Rumors have spread in recent weeks about possible incursions from Afghanistan into Tajikistan by members of the Al-Qaeda and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan groups. The fears come as the number of Russian troops guarding the Afghan-Tajik border has been increased. RFE/RL examines reasons for the increase and whether concern over possible incursions is justified.
Prague, 18 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Recent statements by officials in Tajikistan suggest that fighters from both the Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) terrorist groups may be preparing to cross from Afghanistan into Tajikistan.
The IMU -- a hard-line Uzbek group accused of having close links with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda -- has in recent years staged armed incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, with the goal of creating an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia. The U.S. State Department includes the IMU on its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
General Nuralisho Nazarov is deputy chairman of Tajikistan's state border service committee. He told RFE/RL that extra Tajik and Russian troops have been posted along the Afghan border because of the possibility that Al-Qaeda and IMU fighters may make attempts to cross into Tajikistan. "We have intelligence information saying that some [Al-Qaeda] groups are gathering at the [Tajik-Afghan] border and that they plan to cross it. That is why we and the Russians are currently strengthening border control near the [northern Afghan] area of Badakhshan. I don't know how many [fighters] there are and when they plan to cross the border. There are not only Al-Qaeda but also IMU groups. They are not only in Badakhshan but also in the area close to Uzbekistan. They have information about U.S. bases in the region, about the [U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition's] planes. So maybe they plan to commit terrorist acts against these facilities. We cannot ignore that possibility," Nazarov said.
The 1,400-kilometer Afghan-Tajik border is primarily guarded by Russian troops. Russia has maintained some 25,000 troops in Tajikistan to protect its borders and help provide security during its past unstable decade of independence. In a television interview last week, Nazarov said the number of troops, both Russian and Tajik, serving at the border has recently been doubled in anticipation of possible Al-Qaeda incursions.
The threat of such an armed invasion has become an increasingly frequent topic of recent public discourse throughout Central Asia. Misir Ashyrkulov, secretary of Kyrgyzstan's Security Council, has repeatedly accused the IMU of planning new incursions into the Ferghana Valley, which straddles Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. According to Ashyrkulov, some 300 IMU militants are planning to cross into Central Asia from Afghanistan.
But the threat has been downplayed by a number of high-ranking officials, including Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, who said concerns over a militant incursion are groundless. Speaking last weekend at a conference of the Movement for National Unity and Revival of Tajikistan, Rakhmonov said such rumors were aimed at frightening away foreign investors.
Colonel Aleksandr Kondrotiev, a Russian border guard posted at the Tajik-Afghan border, was likewise dismissive of the Al-Qaeda-IMU threat. "I support the position of the Tajik president. But once more, I would like to underline that Russian border guards have no information about the presence of Al-Qaeda in the area," Kondrotiev said.
But Major General Sergei Zhilkin, chief of staff of Russia's border troops, has repeatedly warned that small groups of international terrorists have been noticed in the Afghan region of Badakhshan. These terrorists, the general said, are likely to attempt to cross the border in small groups and return to bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan left over from raids by Islamic militants in 1999 and 2000. He said it cannot be ruled out that some of them will enter the area as passport-carrying citizens of the Central Asian republics.
Kondrotiev admited that Russian troops are increasing their presence at the Tajik-Afghan border. But he said the measure is only meant to step up pressure on drug smugglers looking to bring Afghan opium and heroin into Tajikistan en route to Western markets. Kondrotiev disputed Zhilkin's claim that terrorist groups are gathering in Badakhshan, saying there are no Russian troops in that area to provide such information. "General Zhilkin could not say that Al-Qaeda members are in the north of Badakhshan because this is not a part of our sphere of influence. We are strengthening the border guards' presence along the main narcotic routes. This is true," Kondrotiev said.
U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Lepan, a spokesman for the U.S. Defense Department, told RFE/RL the Pentagon is "not aware" of a concentration of Al-Qaeda and IMU fighters along the Tajik-Afghan border. "Most of the information that we have is that there are small groups of Al-Qaeda operating in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and perhaps in other countries [in the region]. But we do not have information that there are large concentrations of Al-Qaeda or IMU in the northern part of Afghanistan near the Tajik border," Lepan said.
Lepan said the Pentagon believes that the terrorist forces that do exist in the region of Afghanistan aim at killing U.S. and coalition forces, and also hope to undermine the transitional Afghan government. "We believe there still continue to be these groups operating in Afghanistan, as well as across borders in neighboring countries. And we believe they still pose a threat, and that's why our military operations continue to try to seek out and find them, so that we can eliminate that threat," Lepan said.
Despite American confidence that the IMU suffered serious setbacks during the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, many analysts believe that the group remains a force to be reckoned with in the region.
Correspondent Ahmed Rashid covers Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia for both the British "The Daily Telegraph" and the "Far Eastern Economic Review." He told RFE/RL that Central Asia remains under "considerable threat" of terrorist attacks. "I think that the IMU underground network in Central Asia is still very strong. It hasn't really been affected by the campaign in Afghanistan and the attacks on IMU military bases in Afghanistan. So I think the threat of a terrorist kind of attack -- perhaps on American targets -- is quite strong," Rashid said.
Rashid pointed out that along with Al-Qaeda and the remnants of the Taliban leadership, IMU militants have been "prevalent" in Pakistan ever since December. He said there are strong indications that Taher Yuldash, the IMU's political leader, is in Pakistan hiding out with the support of militant groups. He also cast doubt on speculation the IMU's military commander, Juma Namangani, has been killed. "[I] think, a lot of government officials in Uzbekistan, in Tajikistan, and even Russian intelligence officials believe that he's still alive, and that he's lying low for the time being. Nobody has been able to find his body; nobody has been able to confirm he's dead by identifying his grave or his body," Rashid said.
Other observers likewise believe a number of IMU militants are living in various parts of Pakistan under the protection of Pakistanis sympathetic to their cause. Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and IMU loyalists began arriving in Pakistan soon after the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan forced the Taliban from power last November. Many of these militants slipped into Pakistan's tribal area of South Waziristan after being dislodged from the Tora Bora and Shah-i-kot areas of Afghanistan by a U.S. bombing campaign.
Since then, Pakistani security forces have reportedly clashed with suspected Islamic militants on at least three occasions, killing 17 suspected Al-Qaeda and IMU fighters.
(RFE/RL's Tajik and Uzbek services contributed to this report.)