Central Asia Militancy – 4 Aug 14

The IMU Ascendant: How Uzbek Autocracy Empowers Terrorist Entrepreneurs
Luke Lischin
Small Wars Journal | June 28, 2014

Introduction: Crying Wolf

“An unidentified analyses department officer” at the Uzbek national security service sings along: “Hey, get up! We are facing an unexpected danger! Damned IMU shall attack us any minute from beyond the Pamir Mountains! As soon as snow on mountain slopes melts and mountain paths reveal themselves, the hordes of armed cap-a-pie militants will stream into the Fergana Valley!” The “analyst” sings back: “No, the enemy is not awaiting warmer days, the enemy is transporting its thugs already!”[i]

With sardonic wit, Uzbek journalist Yadgor Norbutayev authored the above quotation in mocking imitation of security discourses within Uzbekistan. Depicting the Uzbek security establishment as a veritable choir of “boys who cry wolf”, Norbutayev cynically accuses these individuals of spewing alarmist rhetoric in order to manipulate a reticent United States into providing the Uzbek military with advanced arms.[ii] Indeed, Uzbekistan has not been subtle about pursuing patronage from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) withdrawing through the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) in Uzbekistan, and has implored several NATO members to sell their surplus equipment to the Uzbek military.[iii]

For Norbutayev, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is nothing more than an unpleasant memory of brutal militants who perished almost a decade ago, resurrected in the rhetoric of Uzbek politicians looking for military patronage from foreign powers. Western commentators have been equally skeptical of claims that have emerged in recent years concerning the return of the IMU and its offshoots[iv], observing that the impending tide of Islamic insurgency portended over the last several years has failed to emerge. They insist that the death of the founding members of the IMU and the reports of dead Uzbek militants throughout Afghanistan in addition to the absence of large-scale violence indicates that the IMU is “fading from existence”.[v] Others, however, are less convinced.

Between 2009-2013, ISAF reported engaging Uzbek militants in Kunduz and Takhar provinces in Northern Afghanistan in increasingly frequent confrontations.  There, IMU cells mounted hit and run attacks against ISAF detachments, using the support of the almost 2 million Afghan-Uzbeks who live in these provinces. The IMU reportedly collected taxes on farmers in Kunduz province as a minor source of revenue, and had even installed an IMU affiliated “shadow governor” by the name of Attallah who was removed from power in 2010.[vi] According to reporting by Bethany Matta of Al-Jazeera, the escalation of IMU violence and public support for the group came as a surprise to local governance and coalition forces that recalled the period of peace that followed the removal of the Taliban from the area in 2002. Capitalizing on apparent popular dissatisfaction with the prefects who replaced Taliban governors and common ethno-linguistic ties with the locals, the IMU has been linked to guerilla-style attacks and suicide bombings targeted at senior Afghan officials.[vii]

While very little is known about the current leader of the IMU emir Usman Ghazi and his cadres, the current record of the IMU is not entirely opaque.[viii] A well-researched 2010 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) offers a middle-of-the-road interpretation of the limited open-source materials available on the group, ultimately concluding that the threat of Uzbek terrorism has not abated. Operating throughout Northern and Eastern Afghanistan and Northern Waziristan, Pakistan, the CSIS report estimates the fighting strength of the IMU in these areas somewhere between 1,000-5,000 troops.[ix] These fighters are financed primarily by the Afghan Taliban, who provides the IMU with approximately $2,440,000- $4,878,000 USD per year.[x] Content analysis of the IMU’s webpage “Furqon” has recorded expanding lists of martyrs, regular reporting on activities, and A/V propaganda materials that suggest that the IMU possesses a relatively sophisticated and well-resourced public relations wing.[xi]

Given the impending withdrawal of US forces from the region, the information cited above is rendered all the more disconcerting, as their departure will undoubtedly reshape the strategic terrain of South and Central Asia, with critical implications for all countries therein. [xii] Whether the IMU will choose to exploit their position in Northern and Eastern Afghanistan is at this moment is an open question that hinges upon a dearth of information regarding the IMU’s intentions. Following a suicide operation in the province of Panjshir on June 3rd 2013, the IMU released the following statement: “we hope from Allah that future conquests are very near in the Mawarounnahr region [the ancient name for modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan]” [xiii] Evidently, the IMU has not forgotten its Central Asian roots during its decade in exile. Nevertheless, whether this ominous threat is predicated upon a concrete strategy to realize these “conquests” is at this time unknowable. This limitation precludes any firm predictions on if and when an IMU campaign can be expected in Uzbekistan, but it does not prevent one from asking whether Uzbekistan would be vulnerable to such a campaign.

Drawing insights from social network theories of elite politics and civil society, this paper argues that the very policies designed by Uzbek President Islam Karimov to subjugate Uzbek civil society and restrict foreign influence have actually strengthened the position of the IMU as a military and political threat to the regime. As the IMU continues to collect wealth and power from Taliban sponsorship and other avenues of foreign support, the IMU can work with Uzbek elites and other underground civil associations to rally popular support, and ultimately set the stage for terrorism, popular unrest, and even insurgency. Uzbek politicians may have been crying wolf just to attract foreign support, but let us not forget how that fable ends.

Terrorists and Constituents: Civil Society and Violent Entrepreneurs

Social network theories of terrorism often share common assumptions regarding the bounded rationality of terrorists operating within particular social contexts. Under this line of reasoning terrorists are not exceptional actors whose motivations are too particular or idiosyncratic to explain but are, in the words of Sherzod Abdukadirov “social entrepreneurs”. Andukadirov asserts that terrorist actors are much like non-profit organizations in that they can provide societies with alternative access to public goods that other actors, primarily the state, have failed to adequately provision. Public goods, unlike private goods, are often intangible and conceptual in nature, and carry a normative subtext. “Security”, “defense”, and “justice” are critical examples of public goods that terrorist groups, by virtue of their capacity and willingness to use force, are sometimes able to provide. Because these groups are nominally driven by an innate desire to provide these goods and gain public trust, terrorist organizations are understood to be “altruistic” and therefore willing to incur material costs in order to supply these goods.[xiv]

For heuristic purposes, models that follow these basic assumptions provide students and practitioners with a basic appreciation for what motivates terrorists to act, adapt, and change by providing a general raison d’etre for political violence. Applied to empirical cases, these models sometimes fail to fully account for behaviors observed of terrorist actors. The issue with these theoretic models is that they often take the social interaction of terrorists with other actors as given, when there are many kinds of barriers to entry that prevent these groups from provisioning goods. These barriers may be legal, such as sanctions that proscribe the transference of funds to state-designated organizations, cultural, as in endogenous ethno-nationalist networks, or resultant from a contest of arms between other competitors. When studying how terrorists aggregate power through social entrepreneurship, it is therefore imperative to examine how these actors gain access to the persons, services, and resources they need to fulfill their aims.[xv] In the case of the IMU, it is therefore necessary to examine the barriers to networking erected by the government of Uzbekistan before their prospects for influence can be accurately depicted.

