Militant Islam in Central Asia

Against the Current, No. 99, July/August 2002

Dianne Feeley

Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia
by Ahmed Rashid
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002) $24 hardback.

Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia
by Ahmed Rashid
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000) $14.95 paper.

BOTH JIHAD AND Taliban provide clear pictures of how political and militant Islam is rooting itself throughout Central Asia (more than 50 million people — 60% of whom are under 25 — in five countries) and Afghanistan (25 million with another three million refugees).

Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid has followed events there for more than twenty years, often being in the right place at the right time. He was in Kabul, witness to the 1978 coup against President Mohammed Daud; he was sipping tea in Kandahar’s bazaar when the first Soviet troops arrived the following year.

Rashid covered the war with the mujaheddin as well as the UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva that led to the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Then he went north to Central Asia in order to learn more about the Afghans’ ancestors –becoming witness to the collapse of the Soviet Union and birth of the independent Central Asian states.

Rashid returned to Afghanistan again and again. He covered the collapse of President Najibullah’s government as Kabul fell to the mujaheddin in 1992, the subsequent war that raged among mujaheddin leaders and the rise of the Taliban. He was interrogated by Najibullah, condemned to death by mujaheddin leader Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, and warned in 1985 by Pakistan’s military regime not to write about the Pakistani role in Afghanistan.

Over the years he interviewed most of the key warlords and Taliban leaders. Thus Rashid can provide the reader with an overview with incisive analysis.

Rashid’s key message is that the fundamentalism which has taken hold throughout Afghanistan and Central Asia is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is not indigenous to the multicultural, multiethnic and multireligious area.

He points out that the majority of the Central Asian peoples belong to the Sunni Hanafi sect, the most liberal of the four Sunni schools of thought. It is decentralized and non-hierarchical.

In fact, Central Asia and Persia comprise the historic base of Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism more than a thousand years old. Sufism emphasizes the individual’s capacity to experience God directly and tolerance toward other forms of worship.

The societies now convulsed in various forms of civil wars are ones whose cities (Bukhara, Samarkand, Herat) have functioned as centers of learning for thousands of years. Herat, the cradle of Afghanistan’s history and civilization, was first settled 5,000 years ago.

In Taliban Rashid points out that Herat was the crossroads between competing Turkic and Persian empires; in medieval times it was a center for both Christianity and Sufism. While Herat’s bazaars produced magnificent carpets, jewellery, weapons and tiles, its region was Central Asia’s breadbasket from ancient times.

Empires and Cultural Fusions

The history of Afghanistan and Central Asia is one of repeated invasions and conquest, with Persian, Turkish, Arab and Mongol being the most influential. Alexander the Great conquered the region and left behind a Buddhist-Greek kingdom in the Hindu-Kush mountains — Rashid points out it is the only known historical fusion between European and Asian ultures.

Better known and more central to Afghanistan’s legacy is the fusion of Central Asian and Persian cultures. Afghanistan served as the corridor to India and, along with Tajikistan, as a central Silk Route to Asia. It is where Zoroastrianism, Manichaeanism, Sufism and Buddhism flourished and from whose routes Buddhism was spread to China and Japan.

But while capable of rebounding from conquest, destruction and plunder, this area with its mountains, valleys, desserts, oases cities and nomadic rural life had more trouble dealing with 19th century British and Russian colonialism.

The British unsuccessfully tried to conquer Afghanistan on three occasions but decided it was better to manipulate various tribal chiefs and maintain the country as a client state. Supporting Amir Abdul Rehman’s claim to the throne, the British provided him with the money and arms to create an effective administration and standing army.

Crushing more than forty revolts among the non-Pashtun population, Rehman solidified an Afghan state on the basis of ethnic cleansing. (Taliban, 11-13)

The Colonial Great Game

At the end of the nineteenth century Lord Curzon, before he became the Viceroy of India, wrote that “Turkestan, Afghanistan, Transcaspia, Persia — to many these words breathe only a sense of utter remoteness, or a memory of strange vicissitudes and of moribund romance. To me, I confess they are pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for domination of the world.” (Taliban, 145)

And in fact this undeclared war of competition and influence between the British and Russian empires became known as “The Great Game.” With the two colonial empires jockeying for power in the region, Afghanistan functioned as a buffer state.

