KARACHI – With the onset of summer and the ice now melting in the mountains of Afghanistan, the most organized global struggle yet of the International Islamic Front partners has begun to defeat the United States and coalition forces at their hub in Afghanistan.
The early manifestations of this can already be seen in Uzbekistan, where a series of terror attacks over the past few days have left more than 40 people dead, and in the foiled terror attacks in Britain and the Philippines. But the real battlefield is Afghanistan, where Pakistan, already the world’s backyard of radical Islam, will play an important role.
The Uzbek struggle
Events in Uzbekistan, including suicide attacks and culminating in a shootout on Tuesday, are the bloodiest wave of violence to hit the former Soviet republic since it enlisted as a key US ally in the “war on terrorism” soon after the 2001 September 11 attacks. A US air base there proved an important strategic asset in the US aerial attacks on Afghanistan.
Some reports have blamed the Hizb ut-Tahrir, but this is unlikely to be the case, as this group, although committed to the overthrow of existing political regimes and their replacement with a caliphate, has traditionally been non-violent.
Rather, the violence in Uzbekistan is much more likely to be linked to Afghanistan and the struggle that is to be played out there in the coming months.
Pakistan’s Central Asia connection
In the development of Islamic radicalism in Uzbekistan, the “Naqshband” circle of Sufis emerged as an underground network during Soviet rule in opposition to the Soviet system. These Sufis believed in militancy against “tyrant” rulers. The network’s first contact with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) came when the Sufis began resistance operations against the Soviets after the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
In collaboration with the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the ISI actively assisted the militants, and also devised a strategy to take the struggle back to USSR soil, apart from Afghanistan.
The go-between for this was the Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA), led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is now once again spearheading operations in Afghanistan. The HIA helped spread the revolutionary literature of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Central Asian republics. The aim was not to convert ordinary Muslims, but to recruit revolutionaries who would attack the Soviet system from within their own regions, including Uzbekistan. These operations were launched in the mid and late 1980s, and over the years a whole new generation has evolved committed to underground operations. They are not an isolated community, like the Pakistani tribals, who are easily identified with their links to militants. This new generation of militants is part and parcel of Central Asian urban culture, and like any secret agents, they are not easily identifiable.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan army established a special intelligence cell within the HIA for which Pakistanis and Afghans were trained. All of the Pakistanis were ISI operators. However, after 1989, at the end of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the HIA began to work independently and it absorbed many Arabs into the intelligence cell, as well as Central Asian youths. These were sent to training camps in Afghanistan, where they were drilled by Arab instructors. The Central Asian recruits, therefore, forged good ties with many Arabs.
In the early 1980s Afghanistan also served as a testing ground for Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq’s vision, along with his chief spy master, then Lieutenant-General Akhtar Abdul Rehman (later a full general), for an international Islamic brigade. This matured into Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front, a loose umbrella front for organizations that include al-Qaeda and independent cells in Central Asia comprising militants nurtured by the CIA-ISI nexus and trained in the HIA’s Afghanistan camps.
In this context, the terror in Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan, cannot be seen in isolation, rather as the beginning of a new jihad in Afghanistan that will tap into resources, especially those in Central Asia, developed over many years.