Neopatrimonial Uzbekistan: Elite Politics and Stability

Uzbekistan’s continued stability continues to baffle many scholars, especially those who engage in large-N multivariate analysis. Contrasting the cases of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the mid 1990’s, Idil Tunçer-Kilavuz observes that commonly used correlates of civil war relating to population density, ethnic composition, and geographic terrain, appeared in higher proportions in Uzbekistan than in Tajikistan, yet Uzbekistan remained stable while Tajikistan dissolved into conflict. Tuncer-Kilavuz does not dismiss the value of the correlates outright, arguing that these correlates must be translated in case-specific contexts that take into account the perceptions of salient political actors, namely the elite. The conclusion reached by Tuncer-Kilavuz is akin to the balance of power concept argued by defensive realists within the discipline of international relations; where opposing actors are relatively equal in power, conflict is deterred.[xvi]  Unlike Tajikistan, Uzbekistan achieved a relative level of power parity and mutual interest through an intricate web of patron-client relations stemming from the office of the president best described as “neopatrimonial”.

Two systemic pillars, as defined by Alisher Ilkhamov, hold up neopatrimonial regimes; a system for the seizure and control of power, and a system for the rational government provisioning of goods and services. In the particular case of Uzbekistan, neopatrimonialism functions to privilege President Karimov’s family and an inner circle of oligarchs without regard for the rule of law, and uses arbitrary arrests as well as the use of military force to eliminate political entrepreneurs and dissidents that threaten his interests. After the horrors that befell Andijan in 2005, some ethnographers were quick to point out that the government’s response was not just a reaction to neighboring Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution, but a reflection of an internal power struggle between the Samarkand Clan (Karimov’s clan) and the Tashkent Clan. While this may be true is a broad sense, the use of the term “clan conflict” belies the underlying causes of the massacre.[xvii]

Clans are too often used as shorthand terminology for primordial (i.e. blood-based) kinship networks that link families and individuals across the bounds of class. In practice, however, clans function as complex webs of patronage that often enrich key players within the network that rises to prominence. A clan, therefore, derives power and influence not from its parochial claims to a particular land or lineage, but from its ability to satisfy the needs and wants of important constituents.[xviii] Understood as an extreme variant of interest-politics, Karimov’s neopatrimonial regime is not unlike the power mechanisms used by criminal networks like the 19th century Italian Cosa Nostra or the Afghan Taliban’s Haqqani Network. As one reporter recently observed, Karimov appears to have transcended the old clan rivalries that characterized Uzbekistan in years past, and solidified political economic power within his family and a small circle of clients. With the “Karimov Clan” solidifying power within the state to a narrower constituency, the President enhances his executive authority, but at the price of alienating former clients. Stated in other terms, Karimov’s personal power may be greater than ever, but his enemies grow more numerous.[xix]

The past 13 years have witnessed an unmistakable backlash against prominent businessmen and regional politicians executed primarily under the guise of just criminal prosecution. During this time, at least four provincial governors, Jora Noraliyev, the governor of Surkhandarya, Alisher Otaboyev, governor of Fergana, Saydullo Begaliev, governor of Andijan, and Ziyovuddin Niyozov, governor of Tashkent have been arrested under charges of official corruption and incompetence, and were stripped of their posts.[xx] Prominent businessmen, including retail wholesalers, energy tycoons, and football club owners have also been targeted for alleged illicit financial activity including embezzlement and money laundering. Ostensibly conducted to cleanse the country of oligarchs, these arrests were widely interpreted as means for Karimov to redistribute the equities and assets of the condemned to loyal constituents and pad the contents of his own wallet.[xxi]

The sense of insecurity and disaffection inculcated within a growing segment of the Uzbek elite will be further compounded by the questions of succession that surround an aged an ailing Karimov.[xxii] It has been speculated that Karimov’s eldest daughter Gulnara Karimov is being groomed to take her father’s place. Gulnara has held a number of diplomatic positions, and has engaged in philanthropic activities abroad, thus augmenting her political bonafides. That said, Gulnara is widely viewed to lack the political acumen of her father, and is dogged by numerous financial scandals.[xxiii] More likely, it seems that Karimov will be succeeded by either Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev or Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, both men within Karimov’s inner circle.[xxiv] Regardless of who succeeds Karimov, the patronage network created by the current president will remain more or less intact after his passing, to the chagrin of elites who find themselves excluded from its streams of power and lucre. Under these conditions, some members of the Uzbek elite would be motivated to find other means of securing their power, perhaps turning to the public to draw strength from the position of a populist politician. In Uzbekistan, however, the lack of independent civil society does much to prevent these ambitions from becoming realized.

Civil Society in Uzbekistan: Licit and Illicit Formations

In a democratic society, civil society in its political integration often works to the advantage of the disenfranchised and disadvantaged, who find new opportunities within communal structures to assert their political interests. These voluntary associations span across all strata of society to mobilize individuals, communities, enterprises, and political parties to affect some desired change through myriad forms of action.[xxv] Those who have fallen from Karimov’s good graces might under different circumstances turn to civil society as a platform upon which they can reengage with political society; but this is not the case in Uzbekistan.

Officially, no independent civil society exists in Uzbekistan, because civic associations of any kind must be registered with the Ministry of Justice in a process that subjects the NGO to a lengthy process of multi-agency review.[xxvi] Under this arrangement, Uzbek civil society is given access to public funds in order to pursue their government approved programs, but the ability of these organizations to affect real changes in political circumstance is effectively nil due to the legal constraints and administrative impediments imposed upon them. The legal foundation of this policy can be traced back to the 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations and the 1999 Law on NGOs. Passed under the pretense of protecting religious liberty and tolerance within a secular Uzbek society, articles of the law proscribed the public adornment of religious garb by non-clergymen, proselytism, and the production, storage, and distribution of materials that contained extremist or separatist ideas. Further, the law declared that organizations that failed to register with the government were unrecognized, and subject to prosecution. Under pursuant legislation during the early 2000’s and in reaction to the civil disturbances stirred in the wake of the first IMU campaign, Uzbekistan began to crack down on unregistered NGO’s and used the selective enforcement convoluted tax laws to silence journalists and dissidents who sought to report these actions.[xxvii]

