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21-07-09, 04:29
Islamist fighters on the Silk Road

M.K. Bhadrakumar

A steadily rising curve of Islamist activities is becoming visible in Central Asia.

In his book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, noted Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid describes how the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency, Britain’s MI6 and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence drew up a provocative plan in 1986 to launch mujahideen attacks in the Soviet territory, presently within Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The task was given to the ISI’s favourite mujahideen leader, Gulbuddi n Hekmatyar. Of course, the idea itself — the use of militant Islamists as a geopolitical tool to lacerate the “soft underbelly” of the Soviet Union — belonged to the U.S. National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Years later, in 1998, when a Le Nouvel Observateur interviewer asked him whether he regretted using political Islam as a natural ally, Brzezinski was unrepentant. He asked: “What is more important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”

Indeed, it wasn’t an idea that was born in Brzezinski’s clever mind. When the idea of the U.S.’ utilitarian alliance with the benighted version of Islam first appeared in the mid-1950s as the underpinning of the U.S. strategy to gain control of the oil in the Middle East and ward off Arab nationalism, American strategists called it the “Eisenhower Doctrine.” And its current reputation has been ably theorised by ideologues such as Bernard Lewis.

That is why, the latest stirrings on the political accommodation of the neo-Taliban in Afghanistan by the U.S. cause immense anxiety and concern in the region. The issue is not about an Afghan settlement. Surely, for a settlement to be durable, it needs to be inclusive and broad-based and cannot possibly exclude a sizeable group such as the Taliban, which does have indigenous roots. The issue, rather, is about the nature of Afghan reconciliation. Outside powers should not be prescriptive. On the other hand, the process must evolve through an intra-Afghan dialogue.

The Pakistan military’s spokesman, Athas Abbas, recently admitted in an interview with the CNN that the ISI continues to be in contact with the Taliban’s hardcore leader and that it can bring him and other commanders to the negotiating table. No matter what prompted Major General Abbas to open up, Washington chose to let it pass. The fine line of distinction between the “good” and the “bad” Taliban is slowly and steadily blurring, and the vista is opening up for a dialogue with Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani and Hekmatyar.

Mr. Abbas’ “chatter” appeared with hardly a few weeks to go for the Afghan presidential election due on August 20. The western capitals are panicky about the prospect of President Hamid Karzai securing a second term. A nasty media campaign against him is under way. But what happens if Mr. Karzai wins the election? Conceivably, an “Iran-like” situation would develop. It is a real possibility. The British commander in Helmand province, Colonel David Haight, has openly speculated that Mr. Karzai’s re-election could trigger a “violent backlash” from the Afghan public.

The western capitals are backing the candidacy of former Afghan Finance Minister and World Bank official Ashraf Ghani. One of the attractions about Mr. Ghani’s electoral platform is that he has openly called for ending the war and offers the Taliban a three-year ceasefire. On the contrary, Mr. Karzai’s two vice-presidential running mates are former Northern Alliance stalwarts Mohammed Fahim, who used to be the intelligence chief under Ahmed Shah Massoud, and Karim Khalili, the Hazara Shia leader from Bamyan. More irksome for the U.S. seems to be the prospect that while Mr. Fahim has had close dealings with Russian intelligence over the years, Mr. Khalili has been Tehran’s steady ally through a quarter century. Thus Mr. Karzai’s ticket is not only pan-Afghan but also enjoys the trust of Russia and Iran (and India). Again, Afghan Uzbeki leader Rashid Dostum and Hazara commander Mohammed Mohaqiq from the Amu Darya region — two key figures in the anti-Taliban resistance in the 1990s — have announced their backing for Mr. Karzai, and they are as equally opposed to the return of a Taliban regime as Mr. Fahim or Mr. Khalili could be.

A Karzai victory, in short, means that any reconciliation with the Taliban can only be on the basis of an inter-ethnic, national consensus among the Afghan people. Neither the U.S. nor Pakistan seems ready for such transparency in the Afghan political process. All in all, therefore, the U.S. may well opt for a regime change in Kabul.

