S.E. Cornell, Narcotics, Radicalism, and Armed Conflict in Central Asia: the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan

[6] Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hans-Inge Langø, The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: Crackdown (2005-2010).

[9] Vitaly Naumkin, Militant Islam in Central Asia: The Case of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and S.E. Cornell, Narcotics, Radicalism, and Armed Conflict in Central Asia: The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan

[10] Ted Donnelly, Fergana as FATA? A Post-2014 Strategy for Central Asia

[11] Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia

[12] S. E. Cornell, Narcotics, Radicalism, and Armed Conflict in Central Asia: The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan

[13] Hans-Inge Langø, The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: Factions and Resurgence (2002-2005)

[14] Igor Rotar, Will the Fergana Valley Become a Hotbed of Destabilization in Central Asia?

[15] Ibid.

[16] Hans-Inge Langø, The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: Factions and Resurgence (2002-2005)

[17] Ibid and Igor Rotar, Uzbekistan: What is Known about Akramia and the Uprising?

[18] Hans-Inge Langø, The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: Crackdown (2005-2010)

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] Jacob Zenn, IMU Reestablishes Bases in Northern Afghanistan and Ted Donnelly, Fergana as FATA? A Post-2014 Strategy for Central Asia

[23] Ted Donnelly, Fergana as FATA? A Post-2014 Strategy for Central Asia

[24] Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: the US and the failure of nation building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia

[25] William J. Carty, Interview, November 8, 2012

[26] Ted Donnelly, Fergana as FATA? A Post-2014 Strategy for Central Asia

[27] Ibid

[28] Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia.

[29] Ahmed Rashid, The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam Or Nationalism?

[30] “Kazakh Observer Says Rise of Radical Islam “Natural” Process,” BBC Worldwide Monitoring November 9, 2011.

[31] Didier Chaudet, Islamist Terrorism in Greater Central Asia: The “Al-Qaedaization” of Uzbek Jihadism

[32] Ayesha Jalal, Class lecture, November 13, 2012  and Ayesha Jalal, Class lecture, November 30, 2012

[33] Murad Akhmedov, Email Communication, November 29, 2012

[34] Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: the US and the failure of nation building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia

[35] Ahmed Rashid, The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam Or Nationalism?

[36] Ibid

[37] Ibid

[38] Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia

[39] “Kazakh Observer Says Rise of Radical Islam “Natural” Process,” BBC Worldwide Monitoring November 9, 2011.

[40] Ahmed Rashid, The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam Or Nationalism?

[41] Sylvia Babus, Democracy-Building in Central Asia Post-September 11

[42] Alex Cooley, Afghanistan: Don’t Overlook the Other Regional Casualty

[43] Sylvia Babus, Democracy-Building in Central Asia Post-September 11

[44] Ted Donnelly, Fergana as FATA? A Post-2014 Strategy for Central Asia

[45] Alex Cooley, Afghanistan: Don’t Overlook the Other Regional Casualty

[46] Ahmed Rashid, The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam Or Nationalism?

[47] Jacob Zenn, IMU Reestablishes Bases in Northern Afghanistan

[48] William J. Carty, Interview, November 8, 2012

[49] John R. Bolton, “Obama Faces Critical Decision on Afghan Troop Withdrawal,”

[50] Jacob Zenn, IMU Reestablishes Bases in Northern Afghanistan

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ted Donnelly, Fergana as FATA? A Post-2014 Strategy for Central Asia

[53] Shakar Saadi, “Weakened IMU Searches for Supporters,” Central Asia Online, September 12, 2012

[54] Shakar Saadi, “IMU Loses Strength, Funding Amid Discord,” Central Asia Online, March 16, 2012

[55] Shakar Saadi, “IMU fails to exploit attack on Malala Yousafzai,” Central Asis Online, October 31, 2012

[56] “IMU Claims Afghan Attack,” Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor, December 1, 2012

[57] Yekaterina Kudashkina, “The powder keg of Uzbekistan,” The Voice of Russia, October 12, 2012

[58] Didier Chaudet, Islamist Terrorism in Greater Central Asia: The “Al-Qaedaization” of Uzbek Jihadism

[59] Ted Donnelly, Fergana as FATA? A Post-2014 Strategy for Central Asia

[60] S. Frederick Starr et al., Ferghana Valley: The Heart of Central Asia

[61] Didier Chaudet, Islamist Terrorism in Greater Central Asia: The “Al-Qaedaization” of Uzbek Jihadism

[62] Ted Donnelly, Fergana as FATA? A Post-2014 Strategy for Central Asia

[63] Didier Chaudet, Islamist Terrorism in Greater Central Asia: The “Al-Qaedaization” of Uzbek Jihadism

[64] Ted Donnelly, Fergana as FATA? A Post-2014 Strategy for Central Asia

[65] Ibid

[66] Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: the US and the failure of nation building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia

[67] Ahmed Rashid, The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam Or Nationalism?

[68] Murad Akhmedov, Email Communication, November 29, 2012.

[69] Remittances from migrant Tajiks are estimated to account for 46.9% of Tajikistan’s GDP in 2011, according to the World Bank, making Tajikistan the world’s highest recipient of migrant remittances as a share of GDP [(World Bank Migration and Remittances Unit, Development Prospects Group, “Migration and Development Brief 19,” (November 20, 2012)]

[70] Ahmed Rashid, The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam Or Nationalism?

[71] Shakar Saadi, “IMU Loses Strength, Funding Amid Discord,” Central Asia Online, March 16, 2012

[72] William J. Carty, Interview, November 8, 2012

[73] Murad Akhmedov, Email Communication, November 29, 2012.

[74] Ted Donnelly, Fergana as FATA? A Post-2014 Strategy for Central Asia

[75] Ibid

[76] William J. Carty, Interview, November 8, 2012

[77] Craig Murray, British Ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2002-2004, describes the constant battle he faced (and eventually lost) with his superiors in London as well as the United States government and larger diplomatic community in promoting human rights in Uzbekistan in his 2007 memoir, Dirty Diplomacy: The rough-and-tumble adventures of a Scotch-drinking, skirt-chasing, dictator-busting and thoroughly unrepentant Ambassador stuck on the frontline of the War on Terror.  Placating the Uzbek government to ensure continued access to the military base in Karshi (close to the Afghan border) was a dominant theme.

[78] “Central Asia: Closed-Door Talks Underway to Leave Pentagon Goodies Behind,” eurasianet.org, June 15, 2012

[79] “Central Asia: Western Border Aid Has Little Positive Impact – Report,” eurasianet.org, June 7, 2012

[80] Ibid

[81] Alex Cooley, Afghanistan: Don’t Overlook the Other Regional Casualty.

[82] Graubner, Cornelius. Central Asia: A Look at Sources of Violence and Instability



  1. What I fail to understand is how being a Muslim automatically translates into being anti-West. The danger with this kind of thinking is that the West would try to mould Muslims its own way and the Muslims would resist non-Islamic interpretations of their faith–a classic case of self-fulfilling prophesy. Hopefully, Lesley Pories’ incisive, even if West-leaning, analysis would trigger a rethinking of contemporary policy.

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