From 2002 onward, the state continued to reign in the independence of Uzbek civil society. Groups promoting human rights and transparent governance such as the Open Society Institute were among the first to be denied the proper licenses to operate legally due to their promotion of materials deemed anti-Uzbek by the ministries. By way of numerous executive decrees, segments of Uzbek civil society were forced to re-register with the Ministry of Justice, thus providing the state with the opportunity to deny licenses to those organizations deemed troubling. The 2004 decree “On measures on increasing efficiency of the accountability pertaining to financial means, grants and humanitarian aid received from international and foreign governmental and nongovernmental organizations” required that all NGO’s store and transfer all assets through the Central Bank of Uzbekistan or Askana Bank, subjecting the finances of these organizations to constant surveillance, threat of seizure, and limited opportunities for investment and distribution.[xxviii]

In effect, the Karimov regime has created a system of civil society wherein foreign donations from international aid organizations destined for Uzbek NGO’s flow directly into state coffers, and are distributed at the discretion of bureaucratic elites overseeing the management of these funds. The centralization of these aspects of civil society, apart from defrauding international donors, has also encouraged the local extortion of small to medium sized indigenous enterprises that face bureaucratic and legal harassment if they do not “donate” to select organizations. In light of this toxic culture of official control and corruption, Uzbeks are highly disillusioned by the current state of civil society, and are by in large discouraged from participating. Considering that the watchdog group Transparency International rated Uzbekistan the 7th most corrupt state in the world, this cynicism can hardly be blamed.[xxix]

Lacking basic freedoms of speech and organization, those not discouraged by the injustice and excess of Uzbek regulations have taken to the creation of underground organizations that operate outside all legal remits. Undoubtedly, the underground association that has garnered the most attention from Western scholars is the London-based international NGO, Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT), a Salafist Islamist group that advocates on behalf of creating a global Sunni caliphate. Ideologically, HT espouses a literalist and extreme version of Sunni Islam that categorizes Shia, Jewish, Christian, Western, and secular individuals and institutions as evil. Like al-Qaeda and the IMU, HT desires to realize a world governed under their originalist interpretation of Sharia, but nominally rejects violence as a means of achieving this desire. Instead, HT has organized itself into a hierarchical collection of semi-autonomous cells operating in over 45 countries to distribute propaganda interpreting religion, governance, international affairs, and local conflicts through the prism of their ideology.[xxx]

HT is banned in Uzbekistan, as well as in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan for espousing an extremist, separatist ideology despite their conveyed commitment to non-violence, but this has not prevented HT from maintaining a presence in the region.  Imprecise estimates owed to the organization’s criminal status number HT’s membership at 7,000 to 60,000 people in Uzbekistan, with somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 members living in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Beyond merely disseminating leaflets and A/V materials, HT cells have been reported to fulfill needs left unmet by local governments. HT members are noted to contribute to local charities, and donate basic goods to needy families in rural areas of Uzbekistan such as Ferghana. Politically, HT has organized protests and authored policy proposals that decry the economic inequalities and official corruption of the Central Asian republics, and offer religious rule as a solution to this common blight. Additionally, HT is perhaps the greatest patron of local religious communities across Central Asia, whose secular regimes proscribe unregulated religious education and association.[xxxi]

Non-religious groups that represent liberal democratic platforms such as Birlik and Erk parties, and single-issue groups like the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan and the Independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan have also maintained a significant presence in the country, albeit to an extent less publicized than that of HT.[xxxii] Even so, against the forces of state repression and the ethos of national ideology, the impact of HT and other anti-Karimov groups within Uzbekistan has been marginal. Though these groups continue to survive, an impressive feat under such hostile conditions, coherent and unified action against the regime has never emerged. Omitting the sensational IMU bombings in Tashkent 1999 and the 2005 Andjian incident, expressions of public outcry have been confined to sporadic protests mounted by dozens of individuals from diverse backgrounds that ultimately fail to coalesce into national movements. Even when thousands of protestors convene to protest public policy as they did in Andijan, the impulse to action did not spread to other regions, and Karimov reacted with unbridled savagery.[xxxiii]

Uzbek Foreign Policy and Foreign Actors

As the circle of Karimov’s neopatrimonial clientele continues to shrink, those on the fringes of the regime and those left behind are rendered increasingly disempowered and displeased due to the lack of access to basic resources and legal recourse. Keeping the greater part of society disempowered by limiting basic freedoms and public patronage is a critical component of Karimov’s strategy of self-preservation, but this strategy is not without its vulnerabilities. Resting on the assumption that the regime can maintain direct control over the population by coercing dependence upon, and therefore compliance with the regime, Karimov must also ensure that foreign actors do not intervene in Uzbekistan’s internal affairs. Towards this end, Karimov has gone to great lengths.

Reclusive, but not isolationist, Uzbekistan’s foreign policy has shifted away from affirming regional commitments to security in favor of dealing with international great powers on bi-lateral terms. In 2012, Uzbekistan withdrew its membership from Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia’s flagship multilateral military alliance in Eurasia. Having withdrawn once before from CSTO in 1999, Uzbekistan has always been a reticent member of CSTO and has never participated in joint military exercises orchestrated by the organization. Apparently unimpressed by such exercises, which are commonly regarded as merely symbolic, and chaffed by Russia’s predominance in the forum, Karimov expressed firm convictions when he announced that CSTO did not and could not address Uzbek interests.[xxxiv] Armed with the largest, best equipped, and overall most formidable military force in Central Asia proper, Uzbekistan certainly did not rely on CSTO to guarantee its security.

Rather than turning to NATO or redoubling its commitment to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Uzbekistan has instead cooperated with Russia on terms laid out by the 2004 Treaty on Russian-Uzbekistan Strategic Partnership (RFUSP) and 2005 Treaty on Alliance Relationships with Russia. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan has not yet commented upon the status of the 2002 U.S.-Uzbekistan Strategic Partnership Treaty, keeping American diplomats in Tashkent on edge. US investments in Uzbekistan including the infrastructure supporting the NDN and the launch of the US New Silk Road Strategy further add to the anxiety felt by Washington during this period of diplomatic uncertainty. At present, Tashkent plays a delicate game of balancing its agreements with Washington and Moscow, though it would appear that Karimov might prefer to work with Russian patrons.[xxxv]

Russia aside, Uzbekistan has been loath to cooperate with other actors in the region, viewing its neighbors as security liabilities rather than potential allies. Between 1998 to the present, Uzbekistan has regarded Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with deep suspicion and open hostility. At the height of the IMU’s first campaign, Uzbekistan repeatedly accused Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan of providing the group safe havens, and engaged in airstrikes in both states under the pretext of targeting the IMU. Uzbekistan also unilaterally strengthened its borders to impede IMU transit by erecting walls, laying mines, and digging trenches at critical transit points into Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.[xxxvi]

