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Tajikistan's Guerrilla Dilemma

Internal political divisions restrict Tajikistan's efforts to crush Islamic guerrillas
By Vladimir Davlatov

Tajikistan's failure to crush Islamic guerrillas operating out of its territory has brought down severe criticism on the Dushanbe government from neighbouring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, both currently engaged in combating guerrilla incursions.


Although Dushanbe officially denies the guerrillas originated from Tajik territory, military experts from the republic concede a cursory glance at a map adds validity to the Uzbek and Kyrgyz accusations the guerrillas were based in Tajikistan.


"Well they didn't fly through the air into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, did they?" one military analyst said.


But independent analysts argue the Islamic guerrillas pose an impossible dilemma for the Dushanbe government. Should the Tajik authorities attempt to crush the guerrillas, the analysts suggest, the republic could once again be plunged into civil war.


"In theory Tajikistan could, of course, try to destroy the armed bands on its territory. But in this unstable and disquieted country, where one war has just finished and an enormous quantity of arms remain out there, it could all lead to a new armed conflict," one independent Tajik analyst said.


The guerrillas are thought to be members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU. Many members of IMU fought alongside the United Tajikistan Opposition, UTO, against the Dushanbe government during the five-year-long civil war. The two movements share similar religious convictions.


After the civil war ended in June 1997, leaders of the UTO were brought into the Tajik government. And it is not inconceivable, the analyst argues, that former UTO supporters could come to the defence of their one-time comrades.


Members of IMU began arriving in Tajikistan in early 90-s following a crackdown by the Uzbek government on Islamic religious movements. Human rights organisations have criticised Tashkent for a series of repressive measures, including mass arrests and harassment of suspects and their families.


When the Tajik civil war ended in 1997 the Uzbek fighters refused to lay down their weapons, claiming they intended to embark on an armed struggle with the secular government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov with the aim of establishing an Islamic state in Uzbekistan.


The Uzbek guerrillas maintained their bases in eastern Tajikistan, from where it was convenient to pass into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Following last August's incursion into the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan, however, the Tajik government came under intense pressure from neighbouring Central Asian states and Russia to act. In the spring of this year a large group of guerrillas and their families were escorted out of Tajikistan over the frontier into Afghanistan.


These same guerrillas, however, are thought to have recently returned to Tajikistan. Some experts believe the fighters crossed the border along the relatively small section patrolled by Tajik border guards, some of whom are former UTO supporters. Most of the border is under the control of Russian troops.


One analyst claims a senior Tajik minister, allegedly a former comrade of IMU leader Juma Namangani during the Tajik civil war, is actively assisting the Uzbek guerrillas.


"So it's a vicious circle with the Tajik government supposedly controlling the entire country, but at the same time unable to interfere in the plans or movements of fighters through the country," one analyst said.


According to reports in the regional and Russian press, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov only controls 45 per cent of the republic.


Presidential power extends only across central Tajikistan and the Kulyabskaya region in the south, the reports claim. The Tajik Islamic opposition meanwhile has almost total control of the southeastern Karategin valley. While the mountainous Pamir region relies almost entirely on humanitarian aid from the Aga Khan, the London based leader of the Ismailits community, and is effectively left to its own devices. Each of these areas in turn is further subdivided into spheres of influence controlled by regional clans and religious-political groups.


A Russian military expert said there are several interpretations being placed on the guerrillas' recent actions in Tashkent region. One theory suggests the IMU fighters are genuinely seeking to overthrow Karimov's government, or at least to establish an Islamic state in the Fergana valley.


"It's no accident the fighters began their work at the beginning of August. They planned to move into Uzbekistan in small groups and on September 1 - Uzbek Independence Day - present their own special gift to Islam Karimov," the Russian analyst suggested.


An alternative theory alleges Saudi Arabia or Pakistan may be involved in providing financial support to the Uzbek rebels. One analyst claimed Pakistan provided the guerrillas with boats to enable them to cross the Pyandj River on the Afghan-Tajik border.


Tajik military experts believe Uzbek and Kyrgyz government forces will succeed in pushing back the guerrillas. Should the rebels return to Tajikistan, however, then the difficult question of Dushanbe's response will once again rear its head. Just what that response will be remains unclear.


Tajikistan's reputation in the meantime lies is in tatters. The Dushanbe authorities stand accused of reneging on obligations to confront the forces of "international terrorism". Relations with Uzbekistan, which had warmed considerably in recent months, are particularly badly damaged. Only three weeks ago, amidst much fanfare, direct flights between Dushanbe and Tashkent finally resumed. Those flights have once again been halted.


Vladimir Davlatov is a regular contributor to IWPR.