April 5, 2004 | Commentary on Middle East
"Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry."- Winston Churchill
Uzbekistan is best known to Americans for...well, nothing. But events there last week mean it's time to start paying attention.
The week's round of violence - the first suicide bombings in Central Asia - killed at least 44 people, including several female suicide bombers. And there's no doubt al Qaeda's Central Asian branch, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), was behind the mayhem.
Established in the early 1990s, the IMU is bent on replacing Uzbekistan's secular government with a pan-Islamic fundamentalist caliphate (kingdom).
The Uzbek government of President Islam Karimov (a former Soviet party boss) crushed the IMU back in 1999 after a series of bombings in Tashkent, the nation's capital. Reeling from the crackdown, the IMU found friends in Afghanistan and fought alongside the Taliban and Osama bin Laden against Coalition forces during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001.
Those battles decimated the IMU's paramilitary force. But after hibernating for two years, it resurfaced a few weeks ago in Pakistan during the pitched fighting in the tribal areas along the Pakistani-Afghan border. Indeed, the "high-value al Qaeda target" may have been Tahir Yuldash, the IMU's political leader, who was reportedly wounded.
OK, you say, so there's another Islamic terrorist group halfway around the world. In Uzbekistan, yet. So what?
Listen to what Cofer Black, the State Department's head terrorist honcho, said last week on Capitol Hill: "There are also growing indications that al Qaeda's ideology is spreading well beyond the Middle East, particularly its virulent anti-American rhetoric. This has been picked up by a number of Islamic extremist movements, which exist around the globe. This greatly complicates our task in stamping out al Qaeda, and poses a threat in its own right for the foreseeable future."
"More troubling," Black continued, "have been the groups seeking to push forward al Qaeda's agenda of worldwide terror...in particular, groups like...the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan [among others]."
Bottom line: Al Qaeda, the group, is now al Qaeda, the movement. And the arrows in its quiver are multiplying.
Central Asia, home to 50 million Muslims, will likely become a new battleground for Islamic militancy. And Uzbekistan is the region's center of strategic gravity.
It's also important to the United States. Since 9/11, Uzbekistan has been a key ally in the War on Terror and the home to several hundred U.S. troops conducting flight, intelligence and logistics operations at Khanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan near the Afghan border.
Moreover, Afghanistan's fragile government already borders a fundamentalist Iran to the west and a besieged Pakistan to the south. It doesn't need instability in Uzbekistan to the north, too.
Unfortunately, Uzbekistan is a veritable petri dish for breeding terrorism. The predominantly Sunni Muslim country of 25 million is the most populous - and one of the poorest - in Central Asia. Urban unemployment runs 40 percent and as high as 60 percent among the under-30 crowd.
Adding fuel to the already smoldering embers, Comrade Karimov's government is one of the world's most repressive, muzzling the press and political opposition while ruining the economy. Uzbek jails hold 7,000 political prisoners. Torture and death during detention is routine.
Like most dictators, Karimov has long been warned that failing to implement political and economic reforms could destabilize the country. And like most dictators, he responded with only token gestures and wrapped himself in the cloak of counterterrorism, insisting that any changes would lead to more terrorist activity. In fact, the lack of change has led to more terrorism.
As President Bush has said, there must be more freedom in the Muslim world - not less - to deal with the plague of Muslim extremism. If Karimov doesn't navigate this potential minefield carefully, Uzbekistan could be on its way to becoming the world's newest failed state.
Terrorists just love to call failed states "home." And the world surely doesn't need another Terror Central like that of the Taliban's Afghanistan.
Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow Peter Brookes spent some of his days at the CIA working on Central Asian issues. E-mail: email@example.com .
First appeared in New York Post