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Qishloq Ovozi

The arrival of larger groups of IMU fighters and their families roughly coincides with the spike in violence in northern Afghanistan.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was back in the news at the start of November, fighting alongside a Taliban splinter group in Afghanistan's southern Zabul Province. Actually, the IMU group in Zabul was also a splinter group, now loyal to the Islamic State (IS) militant group operating in Syria and Iraq and the IMU now appears to have fractured into several bands.

The Taliban has experienced splits in its ranks since the group announced the death of its leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in July. But over the course of the last few years the IMU has fractured and members of what at least once was the IMU are now dispersed in Afghanistan, and in Syria and Iraq. In some cases it's fairly clear who they are fighting for, but in other instances it is very difficult to see their allegiance or motives.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel discussion on the state of the IMU today.

As an advance warning, the picture is extremely complicated and no one can claim to know exactly what is happening within the IMU ranks. There are only pieces of information and interpretations of what these pieces mean vary.

Moderating our "majlis" was Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir. Participating in the discussion were Amin Mudaqiq, the director of Radio Mashaal, RFE/RL's Pakistani service, and a veteran of reporting on the IMU, Sirojiddin Tolibov from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik. I said a few things also but I'll tell you, I was content to listen to these guys because they were saying things I never heard before.

The talk started with Zabul, where in early November a combined force of Taliban fighters loyal to Mullah Omar's successor and ethnic Hazara militiamen crushed the IMU and a dissident Taliban force, which was under the command of Mullah Dadullah, the deputy leader of the Taliban splinter group.

Mudaqiq said, "When the Taliban started its offensive against the dissident Mullah Dadullah, inevitably they had to attack IMU people, or Jundullah people, as well because they were stationed in the same area." He emphasized that the target of the attack was Mullah Dadullah's group but the IMU held to their alliance with Dadullah and as a result, "by the last day only two Uzbek fighters remained at the scene."

Tolibov added to the story. "We saw reports from Afghanistan saying there were clashes and the main headquarters of the IMU, which joined to the Islamic State, was wiped out in Zabul Province."

Mudaqiq continued, "The prisoners say that the number of Uzbeks was about 200 people in Zabul. They estimated…close to 100, I mean half of them were killed and some of them fled."

The IMU leader, Usman Ghazi, apparently was in Zabul. Mudaqiq said officials in Afghanistan "don't know the fate of Usman Ghazi, they cannot confirm that he is killed or captured." Tolibov explained, "We got reports allegedly that he was first arrested and then executed under Shari'a law for betrayal but we cannot confirm."

No one is sure. There are also reports Ghazi fled and is hiding somewhere.

The IMU fighters in Zabul supported Ghazi when the he announced officially in early August that the IMU was pledging allegiance to IS.

Scattered Across Northern Afghanistan

The situation in northern Afghanistan is less clear. IMU fighters, or as Mudaqiq called them "Jundullah," have been reported taking part in hostilities in seven of the eight northern Afghan provinces that border Central Asia. They had been there in small numbers for several years.

Many more came after Pakistan launched an offensive into the North Waziristan tribal area in the spring of 2014. The IMU found shelter in Pakistan's tribal areas after U.S. bombing mauled the IMU in Afghanistan's Kunduz and Takhar provinces in late 2001.

The IMU were given refuge in Pakistan by their Taliban and Al-Qaeda allies but the IMU caused many problems in the tribal areas during the time they were there. But after they claimed responsibility for the Karachi airport attack in June 2014, Pakistan's military made the group a priority target. Most appear to have fled back into Afghanistan.

The arrival of larger groups of IMU fighters and their families roughly coincides with the spike in violence in northern Afghanistan.

What these IMU fighters are doing and whom they serve was a matter of great debate. There are reports IMU fighters have teamed up with their traditional Taliban allies to launch attacks on Afghan government forces, mainly in northeastern Afghanistan, in provinces that border Tajikistan.

