The main overland route into Central Asia’s Fergana Valley is the two-lane A373 highway in Uzbekistan. At first, the road is level. But to enter the expansive dale it must climb over 7,000 feet, wending through snowcapped mountains cut from the Alay and Tian Shan ranges. On the other side of the pass, the horizon rapidly opens up, giving way to the valley’s flat and rocky landscape. Leaving the mountains, the highway shoots toward a strip of haze that perpetually clouds distant village skylines.
If nature has given the people who live here an awe-inspiring gateway, it has given the governments who rule over them a powerful instrument of control. These mountains effectively wall in Central Asia’s most turbulent and crowded area, funneling all traffic into easily regulated chokepoints. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan share the valley, home to nearly 11 million people. But Uzbekistan’s harsh authoritarian leadership has been particularly aggressive in its use of this topographical convenience, turning the Uzbek portion of the region, the largest section, into what amounts to a massive minimum-security prison.
Numerous police roadblocks are stationed all along the A373. Highways cutting across the valley are heavily patrolled, too. At each checkpoint, Uzbek policemen armed with Kalashnikov rifles wave down cars based on license-plate numbers that identify their place of registration. Documents are checked and the trunk is opened; if anything is deemed suspicious, either the driver is apprehended or the license number is logged into a computer so the vehicle’s movements can be subsequently monitored more carefully. Although the roadblocks are meant to stem the flow of Islamic extremists and narcotics, they have evolved into an effective instrument of extortion and bribery, and a source of everyday aggravation.
Moreover, the checkpoints are only one part of a broader government campaign. For the past three years, Uzbek authorities have administered a harsh crackdown on virtually all forms of independent religious and political expression. President Islam Karimov’s administration–now in its eleventh year–has closed hundreds of mosques and imprisoned thousands of people (the number has been estimated at anywhere from 7,000 to 10,000), often for reasons as simple as praying in the wrong place. Many Uzbeks complain that local police and judges are given arrest quotas. Most trials are carried out with lightning quickness; those on the stand are pressured to confess, so evidence is rarely required. Long prison sentences for minor charges are common.
The official justification for this strategy has been to crush the region’s violent Islamic insurgencies, along with the drug trade that supports them. But the mass arrests, combined with the government’s iron control of the media and economy (the Uzbek currency is virtually nonconvertible, and private land ownership is essentially not permitted), are creating an increasingly desperate population cut off from the rest of the world. Quietly but quickly, Uzbeks are turning to radical Islamic groups, finding legitimacy in the enemies of an illegitimate regime. In essence, the crackdown is fueling the very problem it is designed to correct: Central Asia’s Fergana Valley may very well be the crucible for the world’s next Taliban.