With over 500 dead in Andijian, a hotbed of Islamic extremism in the impoverished and overpopulated Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan, the face of Central Asia is changed. Akramia, an allegedly radical Islamic group, appears to be behind the uprising against President Islam Karimov's government. The government's heavy-handed tactics and deliberate provocation by Akramia appear to be at fault for the massacre.
According to the sketchy media reports, hundreds have been killed and many others wounded. Thousands have fled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Western observers should be careful not to mistake this for one of these peaceful "multi-color" revolutions that have occurred from Belgrade to Bishkek over the last three years. The violence, even if now quelled, could reignite at any time. The main challenge now for the Uzbeks and the U.S. is to find a way out of this crisis-and fast.
Akramia is named after its founder, Akram Yuldashev, who has been in and out of jail on various charges (fabricated, the group claims). It is not clear exactly how extremist the organization really is-reports vary. Public evidence of its terrorist activities is sparse. However, the recent operation in Andijan, which included seizing a military base and disarming a contingent of government troops, seems to have been well-planned and executed without regard to civilian casualties. The threat of radical Islam in Central Asia-and especially in impoverished and radicalized Fergana Valley, which straddles Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan-is significant and growing.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has links to Al Qaeda and directed terror attacks in the 1990s. It suffered setbacks fighting alongside Usama bin Laden in Afghanistan and its leader, Juma Namangani, was killed. Another leader, Tahir Yuldashev, survived and is now hiding in Pakistan.
Another key player may be the global, clandestine radical Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir al Islami (Party of Islamic Liberation), which is recruiting supporters by the thousand. Hizb's goal: creation of a worldwide Califate, a military dictatorship based on Shari'a law, and Holy War (jihad) against Land of the Sword-that is, the West.
Central Asia, according to Hizb, is ripe for an Islamist revolution because of its corrupt "infidel" regimes and U.S. presence due to the war in Afghanistan. The region, with its natural resources such as uranium mines, is as good of a bridgehead in global jihad as any. Hizb has declared that democracy is un-Islamic but is likely to take part in any popular uprising.
If President Islam Karimov, a Soviet-era secular authoritarian leader, does not negotiate with the secular and moderate opposition, the uprising could spread.
Uzbekistan today is a quintessence of everything that is wrong with post-communist Central Asian regimes. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, the country has never had a "velvet revolution," legitimate elected leaders, or post-communist democratic institutions. Instead, it has stagnated.
Karimov took over when Moscow stopped taking phone calls. The elites remained the worst of Soviet Central Asian-driven by a combination of clan allegiances, corruption, and an inability or unwillingness to reform and modernize.
The people of Uzbekistan are sick and tired of Karimov. Today he is opposed by a combination of Islamist organizations and secular opposition parties and movements. These include the Erk and Birlik parties, which are largely secular, urban, and middle class. However, the Uzbek opposition does not have one recognized leader, such as Victor Yushchenko in Ukraine or Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, and so even a pro-Karimov could have a chance to succeed him.
Uzbekistan is now on the brink. It is strategically located in an area that has known much bloodshed and little, if any, democracy. In 1992, ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were at each other's throats in Osh, with the death toll reaching 2,000. And a civil war that resulted from a split between northern and southern clans in Tajikistan took over 100,000 lives after the Soviet collapse.
The United States has strategic interests in Uzbekistan and should follow the situation closely. The country was a key ally in the 2001 Operation Enduring Freedom that liberated Afghanistan. A U.S. air force base in Khanabad is just one of the American sites in the country. Islamists use the U.S. presence to agitate against America and the West. They also attack Karimov for maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel.
Russia and possibly Western powers and international organizations will think twice before aiding Karimov to quell the revolt. Meanwhile, China and Kazakhstan, with its oil riches, are nervously watching developments in Andijan. All should keep a close watch, at the least. Uzbekistan's falling into the hands of the Islamists will cause a geopolitical shift in Central Asia and endanger both U.S. and Russian interests there. In the long run, radical Islamist strategists believe that Central Asia, with its Soviet-educated technical personnel and ample natural resources-including gold, oil and gas, uranium, and globally competitive cotton production-will emerge as a militarized Muslim state. They foresee it as a territorial base of jihad against the West.
To avoid that catastrophic outcome, Uzbekistan's neighbors and the United States, Russia, China, European Union, OSCE, and the United Nations should prod Karimov to find a way out of the current crisis. This may include legalizing political parties, giving opposition access to the media, and scheduling elections. Parliamentary elections could take place before presidential ones, and Mr. Karimov should be encouraged to transfer power thereafter.
To avoid the political expansion of radical Islam, it is important that the people of Uzbekistan have hope and that the country open itself to modernization. But the time left for Uzbekistan to change course may be running out. Decisive action is needed now.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and co-author and editor of Eurasia in Balance (Ashgate, June 2005).