Despite the large ethnic Uzbek populations that reside in the border areas of these countries, Karimov, for all of his pan-Uzbek rhetoric, has never called for the repatriation of these populations because he regards them with great suspicion. The Uzbek intelligence service has been known to surveil these foreign Uzbeks, and even resort to extraordinary rendition to capture persons of interest in clear violation of the international norms of sovereignty and extradition. Polling conducting by Matteo Fumagalli of Uzbek diaspora populations in these areas revealed that, unsurprisingly, these populations have highly negative views of Karimov and his policies aimed at their communities. Although a majority of respondents felt a strong sense of connection to Uzbeks living in Uzbekistan proper, it should be noted that only a minority voiced any desire to live in Uzbekistan, citing the repression therein as a deterrent.[xxxvii]

Conclusion: An Argument Not To Be Discounted

Should it choose to do so, the IMU can serve as a critically destabilizing external force in Uzbekistan by channeling the ire of elite and associational victims of the regime to form an alternative patrimonial network opposed to Karimov’s. As Martha Brill Olcott, a venerable Western scholar of Central Asia concludes in her most recent work In the Whirlwind of Jihad, most Uzbeks are content with the state sponsored version of Hanafi Islam, and are unlikely to embrace Salafist groups. Gaining social and spiritual satisfaction from the daily ritual of the mahala,[xxxviii] Hanafi Uzbeks are thus not inclined to view Salafist beliefs and practices with much more than curiosity.[xxxix] It is true that the practicing Hanafi Uzbeks and secular Uzbeks share little in kind with their literalist and puritanical countrymen, save for one key sentiment: disdain for Karimov. In the study of sub-state violence, one should never forget the perennial maxim of political science: “Politics makes strange bedfellows.”

If the IMU is willing to shelve its more global jihadist aspirations, increase the volume of its anti-Karimov rhetoric, and seize opportunities in Uzbekistan, the group can build a strong coalition through various means. While the specifics of the IMU’s ideology may be off-putting to some potential allies, the unique capabilities of the organization could easily overshadow ideational differences. Most obviously, the IMU represents the single most coherent sub-state threat to Uzbekistan’s monopoly on force, and can offer elites the “muscle” they need to ensure the security of their polities. Without question, IMU fighters are no match for Uzbekistan’s conventional forces in the context of an open confrontation, but that is not where these forces excel. Trained by veteran Taliban commanders and tested by years of conflict with ISAF, IMU guerillas are not rank amateurs. So long as they do not succumb to the temptation to hold fixed positions within Uzbekistan as they did in their ill-fated 1999-2001 campaign, IMU guerillas and terrorist cells could wreak havoc in border municipalities and harry frustrated military detachments. These operations would not topple the regime overnight, but if well executed, they would at the every least expose chinks in Karimov’s authoritarian armor by striking against symbols of his authority and evading his forces.[xl]

Politically, the IMU could also prove useful to ambitious Uzbek elites by virtue of the socio-political networks they maintain. First and foremost, the close relationship between the Taliban and the IMU could serve as an indispensable boon to would-be revolutionaries. In the wake of the US withdrawal, the Taliban may find itself in control of the assets of the Afghan state, and be willing to use these assets to assist their brothers in arms and replace Karimov with a ruler more amenable to Afghan interests. IMU connections to HT would also be valuable as a mechanism to garner support from clandestine chapters within Uzbekistan and more open diaspora populations outside the country. Beyond providing revolutionaries with a pool of supporters from which finances and recruits may be collected, attracting a strong coalition of Uzbek civilians would serve to imbue the movement with a popular legitimacy it would otherwise lack.

Bound by a common hatred of the ruling government, it is not unthinkable that secular liberals, ethno-nationalists, and religious extremists would rally behind the same banner; it has happened before. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran was a secular autocrat propped up by foreign influence and ousted by an idealistic coalition of young middle to lower class citizens who did not subscribe to a single, unified ideology the outset of the revolution. Some Iranians lined up behind the revived National Front of Karim Sanjabi and Daryush Forouhar who drew upon the democratic legacy of former President Mohammed Mosaddeq. Others followed a robust array of socialist and Marxist ideologies and joined the exiled Tudeh Pary as well as the leftist guerilla groups Rah-e Kargar and Peykar. Syncretism also occurred between movements, as exemplified by leaders such as Mojahedin-e Khalq whose followers were known as Islamic Marxists. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, however, emerged from this confused collective of revolutionaries as the chief arbiter of the revolution due to his charismatic prowess as a leader and his uncomplicated yet appealing design for the new Iranian state. International incidents, most notably the 1979 US embassy hostage situation, only enhanced Khomeini’s profile, as he retrofitted the administrative machinery with the vanguard of the revolutionary leadership and installed the governing ulama to watch over them. By 1981, Khomeini had consolidated his authority to the point that his former leftist allies became fodder for the Revolutionary Guard.[xli]

The Iranian Revolution cannot provide observers with an accurate blueprint of how regime change will occur in Uzbekistan, if it does indeed occur at all. What this historical precedent demonstrates is how factions of disparate ideological persuasions can overcome deeply held convictions in the name of common interests under hostile conditions. If the IMU can channel popular unrest and elite disposition through political networks that secure ideational and material support, the IMU can seize this moment in history to damage a regime that has long overstayed its welcome. Whether the IMU will in reality accomplish such a feat is a rightly contentious issue. Nevertheless, the ascension of the IMU into a position of regional power in years following 2014 cannot be written off as alarmist fantasy, as to do so would be to ignore the structural vulnerabilities of Uzbekistan today.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the National War College or any agency of the U.S. government.

End Notes

[i] Yadgor Norbutayev, “Islam Karimov and the Goldfish,” Ferghana News, 3/18/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013: http://enews.fergananews.com/articles/2826

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Andrew E. Kramer, “As NATO Prepares for Afghan Withdrawal, Uzbekistan Seeks War’s Leftovers,” The New York Times, 1/31/2013, Accessed 4/4/2013:


Sonia Rothwell, “NATO, Uzbekistan and the ISAF Withdrawal,” ISN, 3/12/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:


[iv] Most notably the Islamic Jihad Union

[v] See Shakar Saadi, “IMU on verge of fading from existence: The group is becoming desperate, suffers leadership problems and may not make it through the winter, analysts say.,” Central Asia Online, 10/19/2012, Accessed 5/4/2013:


Joshua Foust, “Are Terror Groups Faked? Does the IJU Even Exist?,” Registan, 6/20/2009, Accessed 5/4/2013


[vi]Bill Roggio, “IMU-linked Taliban district commander killed in Takhar raid,” The Long War Journal, 9/5/2010: Accessed 5/4/2013:


– “Iran-backed senior IMU commander captured in Afghan north,” The Long War Journal, 9/15/2010, Accessed 5/4/2013:


Patrick Megahan, “Increased targeting of IMU continues in Afghan north,” The Long War Journal, 4/5/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:


[vii]Bethany Matta, “Uzbek fighters gain support in Afghan north: An al-Qaeda-linked group is increasing its appeal among youth in Takhar, where government dissatisfaction runs high.,” Al-Jazeera, 4/10/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:


