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Qishloq Ovozi

The vast majority of Uzbek militants in the Middle East are in Syria. Their numbers are nearly impossible to estimate, likely hundreds, possibly more than 1,000. (file photo)

The actions of less than 1 percent of Central Asians are giving the entire region an odious reputation as a prime recruiting ground for Islamic extremist groups. In Syria and Iraq, for example, there have been reports and videos of Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Turkmen, and Uzbeks who have joined some extremist group there.

Of all the peoples living in Central Asia today, Uzbeks are the most likely to be reported in militant groups from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Syria and Yemen. There are at least several explanations for why this is true, the most obvious being they are the largest ethnic group in Central Asia.

The most notorious Central Asian militant group to date is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has resurfaced in the news recently, but there are also Uzbeks in the ranks of Al-Qaeda and the extremist group Islamic State (IS).

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, has been looking into the current state of Uzbek militants and uncovered some interesting details about them.

We'll start with the IMU. The IMU was thought to have ceased to exist as of the end of 2015.

Its most recent leader, Usman Ghazi, declared an oath of allegiance to IS in the summer of 2015 and late last year led a large group of his fighters from their sanctuary in Pakistan's tribal region to the Zabul Province in southeastern Afghanistan to join a Taliban splinter group under Mansur Dadullah that was loyal to IS. The traditional Taliban of then-leader Mullah Mansur joined with local ethnic Hazara forces that had suffered at the hands of the IMU, and together they annihilated the IMU in battles in late October and early November.

Nearly all the approximately 200 fighters, including Ghazi, were killed.

IMU fighters in northeastern Afghanistan came under Tajik leadership -- a group called either Jamaat Ansarullah or Jundallah. Those in northwestern Afghanistan appear to have been largely absorbed by local Taliban groups.

IMU Reforming?

But on June 6, a statement purportedly from the IMU was released. The statement mentions Ghazi's announcement that the IMU was joining IS but later refers to many "scholars" who said IS leader "Abu Bakr Baghdadi is not a caliph of Muslims but only an Ameer [Emir] of the 'Islamic State' group."

The statement says "the activities of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan did not stop," admits that its fighters were "dispersed in many faraway fields" and then later states the IMU will "stand shoulder-to-shoulder with… Muslim brothers of Afghanistan."

Ozodlik spoke with people who said the IMU was reforming under the leadership of former IMU leader Tohir Yuldash's son in the Fayzabad area in northeastern Afghanistan's Badakhshan Province. Tohir Yuldash was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan's tribal area in August 2009.

Ozodlik spoke to someone close to Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry. Under condition of anonymity, this person said the number of IMU fighters in northern Afghanistan was likely somewhere between 60 and 100, far lower than figures given by officials in Central Asia, Afghanistan, or Russia.

Asked why the Uzbek government claims there are hundreds of IMU fighters in northern Afghanistan, the source said, "To get money." They told Ozodlik that mid-level security officials in the border area know the real IMU numbers but report higher figures to keep their departments open, and people employed.

Clearly, authorities in Tashkent are still concerned about events in northern Afghanistan. RFE/RL's Gandhara website recently reported Uzbek security forces were conducting cross-border raids into Afghanistan, sometimes capturing Afghans and taking them back to Uzbekistan.

High Casualty Rate

Further away, Uzbeks are taking part in fighting in Syria and Iraq. Ozodlik contacted sources in Uzbekistan, Turkey, and Russia to get information about those groups of Uzbeks.

The vast majority of Uzbek militants in the Middle East are in Syria and most of those are in or near Raqqa. It has been reported that some are in IS but others are in extremist groups fighting against IS. Their numbers are nearly impossible to estimate, likely hundreds, possibly more than 1,000. They suffer a high casualty rate, which makes guesses at counting them even more difficult.

Some are veteran fighters from the IMU but most are not. They were recruited among migrant laborers in Russia and Turkey [See Noah Tucker's work on the Registan website] and most of these, according to Ozodlik's sources, are Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan.

Ozodlik spoke with people involved in or familiar with recruitment efforts for extremist groups in Syria or Iraq. These "recruiters," or perhaps human traffickers would be a more appropriate term, are paid up to $10,000 for sending Uzbeks without military experience to extremist groups in the Middle East.An IMU veteran on the other hand, can be worth $30,000 or more to the person who successfully recruits and delivers such an experienced fighter.

So Uzbek militants are out there but their numbers are small. Depictions in some media give the idea that there are many thousands of them but a more sober estimate would be somewhere around 2,000 spread out from the Arabian Peninsula to Pakistan's tribal region.

Among the other Central Asian peoples, the number is even smaller.

That is something worth considering when assessing security aid to the Central Asian governments, particularly to the Uzbek government.

Sirojiddin Tolibov of Ozodlik contributed to this report
The return of Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Rashid Dostum (center right) has brought a modicum of stability to parts of northwest Afghanistan. (file photo)

Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov made a rare and little publicized visit to three northwestern Afghan provinces at the end of June. Meredov’s trip was the latest evidence that Turkmen authorities are having to adjust their policies toward their southern neighbor in light of the breakdown in security in northwestern Afghanistan.

We’ve been discussing events in northern Afghanistan in the Majlis podcast and in Qishloq Ovozi for many months. But Meredov’s visit to Jowzjan, Faryab, and Balkh provinces was something unseen previously.

