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Qishloq Ovozi

Militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) pose for a photo in Afghanistan's northern Konduz Province.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has been a threat looming over Central Asia for 15 years. Once the threat was clear and present, when IMU militants burst into southern Kyrgyzstan in the late summer of 1999 and fought with Kyrgyz troops and then returned the next summer fighting with troops in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Much has happened since then, and now the bulk of the IMU militants are in Pakistan's tribal areas and, increasingly, in northern Afghanistan, just across the border from Central Asia.

Three Turkmen soldiers were killed along the Afghan border on May 24 and although it is not clear who killed them, took their weapons, and fled back into Afghanistan, the incident inevitably had people thinking about the IMU, who are known to be in Afghan provinces bordering Turkmenistan.

The director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service (Azatlyk), Muhammad Tahir, recently organized a roundtable on the current situation of the IMU and the group's potential for causing instability in Central Asia after foreign forces complete their drawdown at the end of this year with an eye toward total departure by the end of 2016.

Participating were Alisher Sidikov, director of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service (Ozodlik); Aleksei Malashenko, Central Asia analyst at the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment; Jacob Zenn, Eurasian affairs analyst for the Jamestown Foundation who focuses on terrorism and who was speaking from Urumqi; Noah Tucker of Registan.net, one of the premier websites on Central Asia, who was speaking from Washington; and Haji Seyit Dawud, director of the Afghan media-resources center in Kabul.

A Different Organization

The panelists noted that one of the biggest differences between the IMU in the late 1990s and today is that the group is less cohesive now. The IMU had a core of several hundred to, maybe, more than a couple of thousand fighters in the late 1990s. Almost all of them were from Uzbekistan and they operated in a confined area, generally along the Pamir Mountains between northern Afghanistan and southern Kyrgyzstan.

November 2001 was a pivotal time for the IMU. They had been fighting alongside their Taliban allies in Afghanistan when U.S. air strikes decimated the IMU, killed their military leader, and sent the battered remnants fleeing into Pakistan's tribal area. The IMU found new recruits, but many were not ethnic Uzbek and some were not from Central Asia.

Alisher Sidikov noted the IMU website lists its martyrs killed in battle and while many are Uzbeks, they are Afghan Uzbeks. Ethnic Tajiks and Turkmen have also been reported in IMU units.

And for most of the years since they arrived in Pakistan, the IMU have been engaged in fighting there.

That situation has changed.

In the last few years, reports from Afghan media, the Afghan government, and NATO confirm an IMU presence in northern Afghanistan that stretches from the Pakistani to Iranian border.

But as the group has spread its area of operations it has also become less centrally controlled. Noah Tucker said the IMU seemed "to exist almost as two different groups, one in Pakistan and one in Afghanistan."

It might be even more complicated than that. The IMU split into factions shortly after it reached Pakistan, with the Islamic Jihad Union the best known of the splinter groups. Since 2009, at least three IMU leaders have been killed and each time a reshuffle of leadership took place, some people split off from the core and it appears most made their way into Afghanistan. Some of them retain the IMU name, others have mixed with the Taliban or other groups.

Zenn said that "some other Central Asian militant groups like the Turkestan Islamic Party or the Kazakh one that emerged in 2011, the Jund al-Khilafa, mostly these are Central Asians that mixed together in Pakistan as well as parts of Afghanistan and then they used their names, like 'Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,' as a brand for propaganda purposes to recruit."

A Different Jihad

From Kabul, Dawud said the move to Afghanistan was natural for the IMU since they are more likely to get support there than in Pakistan, where the IMU are clearly foreign militants and "the [Pakistani] army will kill them."

But some of the IMU fighters leaving Pakistan are going farther than Afghanistan. Tucker noted the IMU was "losing members and losing recruits to Syria." Part of the reason for that, Tucker said, was that for would-be recruits outside Afghanistan and Pakistan, "it's not only easier to get to Syria but it's cheaper to get to Syria."

At this point it's worth noting that some of the first Central Asians known to have been fighting in Syria were four Turkmen nationals who were caught by Syrian government forces in June 2013.

One last note on how widespread the problem is: At the start of May, Yemeni authorities reported government forces killed a commander of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a citizen of Uzbekistan known as Abu Muslim al-Uzbeki.

A Wider Threat

The panelists varied somewhat on how immediate the danger of the IMU is to Central Asia and further away. Malashenko said Russia saw the biggest danger coming from the radical ideas and teachings being brought by Central Asian migrant laborers to cities across Russia. In the last five or six years, dozens of people suspected of being IMU members are arrested in Russia every year. Alleged members of other banned Islamic groups are also routinely apprehended on Russian territory.

As Tucker noted, the trip to Syria is easier and cheaper for militants and a key starting point on that journey is Russia. But while the Kremlin might not see any threat from IMU militants on its own territory, that has not stopped Russian military and security officials from raising the alarm among the Central Asian governments. Malashenko said Russia's "military men like to exaggerate" the threat coming out of Afghanistan, "because it is a pretext to keep a Russian political and military presence in the region."

However, the threat was real enough when the Turkmen soldiers were killed on May 24 and when three Turkmen border guards were shot dead along the Afghan border on February 26.

The Turkmen-Afghan border was the quietest part of Afghanistan's roughly 2,200-kilometer frontier with Central Asia and suddenly it has become the most violent stretch. That fact will not bring any comfort to Central Asian governments as they watch foreign troops leaving Afghanistan.

The panelists made many excellent points during the discussion. Zenn, for example, also brought in the effect of Afghanistan's and Pakistan's militants on western China, where several attacks blamed on Muslim Uyghurs have recently happened.