[viii] Shakar Saadi, “New IMU leader has criminal record. IMU loses accomplices, recruits terrorists on the side,” Central Asia Online, 8/14/2012, Accessed 5/4/2013:


[ix] Thomas M. Sanderson, Daniel Kimmage, and David A. Gordon 2010, “From Ferghana Valley to South Waziristan,” CSIS, 17-18

[x] Syed Shoaib Hasan, “The Militant Economy,” The News, 02/18/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:


(Accessed through: http://moneyjihad.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/taliban-doles-out-rs-150-million-in-funding/)

Adam Pankowski, “The Taliban’s Assets in the United Arab Emirates,” International Institute for Counter-Terrorism


[xi] Matthew Stein 2013, “The Goals of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Its Impact on Central Asia and the United States,” Foreign Military Studies Office


Martha Brill Olcott, In the Whirlwind of Jihad, (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012), 297-299

[xii] Barack Hussein Obama, “State of the Union,” C-Span, 2/12/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:


[xiii] Jacob Zenn, “ Central Asian Leaders Wary of Post-2014 IMU Threat,” The Jamestown Foundation, 7/12/2013, Accessed 7/15/2013: http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Bswords%5D=8fd5893941d69d0be3f378576261ae3e&tx_ttnews%5Bany_of_the_words%5D=Qatar&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=41125&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=7&cHash=aa4cf529733d3b50aa8c86877449a388#.UeSLyFMtZ-V

[xiv] Abdukadirov, Sherzod 2010, “Terrorism: The Dark Side of Social Entrepreneurship,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 33, no. 7, 603-617

Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 35-38

Jessica Stern and Amit Modi “Producing Terror: Organizational Dynamics of Survival”, Countering the Financing of Terrorism, eds. Thomas J. Biersteker and Sue E. Eckert, (New York: Routledge, 2008), 30-36

[xv] Timothy Wittig, Understanding Terrorist Finance, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2011), 112-117

Jessica Stern and Amit Modi “Producing Terror: Organizational Dynamics of Survival,” Countering the Financing of Terrorism, eds. Thomas J. Biersteker and Sue E. Eckert, (New York: Routledge, 2008), 36-40

[xvi] Idil Tunçer-Kilavuz, “Understanding Civil War: A Comparison of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan”, Europe-Asia Studies 63, no. 2, (2011),263-290

[xvii] Alisher Ilkhamov, “Neopatrimonialism, interest groups and patronage networks: the impasses of the governance system in Uzbekistan,” Central Asian Survey 26, no. 1, (2007) 65-84

[xviii] İdil Tunçer-Kılavuz, “Political and social networks in Tajikistan and

Uzbekistan: clan, region and beyond,” Central Asian Survey 28, no. 3, (2009) 323-334

[xix] Alisher Ilkhamov (2007), 65-84

Staff, “Uzbekistan: Karimov Appears To Have Political Clans Firmly In Hand,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 5/9/2013, Accessed 5/4/203:


[xx] Eric M. McGlinchey, “Searching for Kamalot: Political Patronage and

Youth Politics in Uzbekistan,” Europe-Asia Studies 61, no. 7, (2009) 1137-1150

Adolat Najimova and Daniel Kimmage, “Uzbekistan: Karimov Reappraises Andijon,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 10/19/2006, Accessed 5/4/2013:


[xxi]Bruce Pannier, “Big Business In Uzbekistan Targeted In Wave Of Arrests,” Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 3/12/2010, Accessed 5/4/2013


Staff, “Uzbek Bankers Arrested Over Foreign Currency Deals,” RIANOVOSTI, 7/2/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:


[xxii] Staff, “Uzbek opposition leader insists President Karimov suffered heart failure,” Fergana News, 3/23/13, Accessed 5/4/2013:


[xxiii] American Embassy Tashkent, “Uzbekistan: Rumors of Succession Planning, Government,” Wikileaks, 7/31/2009, Accessed 5/4/2013:


Farruh Yusupov and Daisy Sindelar, “Swedish TV: How Millions In Telecoms Bribes End Up In Karimova’s Pocket,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 12/12/2012, Accessed 5/4/2013:


Traveller, “Gulnara Karimova: Is She Ready to be the Next President of Uzbekistan?,” Registan, 4/8/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:


[xxiv]Farruh Yusupov and Daisy Sindelar, “Karimov Absence Fuels Rumors Of What Comes Next In Uzbekistan,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 3/27/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:


[xxv] Iris Marion Young, Inclusion and Democracy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 64-167

[xxvi] For foreign-based NGO’s the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also included in the registration process.

[xxvii] Matthew Crosston, Fostering Fundamentalism: Terrorism, Democracy, and American Engagement in Central Asia, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2006), 122-124

Alisher Ilkhamov 2005, “The thorny path of civil society in Uzbekistan,” Central Asian Survey, 297-302

[xxviii] Ibid.

Sally N. Cummings, Understanding Central Asia: Politics and Contested Transformations, (New York: Routledge, 2012), 70-73

[xxix] Alisher Ilkhamov (2005), 302-305

Charles Buxton, The Struggle for Civil Society in Central Asia, (Sterling: Kumarian Press, 2011), 34-38

Transparency International, Uzbekistan, Accessed 5/4/2013: http://www.transparency.org/country#UZB

[xxx] Mahesh Ranjan Debata, “Hizb ut-Tahrir: The Destabilizing Force in Central Asia,” Religion and Security in South and Central Asia, ed. K. Warikoo, (New York: Routledge, 2011), 125-128

[xxxi] Ibid. 132-138

Murat Lamulin, “Islamic Radicalism in Central Asia,” Religion and Security in South and Central Asia, ed. K. Warikoo, (Routledge: New York 2011), 140-144

[xxxii] Daniel Stevens, “Political society and civil society in Uzbekistan—never the twain shall meet?,” Central Asian Survey 26, no. 1, (2007), 53-54

[xxxiii] Eric McGlinchey, “Central Asian Protest Movements: Social Forces or State Resources?,” The Politics of Transition in Central Asian and the Caucuses: Enduring Legacies and Emerging Challenges, eds. Amanda E. Wooden and Christoph H. Stefes, (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), 128-130

[xxxiv] Staff, “Interview: Analyst Says Uzbekistan’s Suspension Shows CSTO Is ‘Irrelevant’,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 6/29/2012, Accessed 5/4/2013:


Farkhod Tolipov, “Will The U.S. And Uzbekistan Revisit Their Strategic Partnership,” The Central Asia-Caucuses Analyst, 3/20/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:


[xxxv] Farkhod Tolipov, “Will The U.S. And Uzbekistan Revisit Their Strategic Partnership,” The Central Asia-Caucuses Analyst, 3/20/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:


Joshua Kucera, “Capitol Hill Coddles Uzbekistan’s Karimov,” Inter Press Service, 3/4/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:


[xxxvi] Mariya Y. Omelicheva Counterterrorism Policies in Central Asia, (New York and London: Routledge, 2011), 56-57

Matthew Stein, “Uzbekistan’s View of Security in Afghanistan After 2014,” Military Review (May-June 2012)

[xxxvii] Matteo Fumagalli, “Ethnicity, state formation and foreign policy: Uzbekistan and Uzbeks abroad,” Central Asian Survey 26, no.1, (2007) 105-122

[xxxviii] *The local Uzbek religious community.

