On January 25, NATO-led German forces handed over to Afghan forces control of Badakhshan Province and Balkh Province, bordering Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. By 2014, all 130,000 soldiers in the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) are scheduled to depart Afghanistan and the U.S. will end its combat mission. On December 29, 2011, U.S. forces evacuated their bases in Panjshir Province, north of Kabul. As U.S. and ISAF forces reduce their footprint in Northern Afghanistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is reclaiming its former bases in the region. Not only will the IMU help the Taliban to reassert authority in Northern Afghanistan; it will also be in prime position to launch operations into Central Asia.
BACKGROUND: At the time of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, most of Northern Afghanistan was under Taliban control, including Takhar, Kunduz, Baghlan, Balkh, Samangan, Jawzjan, Sar-e Pul and Faryab Provinces, with only parts of Badakhshan and Panjshir held by the Northern Alliance. The IMU, which had been forced out of the Fergana Valley after Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s crackdown on Islamists in the late 1990s, was allied with the Taliban in Northern Afghanistan. The IMU fighters that survived the U.S. invasion fled to Pakistan where they enjoyed protection from Waziri Taliban commander Maulvi Nazir from 2002 to 2007 and the Beitullah Mehsud faction of the Taliban from 2007.
In 2007 Maulvi Nazir expelled Uzbek fighters from his territory because they offended local customs and acted like an “occupying” force, while in 2009 the Pakistani army began conducting operations to eliminate “foreign” fighters in IMU strongholds in South Waziristan, such as Kaniguram. Also in 2009, the U.S. initiated a drone campaign that killed many key IMU leaders.
The Turkic languages and features of Central Asian IMU fighters were easily distinguishable to the Pakistani agents who supplied intelligence information to the United States. Tahir Yuldashov, the leader of the IMU from its formation in 1998, and Najmiddin Jalalov, the founder of the IMU offshoot Islamic Jihad Group (IJG) from its formation in 2002, were killed in drone strikes in South Waziristan in August and September 2009. Yuldashov’s potential successor, Usman Jan, was then killed in a drone strike along with five other Uzbek IMU fighters and 15 Pakistani Taliban in January 2010 in North Waziristan. The IMU’s mufti, Abu Zar al-Burmi, delivered a sermon in Pakistan on September 30, 2011 saying that the IMU would “never forget the sacrifices of … the poor people of Waziristan … for harboring the mujahedeen.” He chastised the “apostate Pakistan Army” for providing U.S. drones with on-the-ground intelligence.
Since 2007 the IMU has consequently reduced its presence in Waziristan. Large numbers of fighters joined the Taliban in Southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province while others have been absorbed into the Pakistani Taliban.
IMPLICATIONS: As a result of the IMU’s insecurity in Pakistan and the prospect of a full withdrawal of ISAF and U.S. forces from Northern Afghanistan in 2013, IMU fighters see relocating to the IMU’s pre-October 2001 bases as the best option for their survival and reviving the IMU’s founding goals to “liberate” the Fergana Valley, overthrow the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan, and transform Central Asia into an Islamic Caliphate called “Turkistan.” Northern Afghanistan will be the first region in the country to have full control handed to Afghan forces, it shares a more than 1,000-mile border with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and it has two million ethnic Uzbeks among whom IMU fighters will blend into the local population more easily than in Waziristan.
In 2011 and the first five weeks of 2012, ISAF reported an unprecedented number of battles with IMU fighters in Northern Afghanistan. According to ISAF’s website, Nurullah Bai, an IMU leader who specialized in IED attacks on Afghan officials and ran drug trafficking networks between Badakshan and Tajikistan, was killed by ISAF forces in a raid on January 25, 2011 in Takhar. The senior IMU leader and liaison to the Taliban in Kunduz, Bilal Konduzi, and the IMU leader for Samangan, Shad Mohammad, were killed in an ISAF air strike in Samangan on March 11, 2011. Afghan and ISAF forces captured an IMU leader in Sholgarah district, Balkh on March 21, 2011. The leader was responsible for running IMU training camps and facilitating the movement of IMU fighters to Samangan from training camps in Pakistan. In an online statement, the IMU claimed credit for an October 15, 2011 suicide attack on a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Panjshir which killed two civilians and a security guard. The IMU released photos of two of the four suicide bombers and said they were Afghans from Kunduz.
A combined Afghan and ISAF force searched for an IMU leader in Chahar Darah district, Kunduz on December 8, 2011. The leader trains insurgents to construct roadside bombs and recruits suicide bombers. An Afghan-led and ISAF-supported force searched for an IMU leader in Taloqan district, Takhar on January 29, 2012. The leader, Ilhom, was responsible for a suicide bomb attack that killed an Afghan official and training suicide bombers. An IMU commander was captured in Helmand, Southern Afghanistan on February 3, 2012, but the commander had been appointed by the Taliban to direct operations, including weapons distribution and tax collection, in Badghis and Faryab in the north.
This sampling of ISAF reports shows that IMU leaders run training camps in Northern Afghanistan, that the IMU moves fighters from Pakistan to Northern Afghanistan, and that the IMU is recruiting local fighters from among the population in Northern Afghanistan. The two provinces that the NATO-led German forces left in January 2012, Badakshan and Balkh, and the province that U.S. forces left in December 2011, Panjshir, were especially hit with an upsurge of an IMU activity in 2011.
In addition, in December 2011 the Islamic Jihad Union (a variant name for the IMU offshoot Islamic Jihad Group) issued a video titled “The Path to Paradise, Part 6,” in which the narrator said that IJU members fight and train with the Taliban in “various jihadi battlefields, such as ... Badakhshan, Kunduz, and Mazar-e-Sharif.” The narrator also claimed that the IJU “helps the Taliban in Northern Afghanistan and provides them with military consultation” and that “neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Northern Afghanistan is strategically a very important region for the Muslims of Central Asia."
CONCLUSIONS: Now that Central Asia is within striking range for the IMU from its bases and training camps along the Northern Afghanistan frontier, it is likely that the IMU will conduct operations to destabilize the Central Asian regimes. With ISAF and U.S. forces showing no signs of reneging on their pledge to withdraw from the region, the Afghan security forces will be the last line of defense between Central Asia and Northern Afghanistan. The ability of Afghan forces to contain the IMU in Northern Afghanistan after ISAF and U.S. military forces leave the region will determine the security of Central Asia in the second half of this decade. The Afghan forces, however, are still highly reliant on international forces. This is why Islam Karimov warned at the 20th anniversary of the founding of Uzbekistan’s armed forces in January 2012 that the U.S. withdrawal could lead to an expansion of “terrorist and extremist activities” in Central Asia, creating “a permanent source of instability.”
AUTHOR’S BIO: Jacob Zenn graduated from Georgetown Law and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Nanjing Center for Chinese-American Studies in Nanjing, China. He writes regularly for the Jamestown Foundation's Militant Leadership Monitor, Terrorism Monitor and Eurasia Daily Monitor and has contributed articles on international affairs for Asia Times, Hürriyet, Yemen Times, and the CTC Sentinel.