Counter-Terrorism: The Seething Valleys Of Central Asia


February 15, 2014: Despite being the northern neighbor of Afghanistan and part of a key drug smuggling route, Tajikistan has managed to keep al Qaeda under control. In 2013 the security forces arrested 118 suspected Islamic terrorists. Early in 2013 ten men were arrested and found with weapons and documents indicating plans to carry out terror attacks in the Tajik capital, as part of an effort to disrupt the up elections in November. No such disruption occurred. Meanwhile most of what Islamic terrorist activity there is takes place in a few areas.

In Tajikistan and throughout Central Asia it’s the thickly populated river valleys that tend to be where the Islamic radicals get established and become dangerous, and that has been going on in Tajikistan since 2008. In the Rasht Valley near the Afghan border troops have frequently found caches of weapons and medical supplies. These apparently belonged to Islamic radical groups preparing to hunker down for the Winter. These Islamic radical groups mostly come from Afghanistan and Pakistan and are usually associated with al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The main support for Islamic terrorism in Tajikistan are tribes that have lost out in the competition to control the central government and benefit from all the cash and control that provides. Russia has been particularly helpful in keeping the Tajik government on top of the terrorist threat and has long-term agreements to station troops and anti-drug police in Tajikistan, mainly to interfere with the drugs smugglers coming out of Afghanistan but also to keep the Islamic terrorists, who usually work with or for the smugglers, under control. Russians have been helping out in Central Asia for over two centuries now, no matter who is running the Russian government.

The Rasht Valley is not the only place where Islamic terrorists have been active. Further north there is a much larger valley with much more potential for becoming an Islamic terrorist hot spot. There is growing unrest in the lush Fergana Valley of Central Asia. The valley is 300 kilometers long, 70 kilometers wide, and comprises 22,000 square kilometers (8,900 square limes) fed by two rivers. It is a very large oasis in an otherwise semi-desert region. The densely populated valley is home for 11 million (25 percent Kyrgyz Turk, 19 percent Tajik, and 56 percent Uzbek Turk). The Uzbeks see the Kyrgyz and Tajik as interlopers (courtesy of the Soviet Union era borders) in what they consider a Uzbek valley. Meanwhile, the Uzbeks are divided into several factions who have not historically gotten along but are now united in a desire to control the entire valley. That is a possibility, as Uzbekistan has a population of 30 million compared to Kyrgyzstan with six million and Tajikistan with eight million. But all three countries are poor, although per capital income in Uzbekistan (about $1,800 a year) is about fifty percent higher than the other two.

During the Soviet period (1920-91) the provincial borders in the Fergana Valley made little difference and local ethnic groups (Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Kyrgyz) intermingled. Those old Soviet provincial borders are now national frontiers and the ancient ethnic animosities have reappeared because crossing these borders is now a crime and the border guards shoot to kill.

The Kyrgyz portions of the valley contain a lot of Uzbeks because when the Soviets rearranged the borders they did not move people. Despite all the water in the valley, there are too many people. In the last century population has increased five-fold. The result has been poverty and government corruption that has made the Fergana valley a hotbed of discontent. Some of the unrest is led by Islamic radicals but everyone in the area is unhappy with the Uzbek government.

The violence in the valley has not yet reached crisis proportions, but the three nations owning portions of the valley are seeing more violence and not much willingness to compromise. Russia, still the major power in the region, has advised the three countries to work out their differences. Russia will only send peacekeepers as a last resort.




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