[xxxix] Olcott (2012), 300-306

[xl] Rob Johnson, Oil, Islam and Conflict: Central Asia Since 1954, (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), 129-137

Idean Salehyan, Rebels Without Borders: Transantional Insurgencies in World Politics, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2009), 46-55

David Witter, “Uzbek Militancy In Pakistan’s Tribal Region”, Institute for the Study of War (2011)

[xli] Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr, Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 79-98

Luke Lischin is an Academic Assistant at the National War College. Previously, he worked as an intern at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization. His research on Qatar was published in a book chapter coauthored with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross in a volume entitled Allies, Adversaries & Enemies: America’s Increasingly Complex Alliances. Mr. Lischin’s essay on terrorism in the United States entitled Assessing “The Terrorist Threat: The Primacy of Domestic Terrorism” was published in the 2012-2013 volume of The Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis at Syracuse University. In 2014, he received his MA at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he concentrated in the study of terrorism and substate violence.



The Political Crisis in Afghanistan and its Implications for Russia
Ekaterina Stepanova, Dr. of Politics, Head of the Group on Peace and Conflict Studies, IMEMO RAS
RIAC | 28 july 2014

The United States and NATO are withdrawing their forces from Afghanistan, leaving the country in a difficult, albeit not entirely hopeless situation.

On the one hand, the armed conflict in the country rages on. Although its nature is changing, increasingly assuming the form of a confrontation between the insurgents and the Afghan armed forces and security structures, which are suffering record losses. The number of armed attacks and incidents grew by 15–20 per cent in 2013 alone. On the whole, the fighting today is substantially more intensive than it was before the Western intervention. Indeed, in the decade following 2001, Afghanistan joined Iraq and Pakistan as the three countries with the highest level of terrorist activity. According to the Global Terrorism Database, in 2012 these three countries accounted for more than half of all the terrorist attacks in the world and 58 per cent of all people killed in terrorist attacks.

On the other hand, in spite of all the alarmist scenarios that are common in Afghanistan, as well as inside and outside the region, a radical change of the balance of forces or overwhelming military superiority of one of the parties to the conflict after 2014 so far look unlikely, as does any real progress towards a peaceful settlement. Most probably the Taliban would only be willing to enter into serious internal peace negotiations after they “test the strength” of the Afghan army and government following the withdrawal of the bulk of Western forces. Thus, Afghanistan will likely experience a period of increased instability as the conflicting parties size up each other’s armed strength in the new situation. The central government and the national security structures will remain active, albeit on a limited scale. Hopefully, this will happen not only thanks to international support and the remaining Western military presence, but also due to the greater legitimacy of the new administration (compared with that of Hamid Karzai) as a result of the elections and further state building.

Until July 2014, this hope was fuelled by the successful experience of the presidential elections in Afghanistan (to the extent that they can be successful in Afghan conditions), which were held in spite of heightened internal conflict, the withdrawal of foreign troops and the schism that had formed between political elites. The first round on 5 April did not deliver an outright victory to any of the 12 candidates, but Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, former Foreign Minister of Afghanistan and at one time a prominent leader of the Northern Alliance, was leading with 45 per cent of the votes. His main rival, the former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a Pashtun, won 31 per cent of the votes (the Pashtun Zalmai Rassoul, who finished third with 11 per cent of the votes, eventually backed Abdullah Abdullah). However, the guarded optimism generated by the first round of elections proved to be short-lived and was erased by the events that unfolded after the second round on 14 June 2014.

The Crisis surrounding the Elections and Attempts to Settle it

The announcement of the preliminary results of the second round on 7 July 2014, which was won by Ashraf Ghani (who received 56.4 per cent of the votes, as opposed to first round favourite Abdullah Abdullah’s 43.6 per cent), dramatically exacerbated the situation in the country and triggered a full-scale political crisis. Both candidates immediately claimed victory. Abdullah Abdullah’s supporters took to the streets, and he himself made claims of massive vote rigging and ballot box stuffing (by as many as two million votes). Abdullah Abdullah recalled his observers from the electoral commissions and announced that he would form a parallel government.

On the one hand, large-scale vote rigging in this, like in any other election in Afghanistan (for example, in the previous presidential elections of 2009, when Abdullah Abdullah ran against the incumbent President Hamid Karzai), is more than likely, as it is the norm rather than an exception. It is even more probable in this case because the turnout announced by the election commission for the second round (8.1 million) was a dramatic increase from the first round (by more than a million). In some provinces – in Maidan Wardak, for example – the number of votes cast for Ashraf Ghani increased tenfold, and the turnout in rural areas was higher than in urban districts. The situation defies common sense and contradicts the numerous reports of a generally lower turnout than in the first round. Yet it hardly surprised anyone. The reason is that the incumbent president Hamid Karzai had committed his political and administrative resources largely (and in the second round entirely) to supporting the Pashtun candidate Ashraf Ghani.

On the other hand, all the main candidates in Afghanistan are guilty of serious violations and electoral fraud. We cannot rule out the possibility that Ashraf Ghani may have actually won the second round, even without all the ballot stuffing and in spite of his excessively pro-Western stance (even by Hamid Karzai’s standards) and his “track record”. In addition to the political support provided by Hamid Karzai (and tacit preference on the part of the United States), the fact that Ashraf Ghani appealed to the Pashtun majority may have played a part, as could his choice of Abdul-Rashid Dostum, the head of the Uzbek community and prominent leader of the former Northern Alliance – and one of the most opportunistic Afghan politicians – as his running mate.

Be that as it may, after the announcement of the disputed preliminary results of the second round, the split within the Afghan elites increased. Legitimate change of power in Afghanistan by relatively democratic means (i.e. in accordance with the universally recognized outcome of a general election) was brought to the brink of collapse. This happened against the backdrop of the government losing its (already tenuous) grip over certain regions, especially in remote rural communities, as well as active Taliban-led insurgency and the withdrawal of international NATO and U.S. forces. On the whole, the threat of failed national presidential elections and aggravated ethnic and territorial divisions may pose a more serious challenge to the future of Afghanistan than armed activities on the part of the Taliban.

