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Saturday, 3 October 2009

Tahir Yuldashev: end of a regional terrorist

Yuldashev: end of a regional terrorist

The death in South Waziristan of Qari Tahir Yuldashev by an American drone closes the career of a remarkable man who challenged Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, China and the United States in the name of his radical Islam. He and his nearly 5,000 Uzbek fighters — estimates have varied over time — have been a part of the Afghan Taliban and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) under the tutelage of Mullah Umar and Al Qaeda. Indeed, he was present as a witness to the 2006 peace agreement between the Pakistan Army and the Taliban in South Waziristan.

Tahir Yuldashev founded the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan together with the senior leader Juma Namangani in 1998 but had to flee the oppressive regime of Uzbekistan to Afghanistan in 2000, where in 2001 Juma Namangani was killed during fighting. The heat on the IMU came after it abducted a group of Japanese tourists from Kyrgyzstan that year. Yuldashev wanted to establish an Islamic state in the Central Asian region inhabited by Turkic peoples, and thus challenged also China in its Xinjiang province where the local Muslim population is also Turkic.

In the period immediately before 9/11, Al Qaeda had a free run of Pakistan with its key second-rung leaders embedded comfortably in Karachi. The 9/11 attacks were planned in Karachi and the money for the 19 suicide attackers was also sent from Pakistan. Juma Namangani, who was leading the terrorists in Tajikistan from his stronghold in Tavildara, was in fact in Karachi for a time. He returned to Tajikistan by taking a chartered flight from Karachi to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, disguised and without a beard. The Tajikistan government was greatly alarmed and accused Pakistan of interference and of posting ISI officers as ambassadors to Central Asia, including Tajikistan.

Pakistan’s relations with Uzbekistan were affected by the IMU’s repeated attempts on the life of the Uzbek president, which led to the return of Russia to the region as a “protector” and to the setting up of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) comprising “frontline” Central Asian states, Russia and China, “advancing mutual economic interests, fostering military trust among its members and combating Islamist radicalism”. In many senses, Pakistan could be seen as an early target of this anti-Islamist radicalism objective.

Tahir Yuldashev became greatly involved inside Pakistan because of the tutelage of the Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri. As more and more Uzbeks fled the Ferghana Valley in Central Asia and joined him in South Waziristan, the IMU turned away from their homeland and began focusing its attention jointly with the TTP inside Pakistan. It sent its warriors to Swat too when Fazlullah began his activities there after making contacts with Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan. His importance was highlighted when an ANP leader who had named him publicly was nearly killed in Peshawar through an explosive device.

The IMU also caused the “Chinese factor” to become prominent in the tribal areas. After the Chechens from Russia, the Uighur-Muslim rebels from Xinjiang too began to congregate in South Waziristan. China handled the emerging situation tactfully but became more vocal in its complaints after the Uighur rebels began to attack Xinjiang after taking guerrilla training in South Waziristan. China also acted in concert with the members of the SCO to consolidate the road and bridge networks in Central Asia to organise a defence system against Tahir Yuldashev and his IMU.

The death of Tahir Yuldashev at the hands of the Americans has, as in the case of Baitullah Mehsud, provided relief to Pakistan and lent strength to its resolve to finally grasp the nettle of South Waziristan. But this time, it has benefited also China and the Central Asian states, and Russia who is the regional “security-umbrella” provider. After President Obama’s new “friendly” policy towards Moscow, an understanding on the Taliban-Al Qaeda threat from Pakistan will also be easily reached with China.

The year 2009 was the biggest year so far for drone strikes inside Pakistan. The people killed reached the record number of 404, out of which civilians accounted for only 43. But these attacks have killed some of the most important leaders belonging to the TTP-Al Qaeda network. Tahir Yuldashev was clearly an important target of the drone attacks; as far as Pakistan’s neighbours are concerned, perhaps more important than Baitullah Mehsud. The IMU will be hard put to find another leader like him and may therefore suffer a period of weakness. (Daily Times)

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