This is a high-stakes game, as the nature of the power structure in Kabul holds profound implications for the security of the Central Asian region and North Caucasus — and Xinjiang. All evidence points to an intensification of the big power struggle for influence in the energy-rich regions of the Caspian and Central Asia. A defining moment is coming up by the year-end when the 7000-kilometre long gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Xinjiang will become operational. The pipeline will be a game-changer. The U.S. is keenly advancing the agenda of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s expansion into the region and it is meeting with resistance from both Russia and China.

Against this backdrop, a steadily rising curve of Islamist activities is becoming visible in Central Asia. Armed attacks by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group affiliated to the al-Qaeda, resumed since late May. There are reports that the Islamist commander of the Tajik civil war (1992-97), Mullah Abdullo, recently crossed the Afghan border into Tajikistan with some 300 followers and took shelter in Tavildara, which is situated in the Rasht Valley in the rugged Pamir Mountains, some 20 km from the Afghan border. Tavildara used to be the base of the Islamist fighters in the Tajik civil war.

Abdullo had enjoyed the ISI’s backing. He never recognised the 1997 Peace Accord and instead took shelter in Kandahar where he was arrested in 2001 when the U.S. intervened in Afghanistan, but for some obscure reason he was allowed to disappear. Since then, he has been hiding with the Taliban leadership. In the past few months, Russian intelligence repeatedly warned of the imminence of a military conflict and insurgency in Central Asia. The threat perception finally compelled Russia to establish a second military base in Kyrgyzstan in the southern city of Osh. Situated on the edges of the densely populated Ferghana valley, Osh is an extremely strategic location near Afghanistan and Xinjiang. A big-scale Russia-China joint military drill to fight terrorism commences on Wednesday. Curiously, Moscow lost no time expressing support to Beijing over the recent unrest in Urumqi, following a telephone conversation between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi at the latter’s initiative.

The U.S. commentators have given a spin that the Central Asian militants are returning home due to the Pakistani military stepping up its operations along the Afghan border region. According to the local opinion in Afghanistan, however, U.S. special forces are providing the logistics to Central Asian Islamists to reach the Tajikistan border from Pakistan-Afghan tribal areas. Kunduz, Islam Qala, Imam Zahib, Aliabad and Chardara district in northern Afghanistan have become staging points for militants to cross into Tajikistan. There are reports that U.S. special forces facilitated the movement of “foreign fighters” from the Wazir tribes on the Pakistani-Afghan border into Chardara district. (Chardara is a Pashtun enclave.) These are very alarming signals reminiscent of the run-up to the Andizhan uprising in the Ferghana valley in May 2005, which had covert American involvement. Conceivably, the security situation may worsen along the route of the Turkmenistan-Xinjiang pipeline.

Thus, several tendencies are concurrently appearing on the geopolitical landscape — possible “regime change” in Kabul; prospects of the U.S. reconciliation with the Taliban under the ISI’s mediation; “homecoming” by Central Asian Islamists from their bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan; role of U.S. special forces; militant activity in the Ferghana valley; commissioning of the gas pipeline connecting Turkmenistan and Xinjiang; unrest in Urumqi, etc.

The security situation in Russia’s North Caucasus region — primarily in the eastern part, including Ingushetia, Dagestan, Chechnya and Kabardino-Balkaria — has also taken a turn for the worse. A Carnegie scholar recently wrote that the Russian Caucasus is returning to “some ancient period” and “gunshots, explosions, assassination attempts have become daily routine.” Traditional Caucasian Islam, Sufism, is giving way to Wahhabism and is becoming a political tool while the “secular and religious elites have been fusing.” In an interview with the U.S. government funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty recently, Russia’s most wanted terrorist, Doku Umarov, claimed that he was mobilising for stepped-up insurgency in Chechnya, where Moscow previously announced a successful end to counter-insurgency operations.

To be sure, a second post-Soviet wave of Islamism is appearing in the region. Islamist fighters are arriving on the Silk Road, poking Russia’s — and China’s — “soft underbelly” in a way that will do Brzezenski proud.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)