The trip, and what it means to Turkmenistan’s posturing toward Afghanistan, bears a closer look. So RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a Majlis panel to consider recent events in northwest Afghanistan and review how Turkmenistan has reacted and how Ashgabat might react in the future.

Moderating the discussion was Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir. Gennady Rudkevich, assistant professor of political science at Georgia University and a specialist in Central Asian affairs, joined the talk. And in the studio in Prague, Amin Mudaqiq, the director of RFE/RL’s Pakistani service, known as Radio Mashaal, participated. And I tossed in a few tidbits here and there, as well.

Mudaqiq started the discussion by recounting the recent fighting in northwest Afghanistan. Mudaqiq said the return of Afghanistan’s vice president, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, to the region has once again brought a modicum of stability to parts of northwest Afghanistan.

“Two months ago, the Taliban had almost encircled the provincial capitals of Faryab and Jowzjan and Sari Pul,” Mudaqiq explained. “I have relatives, I’ve been talking with them, they evacuated their families...because it was expected that the Taliban will overrun [their city] in hours.”

Mudaqiq said the situation changed after Dostum came back to northwest Afghanistan in the spring, the fourth time in less than a year that Dostum had returned to lead security operations against the militants.

The Taliban has been driven from some districts. But Rudkevich pointed out that a pattern has emerged where we see “Dostum coming in, Dostum clearing out the militants, Dostum leaving, the Taliban coming in.”

For Turkmenistan, one of the more alarming developments in northwest Afghanistan is the rise of a new group of Taliban, as Mudaqiq explained.

“To my surprise, [it is] the Turkmen commanders, Turkmen Taliban, who are the most resistant, the toughest fighters in this area,” Mudaqiq said. “These are the local Turkmen commanders, but they studied in Pakistan, they came [back] from Pakistan.” And he added that these Turkmen fighters are a departure from previous Turkmen groups.

“Traditionally, the young Turkmen would obey their elders, but right now they don’t obey their elders,” Mudaqiq said. “The elders are also not pushing so hard because they have their own grievances against Dostum.”

Mudaqiq also mentioned “local Taliban, local militants who are not ideological Taliban but [who] joined the Taliban either for their own security or [because of] their economic problems.”

Mudaqiq described these people as essentially hired guns and said they are often accepted back onto the government side after making vague oaths of allegiance. During Dostum’s offensives in the northwest, there have been several instances of Taliban commanders making peace with Dostum and joining the government side.

Rudkevich said this tactic might not pay off for long.

“If these local actors change sides so quickly and without punishment, apparently, then one day, whether it’s a month from now or a year from now or five years from now, we could have a situation where they decide that being on Dostum’s side, or being on the government’s side, is not in their interest," he said. "And in that case, the fighting will end up in a very different direction than what it is right now.”

Part of the reason for Foreign Minister Meredov’s trip to northwest Afghanistan was probably to get a first-hand look at these events so the Turkmen government can better assess the situation south of the border. His planned visit to a border town where Turkmenistan is building a retaining wall along the Amu-Darya River was abruptly canceled when “unfortunately there was a mine blast, which hit his convoy, and he returned,” Mudaqiq said.

Officially, Meredov was there to discuss bilateral projects. He participated in a groundbreaking ceremony for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway in the town of Akina in Faryab Province and he discussed plans for Turkmenistan to export electricity to areas in northwest Afghanistan. Such discussions could just as easily, and more usually, have been held in Ashgabat or Kabul. Mudaqiq mentioned that Meredov’s meetings with local officials were all conducted behind closed doors.

Azatlyk already reported that the commander of the paramilitary “Arbaky” units and some local police officials were just in Ashgabat. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also made the first-ever visit by a Russian defense minister to Turkmenistan at the start of June.

So it could be that Turkmenistan, which for some 20 years has prided itself on being a neutral country, is choosing a side in the Afghan conflict.

But Mudaqiq drew attention to Turkmenistan’s projects in northwest Afghanistan and suggested that Turkmenistan does have a policy toward this region.

“This electricity, this railway project, these road projects do not benefit only the government. [They] benefit the whole population, which includes the Taliban,” Mudaqiq said. “Turkmenistan electricity in Faryab is distributed in villages, which are under the Taliban, so when the Taliban starts a disturbance against Turkmenistan, they will lose electricity as well.”

Mudaqiq said Turkmenistan might be seeking to make the Afghan provinces across the border dependent on Turkmenistan so that no matter who is in control in northwest Afghanistan that party will need to have friendly relations with Turkmenistan.

It would be a better policy than simply trying to stay out of Afghan politics altogether, which has already proven to be impossible.

Rudkevich said, “[The Turkmen government} wants to have stable borders with Afghanistan, and it looks like they’ve seen the situation degenerate to such an extent that they’re willing to make some sacrifices in the neutrality policy.” But Rudkevich cautioned, “I can’t see them going much further without really jeopardizing the whole neutrality policy, which, again, has been what their whole identity is based on for the last 20 years.”

The panel agreed we are likely to see a very flexible policy from the Turkmen government toward neighboring areas in Afghanistan, but not a coherent strategy, as Ashgabat is in the position of having to react to Afghan events without being able to do much to influence the situation.

The panel discussed these issues in greater detail and looked at other topics that are shaping the situation in northwest Afghanistan and forcing policymakers in Ashgabat to regularly make adjustments to Turkmenistan’s ties with its southern neighbor.

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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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