Central Asia doesn’t make it into the New York Times very often and rarely for good reasons. Today was no different with the publishing of an op-ed from Ahmed Rashid dramatically titled “Jihad’s New Frontier: Tajikistan.” Rashid’s op-ed was clearly sparked by the defection of Tajikistan’s special police commander Gulmurod Halimov to ISIS and falls into a popular trope: hyping the jihadist threat in Central Asia. Not all of what Rashid writes is inaccurate, but the alarmist tone threatens to rob reality of complexity. Such simplification, while convenient, serves no useful purpose.
Some of what Rashid gets wrong in the op-ed are basic facts, downright embarrassing for an author who wrote an entire book on militant Islam in Central Asia to whiff.
“And Tajikistan’s eight million people are predominantly Sufis — a moderate branch of Islam,” Rashid writes. While 90 percent of Tajiks are indeed Muslims and Sufism is, in fact, a moderate branch of Islam, it is not what most Tajiks follow. The U.S. State Department, in its 2013 International Religious Freedom report states that the “majority adhere to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam as traditionally practiced in Central Asia.”
Tajikistan’s Sunni heritage was codified in a 2009 law, which Farukh Umarov, an analyst at the Presidential Center for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL “mentions the Hanafi branch to exclude such strict Islamic branches as Wahhabism and Salafism.”
Moving beyond factoids, Rashid clearly lacks the degree of skepticism ingrained in most Central Asia researchers. His only sources for comments that “more than 5,000 Central Asian militants from half a dozen groups were fighting in northern Afghanistan alongside several thousand Afghan and Pakistani Taliban members,” were government sources. One top Tajik security official told him in reference to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that “We don’t know enough about their intentions, their strategy or their capabilities.”
Rashid points to the deterioration of security in northern Afghanistan and parrots local Afghan officials in drawing a line from the IMU, which has been bombed out of Pakistan and moved back into Afghanistan, to Central Asia.
In a recent podcast (posted on June 8, preempting the Rashid op-ed) with Nate Schenkkan, Christian Bleuer agreed that “northern Afghanistan is falling apart,” but that Afghan officials “grossly exaggerate the foreign presence of fighters in the north… generally what it is, is that Afghan local officials are incompetent, corrupt and predatory. They create the conditions for insurgencies.”
Even Bruce Pannier, of RFE/RL, in writing about the IMU’s movement back into Afghanistan, after being bombed out of Pakistan, says “for now, IMU fighters in Afghanistan seem more focused on their survival than anything else.” He does not discount the possibility that the IMU may reorient to Central Asia one day, but “for now, their best option appears to be to stay where they are — at the gateway to their homeland.”
Bleuer stresses reality:
Somebody who has been gone for ten years and sort of returns and wants to start an insurgency in the Fergana Valley? How long would that guy last? How are they going to raise funds when they’re home, how are they going to get weapons, how are they going to recruit larger numbers in an atmosphere like Uzbekistan? The best you can do in Central Asia is get on a plane to Turkey and walk across the border to Syria.
“Central Asia has problems, but this is not one of them,” Bleuer says. (The podcast is worth listening to in its entirety).
In one other area Rashid misses. He urges Russia, China and the United States to engage in more than counter-terrorism in Afghanistan, first, and Central Asia, second. “These countries need economic aid, infrastructure projects and coordination among themselves to institute reforms.”
All three powers mentioned have engaged regionally in terms of economic aid, infrastructure projects and coordination. Rashid says that the “new militancy on the Afghan-Central Asian border is an opportunity for Russia and the United States to finally stand together against extremism.” Whatever the depth to which U.S.-Russian relations have fallen it wasn’t because of a lack of standing together against extremism. Russia gladly participated in the Global War on Terror, mostly for the opportunity it presented the state to clamp down on dissent.
Rashid misses more than he scores in his op-ed, but I would be remiss to not highlight what he gets right. He echoes a little of what John Heathershaw and David Montgomery argued in their paper on the myth of Muslim radicalization, by saying that “the extent of radicalization of Tajik youth, however, is in fact still small.” Rashid then sites their Sufism (debunked above), but the point stands that “the Central Asian governments must realize that repressing all expressions of Islamic faith only plays into militants’ hands.”
Tajikistan has been sharply criticized for its seeming crusade against anything other than state sanctioned expressions of Islam–by me (here, here, here) as well as by numerous human rights organizations. Western states, however, are officially content with a wait and see approach (‘strategic patience’ they call it) to domestic reforms in Central Asia.
It isn’t that Central Asia is immune to the threat of extremism but that reality is more complex than the simple calculation Rashid, and others, make that the destabilization of Afghanistan will necessarily spill over the border north. There’s been a war in Afghanistan of one kind or another for most of the past thirty years and Central Asian governments have been crying “spillover” the entire time like someone shouting “fire” in a theater.
We’re still waiting for the invasion.