Afghan and international forces missed their mark in the hunt for a senior leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in northern Afghanistan's Konduz Province last week, but they didn't go home empty-handed.
Several militants were killed and two suspected IMU members were detained in the course of the operation, adding to the growing evidence that the jihadist import from Central Asia is cementing its position in an area of Afghanistan once considered relatively stable.
Analysts point to the IMU when assessing the causes of the spike in violence in northern Afghanistan over the past two years, suggesting its militants expanded their presence in the region to disrupt NATO's northern supply route and use the region as a launch pad for crossborder forays into Central Asia.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), in a December 1 statement describing the intended target of its manhunt, said that "the targeted individual facilitates suicide bombers from Pakistan for attacks in the [Konduz] province and acts as a liaison for Taliban in the area."
This is just one of many press statements issued in the past year chronicling the rise in northern Afghanistan of the IMU, whose members are believed by experts to be so enmeshed with the ongoing insurgency in that country that its leaders sometimes serve as "shadow" officials for the Afghan Taliban.Symbiosis With Taliban
Afghan officials such as Shaida Mohammad Abdali, President Hamid Karzai's deputy national security adviser, have expressed concern over the prospect that the IMU is eyeing its territory as a base for attacks on northern neighbors. "The problem of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan truly exists. They are instrumental in bringing insecurity to the north," he says.
Abdali says that Afghan authorities are gathering more information to "determine whether the issue is that of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan alone or other elements, such as Al-Qaeda, are involved."
An alleged IMU training camp in Pakistan (undated)
The Taliban's relationship with the IMU dates to the late 1990s, when the Afghan regime at the time hosted the Central Asian militants in response to Tashkent's support for ethnic Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, according to senior Taliban leaders who have since reconciled with Kabul.
Today, the two enjoy a symbiotic relationship. The Taliban's ties to the IMU -- whose ranks are filled with Sunni Muslims of Central Asian origin -- raises its standing among ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Turkmen, as well as other non-Pashtun communities. The IMU enjoys small sanctuaries in remote regions along Afghanistan's northern border, providing it with an opportunity to train fresh recruits and putting it in position to carry out strikes in neighboring Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan.
The IMU appears to be most active in a triangle of instability spanning the Konduz and Takhar provinces, which border Tajikistan, and their neighboring province to the south, Baghlan.
Asadullah Walwalji, a former military officer and ethnic Uzbek politician who ran in Afghanistan's parliamentary elections in September, says that IMU fighters now operate out of three districts in northern Konduz Province.
"People loyal to former [IMU leader] Tahir Yuldash operate in the Qal-e Zal and Chahar Dara [districts]. They strive to infiltrate every place that borders Tajikistan and Uzbekistan," he says, adding, "In Daht-e Archi [district], there are Chechens and Uzbeks and Tajiks affiliated with Al-Qaeda."
This is in line with what Yuldash outlined to supporters before his death.
"We are one with Sheikh Osama, Taliban, [and] Al-Qaeda," Yuldash told supporters in Waziristan in an undated video available on the Internet. "After taking over Afghanistan and Pakistan, one part of us will go to India and another part will go toward the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States, an alliance of former Soviet states]."Cooperation And Rivalry
Walwalji also suggests that the IMU, which is seen as part of the larger jihadist movement, may be penetrating other northern Afghan provinces through its base of operations in northwest Pakistan. He says that while canvassing during his election campaign in his native Takhar Province, which borders Konduz to the east, locals discouraged him from visiting one remote area because "Al-Qaeda" was said to have established a foothold in the region and was deeply suspicious of newcomers.
A NATO air strike against a convoy in Takhar in September may support such claims. NATO reported that the strike killed Muhammad Amin, an IMU leader and "shadow" deputy governor of Takhar, although the Afghan government has disputed the alliance's claim. Abdul Wahid Khorasani, a candidate in the parliamentary elections, has said that it was his convoy that was targeted; that those killed were his campaign workers; and that he had no involvement with the IMU. Following a joint investigation with Afghan authorities, however, NATO reiterated its claim.
Raz Mohammad Faiz, a Pashtun who represented Takhar in the previous Afghan parliament, has an even more expansive take on the IMU, saying it has infiltrated anti-Taliban militias as well. He says that a rivalry between Hizb-e Islami and Jamiat-e Islami is contributing to insecurity in the region. Both are pan-Islamist, Afghan organizations -- the former predominantly ethnic Pashtun and the latter composed of ethnic Tajiks. They have competed for political influence in the region since the late 1980s.
He says that locals in the province's northern districts bordering Tajikistan have said Uzbeks have sought to establish relationships with religious hard-liners.
"They sought cooperation in jihad," he says, adding that the organization's activities are on the rise. "[The IMU has] very good relations with [Afghan] Uzbeks. They live in their houses and prefer to use their regions, which are the districts of Dashte-e Qala, Khoja Ghar, and Baharak.
"They are seen in those regions. The locals say that they are being kept by local militia commanders who give them weapons and logistical support," he adds.
Moeen Mrastyal, a former lawmaker who represented Konduz in parliament, says ties between various jihadist movements are often downplayed. He says that together with the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, the IMU is part of a wider Islamic jihadist movement that operates freely in northern Afghanistan.
"In Konduz we have Turkmens, Uzbeks, and Tajiks who have come from [Central Asia] and are now being spotted by locals in some remote regions," Mrastyal says....And Coercion
Mrastyal says that locals are sometime forced to host these uninvited guests. "Wherever people refuse to host them, they are forced to cooperate with the help of the Afghan Taliban. And they also collect ushr," he says, referring to an Islamic tax on farm production.
Badakhshan Province lawmaker Fawzia Koofi agrees and singles out northern areas where Wahhabis and Salafis -- Saudi-inspired puritanical Sunni Islamic sects -- have taken root and where followers of Hizb-e Islami have a sizable presence. She also cites the crossborder drug trade, which extends to Western Europe and to Russia, as bankrolling extremists in the region.
She says hard-line Islamic religious schools, or madrasahs, linked to extremists in Pakistan, are increasingly openly advocating a return to the Taliban rule in Badakhshan. "This war of ideology is increasing. You have it in Central Asia and you have it in South Asia," Koofi says.
Koofi says that northern Afghanistan's strategic location is pivotal to the jihadists. "Certainly, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda would like to influence the north because it is very easy to go to Central Asian countries -- Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. And through there they can access Russia. Second, I think is the issue of poverty and lack of good governance there," she says.
Mohammad Asim, a politician from the northern Baghlan Province, says the insurgency's strength increases with the weakness of the Afghan government.
Drawing on his experience as a field commander against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, he says that public lack of trust in the government prevents it from winning them over. He claims it would be difficult to "attract people in the [north] to back and support the current political system."
He explains, "People who have no capacity and lack the requisite understanding and whose corruption knows no boundaries currently hold power in most of those regions."