The Northern regions of Afghanistan are increasingly becoming infested with mili tancy spearheaded by Taliban in alliance with other terror groups that do not have Afghan origin. Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is one such terror group which has staged a comeback in many Northern provinces after many of its leaders and fighters had sought refuge in the Pakistani tribal areas in recent years. Apart from the Taliban, the Hizb-I-IslamiHekmatyar is also active in some of the Northern provinces although its affiliation with cross-border terror networks such as IMU is very limited. The existence of training camps run by IMU in some of the Northern provinces such as Kunduz has been known for some time.
These training camps are used by IMU to train and prepare a new wave of militants in expectation of gaining greater foothold in the Northern regions. The ISAF and Afghan National Army (ANA) have launched a series of operations against these IMU-Taliban strongholds in recent months including the training camps run by IMU. The operations have led to killing and capture of a number of high-level operatives. The disturbing trend is the increasing integration of IMU cadres and Taliban in the Northern regions. Taliban have already established shadow governments in some districts of the Northern provinces and the input from the IMU in helping the Taliban spread its tentacles has been significant. We are witnessing the rise of IMU in Northern Afghanistan in what is a dangerous Taliban-IMU nexus.
The leadership of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) continues to stay in the Pakistani tribal areas particularly in North Waziristan. One interesting dimension to the activities of the IMU is the militant group's long-held aspiration of training and using European Jihadis to carry out attacks back in their countries in Europe. While the group has had no known success in successfully launching any terror attack inside Continental Europe, the increasing appeal of Jihadi militancy for many European Muslims is drawing many of them towards IMU and similar transnational terror groups. Many Muslims born and raised in Europe have been known to visit the Pakistani tribal areas to train with terror groups and go back home on suicide missions. It is a matter of certainty that if the European security agencies let down the guards, Europe can very well witness a wave of terrorist attacks caused by this very brand of Jihadis trained in South Asia.
TahirYuldashev was the well-known Uzbek militant commander who moved to North Waziristan and from there directed the outfit's operations around the Afghan-Pakistan border region as well as in North Afghanistan and even inside Uzbekistan. He was killed in a US drone attack in 2008 when he was at the peak of his Jihadi career functioning also as a top-notched Al-Qaeda commander. These days, it is hard to miss the Uzbek and Central Asian-faced militants in the company of high-ranking Taliban commanders in the Pakistani tribal areas. IMU cadres are increasingly forming an integral part of the Taliban in the Pakistani tribal areas as well as Northern Afghanistan.
This is a particularly disturbing trend since the merger and increasing fusion of local Taliban with more ideologically-driven IMU cadres and leaders has the effect of further radicalization of Taliban. It is now a historical fact that the close collaboration of Taliban and Al-Qaeda including Taliban's sheltering of Al-Qaeda on Afghanistan's soil brought about the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US. Now, an increasing operational alliance between Taliban and IMU in Northern Afghanistan and Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Eastern Afghanistan close to the tribal areas has the potential to again provide a fertile ground for terror attacks on targets outside Afghanistan including the U.S., Europe and of course the vulnerable Central Asian countries.
The danger of militancy such as the operations of IMU and other militant groups that continue to operate undercover throughout the Central Asian region remains real and grave. The authoritarian governments throughout Central Asia that continue to rule with an iron fist, particularly in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, have been able to keep the threat of Islamic militancy at bay. The heavy crackdown on Islamic groups such as IMU in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over the past one decade had the effect of severely undermining these groups and in many cases such as IMU made them escape to other regions where they could continue their activities with impunity. However, the recent increase in militant activity in Northern Afghanistan, involving a resurgent Taliban regrouping in alliance with Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), can very well change the dynamics of militancy in the region towards increasing destabilization of not only Afghanistan but also the Central Asian countries.
These Central Asian states, unfortunately, continue to be particularly vulnerable to the growing tide of religious extremism and militancy in the region. Tajikistan is a prime example as the widespread poverty, stagnant economy and an authoritarian government all have worked to make stronger the appeal of religious extremism to its young population. Authoritarian governments across Central Asia, which repress political dissent and staunchly suppress and keep in check Islamist movements, have created fertile grounds for extremism and terrorism by their own actions. It is not clear how long these governments will be able to contain networks of religious extremists that are currently suppressed and have gone underground. The danger is real and it needs increased efforts on the part of the international military coalition in Afghanistan and the Afghan government to stem the tide of militancy in Northern Afghanistan and root out the IMU-Taliban nexus and other trans-national extremist groups operating out of Afghanistan.
Therefore, the rise of a Taliban-IMU nexus in Northern Afghanistan can have grave consequences not only for Afghanistan but also for the fragile security environment in the broader Central Asian region.
Another latent danger is that the terror groups such as IMU and those in Tajikistan and elsewhere become instruments in the hands of global powers in their now re-emerging march towards revitalizing the "Great Game" in pursuit of undermining the Russian and Chinese sphere of influence in the broader Central Asian region. History is replete with examples of terror groups breaking runaway when the world powers start covertly supporting them. For now, there is no smoking gun evidence of the world powers covertly supporting militant groups in Central Asia.
However, as the Central Asian region is slowly returning to the geo-strategic chessboard of the West vs. East, we might well witness invisible helping hands being extended towards these terror groups with the goal of destabilization of Central Asia.