The British occupied India while the Russians, between 1865-76, conquered much of today’s Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. In order to control the rebellious region, the Tzarist government brought in Russian and Cossack farmers, and developed vast irrigation projects to cultivate large cotton plantations.

Establishing a network of railroads throughout Central Asia, the Russian government also created new industries, peopled of course by imported Russian workers. (Jihad, 24-26)

After the Devastation

Afghanistan regained its formal independence from Britain following World War I. It attempted to modernize itself through a constitution and the creation of an educated and urban elite. But Rashid points to various tribal revolts and the assassination of two kings as signs of the difficulties the Afghan rulers faced in turning the multiethnic tribal society into a modern state.

By 1973, when King Zahir Shah was overthrown by his cousin, Sardar Mohammed Daud, forty percent of state revenues came from abroad. Five years later key Soviet-trained military leaders overthrew and murdered Daud. But the two communist factions were bitterly divided, trapped by internecine violence and an inability to understand their country’s complex tribal society.

Rashid does not detail the history of the mujaheddin fight against the Soviet occupation when over 1.5 million were killed and millions more became refugees.

It was a brutal proxy war where the Soviet Union spent $45 billion while Washington and Saudi Arabia provided at least $10 billion, mostly funneled through Pakistan, to the mujaheddin. Nor does Taliban recount the subsequent fight among the warlords after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

Rather, Taliban is a chronicle of the Taliban’s response to the chaos of the warlords: “Afghanistan was in a state of virtual disintegration just before the Taliban emerged at the end of 1994. The country was divided into warlord fiefdoms and all the warlords had fought, switched sides and fought again in a bewildering array of alliances, betrayals and bloodshed.” (Taliban, 21)

The Taliban, then, emerged as the force capable of imposing law and order upon the chaos. They had on their side a belief in their invincibility, an absolute unwavering determination to destroy their enemy, and the critical logistical backing of the Pakistani government of Benazir Bhutto.

Rashid provides the reader with a vivid picture of the male brotherhood of the Taliban fighter:

“These boys [14-24] were a world apart from the Mujaheddin whom I had got to know during the 1980s — men who could recount their tribal and clan lineages, remembered their abandoned farms and valleys with nostalgia and recounted legends and stories from Afghan history. These boys were from a generation who had never seen their country at peace — an Afghanistan not at war with invaders and itself. They had no memories of their tribes, their elders, their neighbours nor the complex ethnic mix of people that often make up their villages and their homeland. These boys were what the war had thrown up like the sea’s surrender on the beach of history.” (Taliban, 32)

Many were in fact orphans, boys who had never known the company of the women to whom they are related so they didn’t find anything strange once they entered Kandahar and the Taliban ordered that women be barred from work or school. As Rashid remarks, “The subjugation of women became the mission of the true believer . . .” (33)

The Taliban Ideology

The Taliban’s ideological base came from an extreme interpretation of Deobandism, which arose in 19th century India as a movement “that would reform and unite Muslim society as it struggled to live within the confines of a colonial state ruled by non-Muslims.” (88)

Deobandis wanted to revive Islamic values based on intellectual learning, spiritual experience, Sharia law and Tariqah (the path). They set up madrassas (Islamic seminaries) throughout India, and after Pakistan’s creation in 1948, schools developed there as well.

Under the military regime of President Zia ul Haq (1971-88), as the state-run educational system collapsed, all religious madrassas were given state funding and these became the only school boys from poor families could afford to attend. In rural areas and Afghan refugee camps, madrassas were run by semi-educated mullahs who did not have the reformist agenda of the original Deobanis.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia adopted a policy of aggressively funding madrassas around the world that were sympathetic to their austere, anti-Sufi Wahabbi creed. Thus many rural Pakistani madrassas were able to open and expand. These were the schools that shut down and sent its students to fight in various Taliban campaigns.

Rashid cites the Haqqania complex in the North West Frontier Province — a complex that combines a boarding school of 1,500 with a high school attended by 1,000 day students. Operated by Maulana Samiul Haq, a religious and political leader who has been a member
of Pakistan’s National Assembly as well as a senator, the complex is completely funded through donations. It also has twelve affiliated, smaller madrassas.

Following the Taliban’s defeat in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997 Mullah Mohammed Omar called Haq to ask for help. Haq shut down the complex and sent his students to fight alongside the Taliban. A year later, with Haq’s intervention, madrassas in the province shut down for a month and sent 8,000 students as reinforcements.

