Kyrgyzstan Facing the Threat of Following the Afghan Pattern

The momentary collapse of K. Bakiev’s regime, accompanied by fatalities, looting, and riots, had been an alarming phenomenon not only because it showed how easily a government just days ago widely recognized as legitimate can fall. Another cause of concern is the threat of chronic instability in a geopolitically sensitive albeit small country and of its evolution following the Afghan pattern.

The risk of the Afghan-style evolution in Kyrgyzstan received close attention at the Challenges and Threats to Central Asian Security round table, which was organized in Almaty last April by the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, the Kazakh Security Council, and the Secretariat of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. One of the aspects of the problem discussed at the meeting was the likelihood of penetration of Kyrgyzstan and the neighboring Central Asian countries by militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). There is information that a considerable faction of the IMU militants, led by an individual known as Abdurakhman, plans to leave Afghanistan and to relocate to the Ferghana Valley including the southern districts of Kyrgyzstan.

Several outbreaks of activity of ethnic Tajiks from militant groups based in Afghanistan were reported in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in the spring-fall of 2009. The most serious incident was the return to Tajikistan of a group of roughly 100 militants led by former field commander of the United Tajik Opposition Mullo Abdullo, which was expelled from the Pakistani tribal zone. The hunt for the group continued till early August, 2009. Many of its members were killed as a result, but Mullo Abdullo managed to escape. An Uzbek checkpoint in Khanabad, on the border between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, came under fire in late May, 2009. The incident was followed by several kamikaze attacks in Andijan, for which the Islamic Jihad group later claimed responsibility. In July two operations targeting the militants were carried out in the Osh and Jala-Abad provinces in Kyrgyzstan, and in September a number of attempts on the lives of law enforcement officers and clergymen took place in Uzbekistan.

As early as in Jauary, 2010 Jane’s Defence Weekly featured a paper expressing the view that an escalation across Central Asia would be likely triggered by the repatriation of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) groups from Pakistan. The motivation behind the repatriation would supposedly be in part material as the groups would be trying to gain control over drug trafficking and supply. The British magazine cited Viktor Ivanov, the Director of Russia’s Federal Drug Control, as saying that the IMU was seeking a bigger role in trafficking opium from Afghanistan and that it already controlled passages at a section of the Tajik-Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, servicing the channels used to exchange drugs for money and weapons. Currently the IMU is in the process of switching from separate shipments of drugs to wholesale drug supply to Central Asia and Russia.

No doubt, the militants’ Afghan connections would help them attain their goals. According to the materials published recently by the Strategic Culture Foundation, roughly half a dozen routes of drug trafficking from Afghanistan converge in Kyrgyzstan, and the drug mafia has been one of the forces behind the demise of Bakiev’s regime. The inter-ethnic tensions in the Kyrgyz society and its clan structure make the republic vulnerable to the threat of likewise developments.

The seizure of land in the suburbs of Bishkek during the April unrest highlighted the current intensity of inter-ethnic tensions in Kyrgyzstan. Yet greater risks stem from the escalating conflict between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations of Kyrgyzstan’s southern districts which are home to an Uzbek community of some 700,000 people. The death toll during the previous escalation in the region, which took place in 1990, reached 200. Given the current paralysis of governance in Kyrgyzstan, the consequences of a new conflict are likely to be much severer. The republic’s southern part, where the toppled former Kyrgyz leader Bakiev is still widely supported, is just nominally controlled by Bishkek. In late April, leaflets were disseminated in the south of Kyrgyzstan, in the Osh and Jalal-Abad provinces, calling for the establishment of a federative Kyrgyzstan comprising the South Kyrgyz and North Kyrgyz republics. Initially the leaflets were distributed in the Alay and Kara-Suu districts of the Osh province, but later the process also spanned the city of Osh which is notorious as a center of drug business. CDs with Bakiev’s public speeches and materials compromising the Kyrgyz interim government also circulate in numbers among the republic’s population.

The Kyrgyz police ministry suspects that the leaflets activity is directed by former president K. Bakiev’s brother and presidential guards chief Janysh Bakiev, who is charged in absentia with ordering to open fire on the protesters in Bishkek on April 7. Kyrgyzstan’s political divisions between north and south have already been exploited a number of times by Bakiev’s supporters to organize resistance to the interim government of the republic. For example, Bakiev suggested transferring the capital of Kyrgyzstan to Osh or Jalal-Abad, near which he took shelter upon fleeing Bishkek.

Escalation is clearly underway at Kyrgyzstan’s borders. Residents of the Batken province are complaining about the tightening of the regime by their neighbors. The province includes three enclaves – the Uzbek-populated Sokh and Shohimardon an the Tajik-populated Vorukh, and their borders are crossed on a daily basis by the citizens of Kyrgyzstan. An extensive part of Kyrgyzstan’s border with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (some 300 of the 1,375 km) still awaits demarcation, and roughly 50 sections of it remain contested. Consensus has been reached over only a 400 km part of the 971 km border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The overall situation can be easily destabilized by igniting tensions over the contested territories.

“In terms of the number of destabilizing factors and the current magnitude of their impact, Kyrgyzstan is exposed to the risk of evolving into another Afghanistan”, says Director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies Bulat Sultanov. The result can be a broad and profound overhaul of the political map of Central Asia, which would than assume a totally new configuration.

Source: Strategic Culture Foundation

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