The U.S. administration is keenly aware that bringing the political crisis in Afghanistan back into the constitutional realm is critically important. The Americans would like to be able to justify their withdrawal in the absence of a stable peace and security at least by way of a relatively effective political process. No wonder the United States, on the one hand, promptly admitted that there may have been serious irregularities in the second round and in vote counting, and on the other, threatened to cut off aid to Afghanistan if any unconstitutional bodies of power were formed. On 12 July 2014, the diplomatic efforts of Secretary of State Kerry and U.S. pressure on both sides brought about a temporary compromise, with the sides agreeing to a full centralized recount of the votes to be monitored by the United Nations and international observers, including the transfer of all the ballots to Kabul under the guard of the NATO and Afghan militaries.

Considering the gravity of the crisis and the United States’ weakened position in terms of the leverage it has over, and the pressure it can exert on, the country following President Obama’s announcement in May about the timeframe for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, it is not surprising that Jan Kubis, the Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, described the fragile compromise as a “miracle”. It is noteworthy, however, that the efforts to reach a compromise at this early stage were not confined to a feverish attempt to gain time, keeping the crisis at bay for at least the three weeks or more that it would take to recount the votes (naturally, the announcement of the final results and the inauguration of the new president would have to be postponed too). At a joint press conference with John Kerry at the UN office in Kabul, both candidates agreed to recognize the results of the vote recount and reaffirmed their pledge to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States. The agreement sets the terms of the continued presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014 and pave the way for the signing of an agreement on the status of the remaining NATO contingent. The two rivals publicly declared that whoever is declared victorious, they would be ready to form a coalition government of national unity including representatives of the losing side. The agreement stipulates that the new president will appoint the head of the executive branch – the runner-up in the presidential election.

Of course, there are many obstacles in the way of implementing the agreement (the vote recount was “suspended” due to a “misunderstanding” between the parties barely a week after the compromise was achieved). But in any eventuality (including the collapse of the 12 July 2014 agreement, with Hamid Karzai assuming special powers pending a new election or for an indefinite period, etc.) the only credible way out of the crisis is through the creation of formal or informal agreements on power sharing between the main political forces in the country as part of a coalition government, reform and modernization of the political and electoral system and institutions. This is particularly important in light of the parliamentary elections due to take place in 2015, after the main foreign forces are already out of the country – that is, probably in a still more complicated situation. It is particularly important to prevent any group, political force or community from gaining dominance because of the highly centralized form of government (which is very ineffectual for many reasons, but partly because it is overly centralized).

Russia’s Interests and Position

Before discussing what the current political crisis in Afghanistan means for Russia, it is worth recalling why Russia is worried about developments in Afghanistan in principle.

Moscow’s main concern is security. In particular, she is worried about two threats emanating from Afghanistan: the cross-border spread of instability, violence and extremism and the flow of Afghan narcotics into Russian territory. It has to be stressed that as the presence of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan is drawing to a close in its present form, both these threats have increased to varying degrees and continue to grow.

While the spillover of instability and violence from Afghanistan directly threatens Central Asian countries most of all, including Russia’s CSTO allies, the production and trafficking of Afghan drugs, especially heroin, poses a direct and massive threat to the lives and health of Russian people. While in 2001, on the eve of the Western intervention, opium poppy crops in Afghanistan had shrunk by an unprecedented 91 per cent (as a result of an effective ban imposed by the Taliban on poppy growing), by 2013, at the peak of the foreign military presence, the area where the poppy crop is cultivated, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, had increased 26 times to an historical high. The U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan did not set the explicit aim of reducing the production and trafficking of Afghan drugs. At the same time, the inability to offer solid economic alternatives at the macro- and micro-levels, the inefficiency of the Karzai administration and the Afghan authorities as a whole, and the escalation of the armed conflict contributed to the expansion of the opium economy. The completion of the withdrawal of the main U.S. and NATO forces by the end of 2014 will have a fundamental impact on the dynamic of the opium business, because it is accompanied by the retreat of government power and curtailment of development programmes in some regions, including the main drug-producing areas. That means even more opium and heroin in the coming years, including in Russia.

Nevertheless, in terms of Russia’s immediate role, the main consequences of the withdrawal of U.S./NATO forces will not impact Afghanistan as much as it will Central Asia, where this role will only grow. Although the threat of armed violence spilling out of Afghanistan into Central Asian countries should not be overestimated, the threat is serious enough (especially for Tajikistan) to serve as a catalyst for the activities of Russia and the CSTO in Central Asia. Russia has already responded to this challenge by combining security and military aid with expanding economic aid and cooperation with partners in Central Asia.

As for the situation inside Afghanistan, Russia’s role and influence are limited and will remain so. No one, even Russia’s partners in the region, and nothing, even the colossal scale of the drug threat coming out of Afghanistan, can draw Russia into establishing a direct presence or taking part in security assistance inside Afghanistan after 2014. Therefore, on the issues that worry Russia most in regard to Afghanistan, Moscow will have to rely on the authorities that are established inside the country. That determines the key aspects of Russian policy on Afghanistan as a whole and its position on the political crisis in the summer of 2014 in particular.

First, Russia has never had such a compelling and sincere interest in seeing a more efficient and legitimate Afghan state than it has today. And what is more, this task – making state power more functional and legitimate – may serve as the lowest common denominator for all the regional players with regard to Afghanistan (in spite of the differences and contradictions among them and different ideas about how to tackle the problem). At the end of the day, this same task is the declared priority of the United States with regard to Afghanistan. Its importance for the United States will grow because the hasty withdrawal of troops (under a certain arbitrary “schedule” and not depending on the existence of conditions for such withdrawal) threatens to undermine American positions and influence in the region in the long term.

Second, considering the weakness of the Afghan authorities (the government that will replace the Karzai administration is sure to be weak), Russia would like to see continued Western aid to Afghanistan in terms of security and development and even a continued residual presence of U.S. and NATO forces in that country. Such a presence is probably going to be based on a bilateral security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan, complemented by a corresponding agreement between Afghanistan and NATO, though Russia and most regional powers would prefer the agreement to be eventually formalized in the framework of the United Nations.

Third, after 2014, the problem of Afghanistan has become a powerful catalyst for developing and strengthening Russia’s cooperation with all the main regional players, including both its traditional partners (Iran, India) and (in the past) less likely partners (Pakistan).

Fourth, in the internal Afghan context, the policy of Russia, owing to its interest in seeing a more functional and legitimate Afghan state, is evolving in the right direction. Instead of priority support for certain ethnic and political factions and communities (notably Tajiks and Uzbeks), it is moving towards a more balanced approach that focuses on the national level, support of the central government and the Afghan state as a whole, and the development of relations with all the main factions and political forces.