Many of the Taliban leaders — although not Mullah Omar — were graduates of Haqqania and traveled there to discuss the warlord problem following the Soviet withdrawal. A close relationship developed.

According to Rashid, the Deobandi tradition is opposed to tribal and feudal structures, and this fed Taliban mistrust of these institutions. Both were also united in their opposition to Shia Muslims and to Iran. Rashid sees the Taliban, unlike longtime mujaheddin leaders Gulbuddin Hikmetyar or Ahmad Shah Masud, as vehemently opposed to modernism and uninterested in ideas of progress or economic development.

He contrasts them with other Islamic radicals:

“The Taliban are poorly tutored in Islamic and Afghan history, knowledge of the Sharia and the Koran and the political and theoretical developments in the Muslim world during the twentieth century. While Islamic radicalism in the twentieth century has a long history of scholarly writing and debate, the Taliban have no such historical perspective or tradition. There is no Taliban Islamic manifesto or scholarly analysis of Islamic or Afghan history. Their exposure to the radical Islamic debate around the world is minimal, their sense of their own history is even less. This has created an obscurantism which allows no room for debate even with fellow Muslims. (Taliban, 93)

Rashid also presents convincing evidence that the Taliban were able to conquer most of Afghanistan because of the backing of Pakistan’s Interservice Intelligence (ISI) and the army. In recounting the Taliban’s capture of major cities, Rashid reveals the key to the Taliban success is access to materiel and to military strategy provided by Pakistan.

Yet he emphasizes that the Taliban were not merely Pakistan’s proxies. They disregarded Pakistani advice time and again, and unlike Hikmetyar who had been Pakistan’s favorite for many years, the Taliban had an independent base of support within Pakistan itself — and they did not hesitate to mobilize that base to pressure the Pakistan government.

Fruits of Disintegration

I have highlighted Rashid’s discussion about the Taliban’s sociological characteristics and theoretical constructs because it indicates what can happen when a society isintegrates under internal and external pressure.

There are many other issues that Taliban takes up, particularly Washington’s early support to the Taliban  and its interest in helping Unocal develop an oil pipeline through Afghanistan — what can be called the New Great Game.

I found his account of how the Taliban conquered Afghanistan helpful in revealing opposition within the civil society. It is clear that although the Taliban posed as those who would bring peace to the country, they brought repression and hardship.

I also recommend his excellent chapter A Vanished Gender: Women, Children and Taliban Culture. Rashid points out that no Afghani ruler before the Taliban ever insisted on the burka as a mandatory dress code for women.

Although some women in remote rural areas wore it, in Kabul women were fully 40% of the work force when the Taliban conquered the city. Women were also 40% of Kabul University’s student body. Taliban’s Appendix I reprints a grotesque sampling of the Taliban’s decrees relating to women and culture.

Given Rashid’s account of how the years of war and destruction paved the way for the triumph of the Taliban, it is disheartening to read of the level of repression and joblessness within the newly independent states of Central Asia.

Although most readers of this journal old enough to remember the former Soviet Union probably had some understanding that it was not a bastion of socialism, reading about the level of repression, underdevelopment and incredible environmental disasters of Soviet Central Asia carried out in the name of development is still horrifying.

The five Central Asian countries of the former Soviet Union — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — contain oil and gas deposits that represent the world’s last great untapped energy reserve. Yet their economies are stagnant, unemployment and inflation have skyrocketed and drug smuggling has become a major factor in the region’s destabilization.

Rashid spotlights the Fergana Valley as the traditional political and cultural heart of Central Asia. A fertile valley 200 miles long and seventy miles across at its widest point, it is home to 20% of the total area’s population. Under Stalin it was chopped
up and distributed to three different Soviet republics, whose borders divided clans, villages and ethnic groups. These artificial divisions became “the source of many of the ethnic conflicts, borders and water disputes, and infrastructure problems that plague Central Asia today.” (Jihad, 36-7)

Recently the International Committee for Combating AIDS reported that the five republics have an estimated 300,000 citizens who are HIV positive. Most of the region’s leaders, trained in the Communist bureaucracy, have clamped down on opposition parties, placed strict controls on the media and refused to debate public policy.

