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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #2 (January 7-13, 2003), page 16.


Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia

By Ahmed Rashid

Yale University Press, 2002

Hardbound, 282 pages, $24.00

By Douglas Spangle

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, spent much of the 1990s investigating the political situation in Central Asia. When the World Trade Center Towers were attacked in New York on September 11, 2001, his book Taliban had just been published, a modestly produced look at the fundamentalist mafia then running Afghanistan. Along with the Qu’ran and a couple of works on Islamic culture, his book became a runaway bestseller, swiftly bought out by Americans who wanted explanations about what the workings of Islam meant and were even unsure where Afghanistan was.

Yale University Press has released Jihad, his follow-up study, a noticeably slicker, better-produced product. While Rashid was researching the Taliban and its connections, he found himself in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia north of Afghanistan. If Central Asia soon produces once-obscure new trouble spots, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are likely to be among them. The current U.S. administration’s notoriously short attention span is at the moment engaged by its old nemesis Saddam Hussein, but further crises are bound to occur in Central Asia. Information for the general public on these Central Asian republics is as scarce as their potential for trouble is large.

The old Soviet regime, in less than a century, did everything possible to make a mess of these once powerful and independent states. It gerrymandered ethnicities, suppressed religion, fostered unworkable industrial and agricultural projects, put a series of obdurate and repressive functionaries in place to carry out its policies. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, it pulled out its personnel, equipment, and subsidies, leaving behind its apparatchiks and its legacy of political high-handedness. The challenges of governing included ethnic disputes, ecological disaster, and massive unemployment — which these autocrats were woefully unprepared to cope with. And neighboring Afghanistan was quickly becoming a nest of devils.

Cruelly, the disintegration of Afghanistan was a boon for otherwise-unemployable young Uzbeks and Tajiks, who were finally able to draw wages by marching for various warlords and zealots. The blowback was that fundamentalist fervor was drawn right back into the republics, which, as former Soviet holdings, had previously had no such charismatic tradition to contend with. Local Islamic revolutionary organizations formed. When leaders like Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov reacted with predictably heavy-handed expedients of brutality and imprisonment, the Islamic revolutionary groups radicalized further, becoming ever more intransigent and dangerous — also better trained and organized than government troops.

The hapless government of Tajikistan soon caved in to a civil war, and then settled into an uneasy coalition between former insurgents and the Soviet-style establishment. This may eventually prove to have saved the country. Uzbekistan’s autocrat Karimov, however, persisted in the folly of persecuting the local Islamists rather than dealing more constructively with them. Beatings, disappearances, summary imprisonment, and executions served merely to stiffen fundamentalist resistance. Uzbekistan’s war on fundamentalism also served as an effective training ground for freebooting Chechen, Daghestani, Pakistani, and Uighur revolutionaries, who in almost every battle proved superior to demoralized government forces. If Russia, China, and the United States haven’t noticed or responded constructively, it is because of their capacity for denial and inextricable involvement with ruthless strongmen. The chickens of war seem always to find their way back to the roost.

To its detraction, Ahmed Rashid’s story in Jihad hardly mentions the republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, or Turkmenistan (all with horror stories of their own), and is already several years backdated — as with the previous book Taliban, its sources precede 2001. In the interim the American action in Afghanistan has played to its current pass (including a military presence in Uzbekistan) and the Taliban and World Trade Center towers have long since fallen. But Jihad is far from irrelevant: Rashid’s observation is acute and the problem has not gone away — the world’s eyes are merely elsewhere at the moment. Roll out a world map, locate the Central Asian republics, and memorize them. There will be cause to later remember them when the chickens inevitably come home to roost.