Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Astana IMU Fears

Kazakstan is concerned it may soon fall victim to incursions by Islamic militants
By Iskander Amanjolov

The Kazak authorities are concerned the south of the country is on the brink of being dragged into a conflict with Islamic militants.

Astana's neighbours Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have been subjected to armed incursions by members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, for two consecutive years.

The increasing extremist activity has alarmed the Kazak Security Council. "There is every reason to expect a worsening of the situation on the southern border of the region in the spring and summer of next year," said council secretary Marat Tajin.

Kazak fears have also been raised by media reports of an increase in the number of unregistered religious organisations and even the existence of a remote military training camp in the south of the country.

Meanwhile, orthodox groups such as the Khizbut-Takhrir have been stepping up their recruitment efforts in the region.

According to the Council for Relations with Religious Associations, half of the 2252 spiritual organizations in the country are unregistered. In the Southern Kazakstan Oblast (SKO) alone, 328 of the 426 religious groups operating in the area are unofficial.

Some Kazak officials believe the SKO border with Uzbekistan, which runs through mountainous territory, is the most convenient location for IMU incursions. It is widely believed that many of the 1500 people recently deported for visa irregularities came from religious groups.

It is unclear whether the security forces are equal to the task of dealing with the infiltration of Islamic militants. The question was raised by Foreign Minister Erlan Idrisov after a shoot out in Almaty in late September which left four Uigur separatists dead.

In an effort to counter the terrorism threat, Astana is introducing a number of measures, including plans to extend army service for reserve officers, the creation of a new military district in the south and the setting up of 25 new frontier checkpoints.

The Defense Ministry's budget will count for 1 per cent of GDP next year - the first time a fixed minimum has been set. But this limited sum makes the ministry's recent announcement that the army is primed for action an unjustifiably optimistic one.

There is urgent need for arms, ammunition and experienced fighters. But Kazakstan is lacking in both. Indeed, snipers are currently being recruited from the ranks of local hunters.

Apart from bolstering the country's military response to the extremist threat, the authorities should consider the extent to which the dire state of the economy is contributing to the spread of militancy. What's clear is that religious fanaticism is strongest in poor rural areas.

Tajin accepts that religious extremism may have economic roots and that military might may prove ineffective in countering the threat. In order to guard against the spread of militancy "it may not be enough to simply lock up the state border, " he said.

With Central Asia republics beset by political instability, mutual distrust and concerns over porous borders, the prospects of combating terrorism in the region do not look good. Indeed, regional security is likely to be high on the agenda this week at the meeting of CIS defence ministers in Moscow.

According to Colonel Maxim Shepelev at the Kazak Defense Ministry, "There have been repeated calls for regional military-technical cooperation in the face of extremism, but progress is being held up by the fact that Central Asian states tend to distrust each other."

"Uzbekistan is continually accusing Kazakstan and Russia of exaggerating the danger posed by the Taleban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and raising tension in the region. The shortage of information about the problem and the absence of a willingness to share that information fully doesn't help either."

Iskander Amanjolov is an independent political analyst.