The New Growth of Islam

Rashid points out that part of the reason for Islam’s explosive growth today is that it had never disappeared, not even during the worst repression of the Soviet years. The more the Soviet Union attempted
to stamp out Islam, the more it spread as an act of regional, ethnic and religious resistance.

It is also fed by well-funded ideologies of Islamic radicalism from outside the region. Only Tajikistan — a country that survived a five-year civil war to democratically elect a coalition government — allows
Islamic parties to operate legally.

Uzbekistan, with a population of 25 million, is the dominant country in the region. Rashid points to how the government attempts to suppress all Islamic activity, imprisoning over 7,000 for belonging to Islamic groups.

Twice Uzbekistan shut off oil and gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan in order to pressure them to crack down on Islamic activists. As a result of this authoritarian approach, Uzbekistan has, of course, become the center of Islamic resistance in the region.

The bold campaigns Juma Namangani (killed during the post-September 11 U.S. bombing campaign) and his band of guerillas have carried out over the last three summers are designed to take one’s breath away. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was able to mount coordinated kidnappings and ambushes with a multinational, pan-Islamic and well-armed force of several hundred militants as well as armed “sleepers,” who can carry out an armed attack and then return to their villages.

The IMU had developed a close and fruitful relationship with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. During the Taloqan siege against Masud in the summer of 2000 the IMU provided 600 fighters — alongside bin Laden’s 055 Arab Brigade and 4,000 Islamic militants from Pakistan.

Radio intercepts by Western countries indicated that the month-long successful attack was conducted in three languages: “Pushto (for Afghans and Pakistanis), Russian (for the benefit of the IMU), and Arabic (for the Arab fighters).” (Jihad, 174)

Jihad, which went to the printers shortly after September 11th, evaluates the IMU as having a different ideology and social base from the Taliban but a military capability that has been increased with the Taliban’s aid. More importantly, the IMU has been affected by the Afghan-Pakistanti-Arab network bin Laden helped to build. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has declared them terrorists and so did the Clinton administration.

Both the IMU and the Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (HT; Party of Islamic Liberation) project an Islamic government. While the IMU is relatively silent about its ultimate aims, the HT seeks to reunite the Central Asian republics and the whole Muslim world. Although the
HT seeks to do so through non-violent means, neither organization has any social, economic or political plan. Ironically more members of the non-violent HT are imprisoned than are members of the IMU.

Rashid believes their inability to become a concrete political alternative would be exposed in the light of open discussion and debate. Yet these two organizations are becoming poles of attraction throughout Central Asia because the regimes equate all Muslims with subversive activity.

The New Great Game

Can the untapped oil and energy reserves in the region help its peoples develop jobs, training and education? Rashid holds up Unocal’s determination to build a gas pipeline through Afghanistan during the civil war and Taliban rule as an example of how U.S. oil companies use problems and conflicts in the area in order to extract maximum benefits for themselves.

He points to how Western oil investments are beginning to create an extremely wealthy and corrupt class in Central Asia, breeding social discontent as Mercedes and BMW’s whiz by on the street of Baku and Almaty. He notes the pattern that has appeared in other oil-rich Third World countries such as Indonesia and Nigeria “where money has suddenly poured in: the minuscule elite becomes richer, whilst the overwhelming majority of the population grow poorer and more angry and frustrated.” (Jihad, 237)

While Rashid suggests that the terms of the “Great Game” have changed as post-Soviet Russia, the United States and Britain find themselves at the mercy of forces they helped unleash. But cooperation to eliminate “terrorists” and build up the military capabilities of the Central Asian countries does not translate into social justice for the peoples of the region.

Rashid sees the focus on terrorism since September 11th as the opportunity for change, writing “By joining the Western alliance against Al Qaeda, the Central Asian states have made a commitment to the international community’s war on terrorism and Islamic extremism.” In so doing, the Central Asian regimes will be forced by their alliance to “conduct themselves in line with international standards of democracy building, economic development and social responsibility.” (Jihad, 244)

This diagnosis confuses the cure with the disease. The pattern of economic stagnation combined with repression that Jihad outlines will only be reinforced by the introduction of U.S. troops stationed in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan* in the aftermath of September 11th. The military cooperation between Russia and the United States will lead to greater violations of human rights in the region. Above all, as the author writes in his concluding paragraph, “The real crisis in Central Asia lies with the state, not with the insurgents.” (245)

ATC 99, July-August 2002