Further west, Tolibov suggested the IMU forces in Faryab Province were from Ghazi's group and essentially had vowed to serve IS. However, Tolibov noted, "In the northeast of Afghanistan, in Takhar, Kunduz, and Badakhshan [provinces], the IMU [and Taliban] have been holding joint operations against government forces."

Tolibov said the composition of the IMU group in the northeast was mixed, there are not only Uzbeks, but Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Uyghurs, Chechens, and Arabs as well. Mudaqiq added, "The IMU in Badakhshan [Province] is still headed by a Tajik."

The IMU group in northeastern Afghanistan reportedly has a greater percentage of ethic Uzbeks and this group seems to be playing a more supporting role in combat, unlike the group in the east, which is often involved in fighting.

Mudaqiq dropped the biggest bombshell during the discussion. The Mashaal director was just in northern Afghanistan in October. Asked how the IMU was able to replenish the losses of so many of its fighters, Mudaqiq said people in northern Afghanistan told him "regularly people from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, [coming] through Tajikistan, are joining them."

For the record, this is not the first time I have heard this claim recently but it has been impossible to verify due to the complex and confused nature of the situation in northern Afghanistan and neither the Uzbek, Tajik, or Afghan government have commented on these claims.

The panel discussed these issues in greater detail as well as the IMU fighters who have gone to Syria and Iraq, the debate over whether the name of the group still fits the IMU, and other topics.

You can listen to the full discussion here:

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Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (right) and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan review a guard of honor during during the latter's visit to Astana earlier this year. Ankara has cultivated close relationships with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane on November 24 has put most of the Central Asian states in an extremely awkward position. No one in Central Asia wants trouble with Russia, the former colonial master, but at the same time the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and Uzbeks are Turkic peoples and in the nearly 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ankara has played on cultural and linguistic affinities to successfully develop relations with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry on November 25 released a statement on the downing of the Russian Su-24 by Turkey, calling it a "tragic incident" that was "regrettable."

After expressing condolences over the deaths of Russian servicemen -- the jet's pilot and a crew member of a helicopter search-and-rescue team -- the ministry quickly moved on, saying: "These days, the international fight against terrorism is taking place. Both Russia and Turkey are acting in this direction. Kazakhstan, too, supports this fight."

The statement continues with calls for Russia and Turkey to deescalate tensions and focus attention on the fight against international terrorism.

It is an example of the tightrope Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are walking right now. Russia is a major trade partner and there are still many ties from Soviet times that bind the four Central Asian states to Moscow.

'Hostage To Power Politics'

At the same time, Turkey has been a natural friend and has become a major trade partner for the four Central Asian countries also. Students from Central Asia have been welcome at Turkish universities for more than two decades. Citizens of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan do not require visas to enter Turkey.

And, although Turkish construction firms are working in all four of these Central Asian states, in Turkmenistan they have a virtual monopoly -- the only other foreign company that has been consistently working in the construction sphere there is France's Bouygues.

Beyond Russia's long history in Central Asia, there is, of course, now a Russian military base in Kyrgyzstan (one in Tajikistan also, but Tajik is not a Turkic language) and Kazakhstan shares a nearly 7,000-kilometer border with Russia.

Small surprise then that media in these four Central Asian countries have been cautious and brief in reporting on the Russian warplane and the ensuing diplomatic row between Moscow and Ankara.

Kazakhstan's Tengrinews.kz online news agency published an interview with well-known political analyst Dosym Satpaev on November 25. Satpaev said, "Kazakhstan should not be a hostage to Russian power politics, because more and more often, Russia's actions are creating distinct problems for its partners…"

Satpaev said that, in the current stand-off between Russia and Turkey, there was no point in Kazakhstan taking a side. But he warned that, in the future, "a situation could arise that would demand Kazakhstan clearly declare on whose side it is, and to which camp it is going."

Such a scenario is something all the Central Asian governments must be contemplating in the wake of the November 24 incident along the Turkish-Syrian border.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service director Torokul Doorov and Shukhrat Babajanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service helped in preparing this report

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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. Content will draw 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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