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1997 In Review: Dramatic Events In Central Asia

  • Bruce Pannier

Prague, 11 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- On the soil of two Central Asian countries, dramatic events took place during 1997, and for another of their neighbors, those events were bad news. In Tajikistan one could say an unexpected peace broke out. In Afghanistan the Taliban religious militia twice pushed their way toward the northern border. On the other side of that border the would-be power of the region, Uzbekistan, watched as its efforts at influencing the political course of Tajikistan and Afghanistan were thwarted.

Tajikistan's civil conflict had nearly bled the country dry as the end of 1996 approached. Fighting in Tajikistan's central regions that year left thousands dead and villages destroyed and deserted. After more than four years of war the economy was in shambles. Government control was confined to the capital, Dushanbe, and the area immediately surrounding it. Even the capital had been threatened by a government ally, Colonel Mahmud Khudaberdiyev.

The position of the government's opponent, the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), was not much better. Based in Afghanistan and fighting a guerrilla campaign against government forces which could count on a near endless supply of weaponry from their ally Russia, it appeared the war could last for years. But the Tajik Army numbered only about 11,000 men and the UTO had perhaps slightly more than half that number, and the bodies piling up in central Tajikistan's villages were draining man power both sides could ill afford to lose. By continuing on the same course all either side would gain by winning would be the ruins of a country which in the best of times was described as "poor." So Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and UTO leader Said Abdullo Nuri met in Khostdeh, Afghanistan, in December 1996 and laid the foundations of what would build into the Tajik National Peace Accord, signed in Moscow in June 1997. In an unprecedented agreement the government side, generally referred to in the press as "neo-Communists," would share power with the UTO, usually branded as the "Islamic opposition."

Besides the great waste of human life and resources another influence played a role in hastening Tajik combatants to the peace table. The general chaos which had so long prevailed in neighboring Afghanistan, mitigating any threat from that country and providing the UTO with a safe haven, suddenly seemed close to ending. While everyone in Central Asia would like to see stability return to Afghanistan, peace and unification under the likely new rulers seemed almost as bad as the warfare of nearly two decades.

The Taliban movement first appeared in Afghanistan in 1994. Born in Afghan refugee camps inside Pakistan, the movement's troops advanced into their homeland and in near bloodless victories swept toward the capital Kabul. The highly motivated, if not militarily well trained, troops imposed a strict form of Islam upon the areas which came under their control.

In September 1996, the Taliban took Kabul which President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his army had already vacated. Hasty alliances were formed by the warlords of the north to meet the coming threat, forming what is now called the "anti-Taliban coalition." Despite winter and the formidable Hindu Kush mountains north of Kabul, the Taliban began moving northward in early 1997. The battle lines wavered back and forth but there was little real progress by either side. Then in May, a mutiny occurred in Mazar-i-Sharif, headquarters of one of the key coalition leaders, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. One of Dostum's generals, Abdul Malik, staged a coup d'�tat which sent Dostum fleeing to Turkey. Malik invited the Taliban to come help occupy Mazar-i-Sharif. The temptation of claiming the last major city in Afghanistan brought the Taliban to Mazar-i-Sharif in large numbers and they were accompanied by some top Taliban officials. Once in the city the tables were turned and hundreds of Taliban soldiers were killed and some 3,000 taken prisoner.

The Taliban were thrown back but by summer's end they launched a new offensive on Mazar-i-Sharif. Dostum chose this moment to return and again the Taliban, resisting stubbornly, were thrown back. Though it was reported that Dostum and Malik had reconciled their differences it would only be a matter of weeks before Malik fled to Iran. Though the Taliban had again been defeated, but the second trip north had brought them to the border with Uzbekistan.

When the Taliban first took Kabul, Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov was among the most vocal in warning of the dangers posed by the "fundamentalist" Taliban. Though presented as a threat to Central Asia, and in wilder scenarios to Russia as well, from Uzbekistan's point of view the Taliban was the threat foremost to its own security. Islam Karimov's government has, since the first days of independence, feared the effects a strong Islamic presence in the region would have on the Uzbek population.

While Uzbekistan is a nominally Islamic state, religious activities are closely watched by the government. And suddenly the most fundamentalist movement of the region was twice in one year at the Uzbek doorstep. Likewise, Uzbekistan helped Rakhmonov's government in Tajikistan largely because the opposition in Tajikistan (the UTO) was mainly composed of supporters of the Islamic Renaissance Party. Under the June peace accord the UTO will soon take up places in the government and there is nothing Uzbekistan can do about it.

So, despite its best efforts, the Uzbek government enters 1998 faced with the task of revising its foreign policy toward two of its immediate neighbors. To the south, there is breathing room between the Uzbek border and the current Taliban positions in Afghanistan, but there is no indication the Taliban can be decisively beaten any time soon. To the east an Islamic movement is about to share in governing Tajikistan. In the Uzbek capital Tashkent, officials are wondering what surprise will come next.