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.
Take Namangan, once a traditional political center, now a scruffy post-Soviet city of roughly 340,000. Many of those in Namangan who have work toil in Uzbekistan's state-run cotton collectives. But poverty and unemployment are rampant. Even within the devout Fergana Valley, Namangan is regarded as a place of intense social conservatism and piety. Not surprisingly, it is the birthplace of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an insurgency that has wreaked havoc across Central Asia since its founding in the late 1990s.
Today the IMU is banned in several countries. It supports the violent overthrow of secular Central Asian governments, especially in Uzbekistan, and wants to bring Islamic Sharia law to the region. Uzbek authorities blame the movement for setting off five car bombs in 1999 in Tashkent, in a plot to assassinate President Karimov. The IMU also participated in the 1992-97 civil war in Tajikistan, which pitted Islamic rebels against the former Communist regime, and it engaged in kidnappings and cross-border skirmishing in Kyrgyzstan. Washington regards the movement as a terrorist group with international reach and links to the Al Qaeda network. In October President Bush included the IMU on a list of terrorist organizations whose assets were ordered frozen.
IMU co-founder Jumaboi Khojiev, a near-mythic Uzbek warlord who goes by the nom de guerre Juma Namangani, was reported killed alongside Taliban militiamen during the fight for Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan. But even if he is dead--and it is not clear that he is--and Afghanistan is wiped clean of terrorist groups, the situation here is unlikely to change. The Fergana Valley's radical Islamic fervor has become inseparably interwoven with growing popular discontent.
"Frustrations here run very high," said Rustam Azizov, a dissident radio journalist and former opposition leader who lives in Namangan. Azizov, who asked to use a false identity, has traversed the Fergana Valley during both careers to gauge public opinion. Now he works out of his small apartment, mostly from a mat and some pillows set up before a low table strewn with audio equipment and papers covered in his tight longhand. Beside him, he keeps an old Panasonic shortwave radio and cassette player. "Here's a good example," he said, reaching into a bag of microphones and wires and pulling out a Sony MiniDisc player, which he connected to the Panasonic. Through the radio's single, partially blown speaker came a recording of a local woman in her late 40s, her voice utterly woebegone. The woman explained that the authorities had arrested half her family unjustly. Azizov asked whether she would join an Islamic terrorist group if members came to her door offering a gun. "Yes," she said, without hesitation. "I just can't imagine living my life anymore under this regime."
In Uzbekistan, talk like this can carry a heavy price, and isn't indulged in lightly. But it is being heard with increasing frequency. "I can't tell you how many frustrated people have told me: 'Just give me the word, and we will fight to get rid of this guy Karimov,'" said Azizulla Ghazi, a political analyst who works from the city of Osh, located on the Kyrgyz side of the Fergana Valley. "They're not necessarily terrorists but are willing to join up with anyone ready to do that."
Currently, alongside the IMU in the Fergana Valley are a host of smaller militant Islamic groups, such as Justice Society, Long Beard, Repentance, Mission and Ray of Light, that could potentially take the IMU's place were it to be irrevocably damaged by the death of its leader. There is also expanding popular support for Hizb-ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, an international radical Islamic movement calling for the peaceful replacement of the region's secular governments with a multinational Islamic caliphate. Hizb-ut-Tahrir's leaders have estimated that their organization includes at least 80,000 members in Uzbekistan alone, but because it is also banned, actual figures are difficult to verify.
In Osh, a two-hour car drive east of Namangan, Nosir, 37, a Hizb-ut-Tahrir cell leader who withheld his last name, explained that destroying the IMU would have little long-term effect in Central Asia. "If you look at history, no vacuum can stay empty forever," he said, tightening his calloused fingers into a fist for emphasis. "There will always be a group ready to fight for its beliefs. Our organization will never call for violence, but as long as problems remain, there will always be people ready to take up arms."
Ironically, the short-term goals of the US-led war on terrorism have pushed Washington into aggravating the problems in Central Asia. Prior to September 11, the United States was Uzbekistan's greatest critic and applied a substantial degree of diplomatic pressure on the Karimov regime to clean up its human rights record. But Uzbekistan, with its strategic proximity to Afghanistan and its reasonably maintained Soviet-era military infrastructure, has proved to be a critical component in the effort to rid Afghanistan of Al Qaeda and its sympathizers. President Karimov has permitted the Pentagon to station more than 1,000 soldiers at an airbase near the town of Qarshi, not far from the Afghan frontier, and has allowed UN humanitarian workers to shuttle vital aid across the Uzbek border into northern Afghanistan. Since September 11, American aid has started flowing into Uzbekistan, and US criticism has notably softened. On December 6, just before Colin Powell arrived in Tashkent, the Uzbek Parliament rubber-stamped a proposal to extend Karimov's presidency. Powell didn't peep.
"The US military presence in Central Asia is undoubtedly going to be an irritant if it lasts very long--adding more fuel to the fires of those who are anti-Western and militant," says John Schoeberlein, director of the Harvard Forum for Central Asian Studies. "What is important is that the United States avoid the situation it's gotten itself into so many times in the past, where it is seen as being teamed up with nasty governments. Because what it means is that US citizens get tarred with the same brush as those governments, and Central Asia could be engaged in the same anti-Western process that we have all over the Middle East and in other parts of the world."
Just how detrimental the Karimov crackdown is to long-term US interests was illustrated at a recent trial of ten young men convicted for their connection to Hizb-ut-Tahrir. In a shabby courthouse on the outskirts of Tashkent, the men sat behind the thick bars of a large courtroom cage as a judge sentenced them to prison terms of up to seventeen years. Eight soldiers holding batons kept a watchful guard, and when the judge finished, they quickly pushed distraught relatives out of the room. But for an instant, there was a spark of defiance--one that human rights observers say is becoming increasingly popular at such trials--as some in the crowd raised their fists. Praising God, they softly chanted, "Death to the president! Allah-u-Akbar!"