Militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) found sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal areas for more than a decade. Now, it appears many have left and are looking for a new home. They might have found one in Afghanistan, right on the doorstep of their native land.
In recent months, Afghan government and military officials have claimed that an uptick of violence in the country's northern provinces is partly due to an influx of foreign fighters.
While it is hard to ascertain where militants fighting in northern Afghanistan are from, it is likely that many belong to the IMU. Those new arrivals probably fled to Afghanistan after a May 2014 Pakistani military operation in the North Waziristan tribal region, where many IMU fighters were based.
With a local population made up mainly of ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen, the northern Afghan provinces make a natural home for the IMU. The area borders Central Asia, the birthplace of the militant group, which emerged in the late 1990s to overthrow the Uzbek government and is on the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Initially, local Afghan officials said the militants were small in number and only there to support local Taliban forces. But in recent months there has been a flurry of reports of government troops battling militants and "foreign fighters" in the provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz, Jowzjan, Faryab, and Badghis. Thinly stretched Afghan forces have been unable to gain the upper hand and militants have been quick to exploit the government forces' weakness.
On April 10, some 200 militants overran government positions in the Jurm district of Badakhshan Province. Government forces counterattacked and recaptured the district. Dozens were killed, including four enemy fighters identified as “Tajik nationals.”
On April 24, Kunduz Governor Omer Safi told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that “around 3,000 militants are fighting in five major districts" and Afghan security forces had found “some Chechens and some Tajiks” among the enemy dead. The Associated Press cited Safi as saying the bodies of 18 foreign militants were retrieved from the battlefield and that the dead came from "Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Chechnya.” Safi said many of the militants had traveled “with their families.”
Further west, in three Afghan provinces bordering Turkmenistan, there has also been a spike in violence.
In a remote and hard-to-access region, it is incredibly difficult to say who and where the militants are from. Some Afghan officials have mentioned a militant group called Jamaat Ansarullah, which is the Tajik wing of the IMU, while other officials have used the term Jundullah, a combination of Jamaat Ansarullah and the IMU.
Badakhshan Governor Shah Waliullah Adeeb told RFE/RL's Gandhara website on April 15 that most of the militants were foreigners. Adeeb said that “some 200 fighters, some of them with their families, are now based in the Dara-e Khustak area” and identified those fighters as being from “Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Chechnya, and other countries.”
In fighting this week in Jowzjan’s Aqcha district, officials said there are at least 300 “foreign” fighters among enemy forces. Speaking to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, civilians in the region claim these foreigners are speaking Uzbek and Tajik with accents that reveal they are originally from Central Asia, not Afghanistan.
What's also unclear is how many militants there are and whether they are fighting alongside their traditional ally, the Afghan Taliban, or if they are pursuing their own goals and changing allies according to necessity.
The Taliban provided sanctuary for the IMU in 1999 and 2000, when the latter was launching attacks in the area where the borders of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan meet. In 2001, the IMU stayed in Afghanistan and was involved in the Taliban's push to capture the remaining 5 percent of Afghanistan that was still outside its control. Many IMU fighters then fled to Pakistan after a U.S. bombing campaign in late 2001.
Some Afghan officials have claimed that a portion of the militants fighting in northern Afghanistan are loyal to Islamic State (IS), but the evidence for this is scanty. While there could be a small IS presence in Afghanistan, the few groups publicly claiming allegiance are fringe or outcast elements perhaps just looking for publicity -- or possibly even funding from the world's richest terrorist organization.
Another crucial question concerns the fighters' goals. Some Afghan military officials and local militia commanders have claimed these militants are intent on holding the ground they’ve seized, unlike previous Taliban groupings that usually attacked then withdrew when the government rallied forces. There have also been claims that IMU militants, rather than the Taliban, are directing some of the fighting.
For now, IMU fighters in Afghanistan seem more focused on their survival than anything else. It wasn't always that way. Their original goal when they first emerged in the late 1990s was to violently unseat Uzbekistan's government. They then expanded that goal to include the capture of all of Central Asia.
When they were based in the Pakistani tribal areas, the IMU often took part in attacks launched by their allies and hosts -- Tehreek-e Taliban and Al-Qaeda -- on targets in Pakistan. Attacking those targets wasn't part of the IMU's original agenda but was perhaps necessary to remain in the sanctuaries offered to them and their families. Freed from this obligation and now being closer to their Central Asian homeland, the IMU may well refocus their goals and again concentrate on the group's original objectives.
They will eventually have to settle somewhere. They are unlikely to go back to Pakistan and Shi'ite Iran would provide no welcome. The southern lands of Afghanistan are Pashtun territory and the IMU has a history of bad relations with the Pashtuns, at least in Pakistan's tribal areas.
For now, their best option appears to be to stay where they are -- at the gateway to their homeland.
-- Bruce Pannier
Radio Mashaal Director Amin Mudaqiq, Zarif Nazar of Radio Azadi, and Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir contributed to this report