As regards striking a balance on internal Afghan affairs, Russia is somewhere between Iran and China (both maintain working contacts with all the factions, but Iran is leaning more to the northerners, while China has more influence on the Pashtuns, partly through Pakistan). The pragmatic and balanced approach that emphasizes the national level is already bringing Russia some (admittedly modest) benefits: for example, the Afghan government was one of the few governments that de facto supported the reunification of Crimea with Russia. Moscow’s reluctance to side with any of the main candidates in the 2014 presidential elections reflects the increasingly balanced Russian approach to internal Afghan problems. Moreover, unofficially Moscow would welcome a coalition government and rule (for example, one of the two main contenders, be it Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani, one as president and the other as prime minister).

Finally, Russia will have to seek – and find – a balance between supporting the process of national reconciliation in Afghanistan (Moscow is not opposed in principle to internal Afghan talks with the Taliban) on the one hand and calls for continued international aid to the Afghan national army and security bodies, including a readiness to strengthen them, on the other. Along with the settlement of the current political crisis, this is necessary to guarantee the viability of the central government in Afghanistan, to prevent a dramatic change in the military balance and retain some leverage with the rebels, which, depending on the outcome of the 2014 situation, would either push them to talk with Kabul or ensure their effective deterrence.


In Time of Sharp Tensions, Islamist Extremism Continues to Unite Russia and the United States

Alexei Arbatov
Eurasia Outlook | July 15, 2014

The events in Ukraine and around it quite understandably attract everyone’s attention. It is the most serious crisis of our times, whose outcome will shape the future of European and global security and may allow for the relice of the Cold War to be buried once and for all.

The crisis dwarfed the problems of Afghanistan and the entire Southeast Asian region in the aftermath of the U.S.-led International Coalition troop withdrawal. The Islamist offensive in Iraq, which was liberated and democratized by the American Coalition of the Willing, also gets scant public recognition. Meanwhile, these problems call for serious reflection and cannot be dealt with at a later date—after the resolution of the Ukrainian crisis.

These issues vividly demonstrate that Russia and the West share vital mutual interests, since they share a common enemy—militant radical Islam. It is bent on destroying the 21st century European civilization, which Russia, all caveats notwithstanding, is undeniably part of, despite all the criticism from abroad and metaphysical babble about its “special path” and “unique spiritual values” from inside the country.

The Iraqi events foreshadow what may be in store for Afghanistan; they threaten to transform a huge swath of land from the Maghreb to Hindu Kush into a cesspool of violence, endless political turmoil, terrorism, national and religious extremism, as well as drugs, arms and illegal migrants.

While I do not claim the mantle of an expert on this issue, I would venture to say that many specialists that are presently discussing every little aspect fail to see the forest through the trees.

First of all, they underestimate the moral and political consequences of Afghan Islamists’ effective victory and future revanche. Their triumph will bring about an unprecedented rise of political Islam around the world: after its victory over the Soviet nuclear superpower in 1989, radical Islam scored another victory—this time over NATO, the most powerful military and political alliance in history and even over the UN, which sanctioned the counterterrorist operation in 2001.

Besides, all the major political differences between Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s military campaigns aside, these two wars and occupation regimes have demonstrated how strong and dangerous of an adversary militant Islamism is. It should not be underestimated. Paradoxically, this adversary has a number of advantages over the strongest armies of the most advanced modern powers. It is not accidental that these powers—USSR, Russia, Israel, the United States, and NATO—have lost such wars or, at least, failed to secure a decisive and ultimate victory.

First of all, most Islamists are fanatical; they are not afraid of death, while regular troops do not at all wish to die while carrying out their military or peace-keeping missions far away from home. Second, mujahidin have accumulated an enormous experience of combat operations; in Afghanistan, in particular, people have been living in a state of permanent war for a few generations now. Regular troops do not have as much combat experience, to say nothing of the army conscripts. Even the career soldiers have more limited experience.

Third, Islamists have access to a virtually infinite well of manpower. Their numbers are constrained only by logistical considerations. A regular army clearly does not have an unlimited number of troops at its disposal. Fourth, the extremists are not concerned about their own or civilian casualties. Moreover, it is often their tactic to inflict the maximum damage and civilian casualties. A regular army, on the other hand, cannot afford to ignore its losses. Besides, the collateral damage that comes with civilian casualties appearing live on TV screens is a serious moral and political issue which undermines support for such operations.

Fifth, militants can engage in endless fighting, but a regular army cannot do that, as the current Afghan experience bears out. The cases of Iraq and Afghanistan in the 1980’s testify to the same effect. Sixth, Islamists rely on an unending stream of financial support, while a regular army does not have this luxury—the governments that sponsor it have other obligations, making supporting an overseas contingent a heated political issue.

Seventh, the extremists are perfectly equipped for the combat operations that they engage in. They have an opportunity to choose the time and place of engagement. In contrast, a regular army is generally burdened by an enormous amount of standard weapons and equipment, as well as complex logistic support structures that are not used in the counterterrorist operations. Eighth, unlike regular foreign troops, guerrilla fighters, as a rule, know the local terrain better and are able to seek refuge with the locals (who know that the foreign troops will leave and the mujahedin are there to stay); besides, their movement is unconstrained by states’ borders.

The list can be continued, but it is abundantly clear that the Coalition troop withdrawal will become a turning point in global history and politics, which is not sufficiently appreciated in Washington, Brussels, Beijing, New York, Geneva, and other influential world capitals. However serious the current disputes on the issue of Ukraine may be, the great powers, their alliances and international organizations should start preparing for the problems that lie ahead in other parts of the world and cooperate in solving them.

Finally, some in Russia believe that the Taliban’s revanche will not affect our country. They think that we can reach an understanding with the “moderate” factions of the Taliban, ensuring that their leaders focus on Afghanistan’s internal problems without sticking their nose in the Central Asian region to their north. I am certain that this is just an act of self-delusion. Whatever the Taliban promises now in order to hasten the Coalition troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and split the great powers, it is not going to stop at its revanche. After all, it has no vision for the country’s peaceful existence, nor any practical skills in organizing people’s daily lives. It can hold on to power only by way of expanding its ideology. This can be accomplished through the Taliban fighters’ incursions to the north and south of the Afghan borders or their support of their brothers in arms in the neighboring countries and the terrorist cells across the globe. Riding the victory tide, they will exact revenge on everyone who contributed to their 2001 defeat.

The Taliban will remember Russia’s vote in favor of the UN resolution on the use of force in Afghanistan. Subsequently, Russia has played an enormous role in facilitating the military phase of this operation, as well as in organizing and supplying weapons to the Tajik and Uzbek-run Northern Alliance. In addition, Russia was involved in organizing the Afghan transit, which was indispensable to conducting this operation. On can safely say Russia, which did not commit its troops to the operation, played a greater role in it than any other allies whose troops were deployed on the ground.

Given the extent of this involvement, Russia should take initiative in working on political, military, and economic plans in a variety of international formats in order to ensure that the consequences of the Coalition troop withdrawal from Afghanistan do not catch the international community by surprise, as has often been the case.