But I could not fit all that information into one blog post. It was an honor and a pleasure to sit in on that discussion and for anyone else who wants to hear more of what was said, the entire discussion is available here:
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-- Bruce Pannier
Once again, Qishloq Ovozi is always happy to help the up-and-coming scholars in the field get their work out for people to see and this time we bring you Franco Galdini. Mr. Galdini writes about a topic that has been dealt with but unfortunately remains a large problem in Kyrgyzstan -- bride kidnapping.

Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan: 11,800 girls kidnapped each year, 2,000 raped. "In our society, the man is always right." (Kidnapping victim)

Imagine a country where, on average, every 40 minutes a girl is kidnapped for the ostensive purpose of marriage: that is 32 girls per day, for an approximate total of 11,800 kidnapped girls per year. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan, where this has been the grim reality of countless women for decades.

Although precise statistics are difficult to come by, it has been calculated that half of all married Kyrgyz women have been "stolen," as jargon has it, by their future husband -- with about one-third of all marriages being nonconsensual. In the countryside, forced marriages account for a hefty 57 percent of the total. It is no surprise then that, while 92 percent of all kidnapped women end up marrying their abductor, 60 percent of those marriages will eventually lead to divorce.

To supporters, Ala Kachuu -- roughly translated as "grab and run" -- is the quintessential Kyrgyz tradition: a nomadic people, the Kyrgyz have always snatched their wives riding on the back of a horse, common wisdom goes. Women’s rights activists and researchers beg to differ.

The main source for Kyrgyz customs is the national epic, Manas. But if you read the entire Manas, nowhere in it does the hero kidnap his wife or even reference the practice. Actually, according to our research, we think the practice of bride kidnapping started in the 19th century and didn't become popular until the 1940s and 50s, when Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union.

Thus spoke Russell Kleinbach, professor of Sociology at Philadelphia University and deputy director of the Kyz Korgon ("Girls' Shelter") Institute.

Until the second half of the last century, bride kidnapping was practiced as a form of elopement to counter the opposition of the young couple’s families to the wedding. Some such instances still occur, from which derives the romanticizing of a practice that, apart from violating women’s basic human rights, exacts a heavy toll on their psychological and physical well-being. Of the 11,800 kidnapped brides each year, more than 2,000 are also raped.

Some argue that poverty has been a potent factor behind the exponential postindependence growth of this phenomenon. As Kyrgyz weddings cost a fortune, due to the kalym (dowry) and the party, the groom’s family enjoys a better negotiating position as the dowry becomes "usually around a third lower" after the kidnapping. However, in a survey conducted with 268 victims throughout the country in April-June 2010, the NGO Open Line found that only 4 percent of respondents believe that economic gain is behind this practice. Most contend, instead, that it is due to "love at first sight" (26 percent), fear of rejection (23 percent) or a bet between friends (22 percent). These results reveal the power game that lies behind the tradition myth.

a) Should I stay or should I go?

Women often stay with their future husband-cum-abductor due to the crushing social pressure brought to bear on them. This often translates into family pressure, as the family themselves come under intense scrutiny from the community. In reality, bride kidnapping is not the result of a whimsical act by one individual: first, the groom-to-be has to plan it carefully with his extended family. Then he carries it out with some friends-accomplices aided by few close relatives (paradoxically mostly women) and, at times, some of the prospective bride’s own friends or family members.

Yet, the number of court cases initiated against perpetrators is dishearteningly low compared to the scale of the problem. Convictions are rarer still. In a 2008 report, the Forum of Women’s NGOs stated that, out of a total of 35 cases brought to court in the first half of 2006, 15 resulted in convictions.

Official statistics offer the same dismal story: 19 convictions in 2010; 28 in 2011; and 25 in 2012.

The stigmatization associated with rebelling against what most people still consider a tradition often cows the girl and her family into not pressing charges. In the few occurrences where a case goes to court, rarely is a verdict reached because a bargain is struck beforehand via either compensation money or threats, or a combination of both.

The result: only one in every 1,500 abduction cases ends with a sentence. In three separate incidents between 2010 and 2012, three young women from the north-eastern Issyk-Kul province committed suicide after being kidnapped and raped. And yet, only one perpetrator was sentenced to six years in prison for incitement to suicide, rape, and forced marriage. Quite apart from the leniency of the verdict in view of the charges, this is a rare exception to the pervasive climate of impunity.

b. Where is the law?

Bride kidnapping was made illegal in the Criminal Code of postindependence Kyrgyzstan in 1994. Articles 154 and 155 of the Kyrgyz Criminal Code define the financial and criminal liabilities for people who "abduct a woman with the purpose of marriage."

On 25 January 2013, President Almazbek Atambaev signed a bill into Law n. 9, which amended Article 154 and Article 155 of the Criminal Code increasing the maximum prison sentence for bride kidnapping to seven years, and 10 years where the bride is a minor. The amendments came in the wake of a mobilization of grassroots and civil society organizations which picked up momentum in 2012 and coalesced into Campaign 155, a "national campaign to eradicate the practice of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan."

On 10 December 2013, at a full-day seminar organized for Human Rights Day in Bishkek, Aygul Konoeva, deputy director of the Women Support Center -- sounded cautiously optimistic: in 2013, our monitoring projects in the provinces of Talas, Issyk Kul, Naryn and Batken indicate that the idea of bride kidnapping being a crime is slowly starting to sink in people’s minds. Once we have new statistics, if the new law is working -- wonderful. But if it isn’t, we’ll ask for Article 155 to be cancelled, so that all kidnapping cases will have to come under Article 123.

The struggle continues.
Franco Galdini is a freelance analyst and journalist based in Central Asia, where he moved after about a decade working in/on the Middle East and North Africa. In 2013, he was the political and media analyst at the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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