Recently, a friend of mine who had visited me in Central Asia in the later 1990s sent me a picture of a bag we had gotten in the Tashkent bazaar. In the 1990s, the plastic bag one brought to the bazaar was an important marker of one’s identity. In what was a quite eco-friendly policy born of necessity, shoppers always paid extra for bags, and there was a tendency to reuse them indefinitely. This particular bag was one of the most sought after, being of much better quality than most standard Chinese-made vegetable-carrying bags, but it was also remarkable for its content as well as its form. Despite looking as if it had come from a nice western designer store, it in fact carried a curious propagandistic message about Russia’s eventual return to greatness as a super-power. Its printed message (although strangely written in English) epitomized the feelings of many Russians during the late 1990s as Yeltsin’s government pulled the country into an economic crisis and as Soviet order was replaced with post-Soviet chaos. It was this dream of Russia’s return to global greatness during the later 1990s that spawned Putinism and its great success throughout Russia today. When my friend sent me the photo, he noted that the plastic bag had been quite prophetic. Indeed, I think a lot of people today believe its message quite clearly, not the least of whom is Georgia’s President Saakishvili. The question is whether the ambition expressed in this plastic bad will also eventually return the country to another crash into ashes. Maybe there are some plastic bags available in Tbilisi today that can foretell the answer?
The Georgia Factor in Central Asia: What lessons will the Region’s Leaders Take Away from the South Ossetia Crisis?
The only leverage the US has ever had in Central Asia relates to our implicit counter-balance to Russia. The Central Asians have lived under Moscow’s shadow for decades, and they have constantly sought ways to slowly distance themselves from Russian control. With the fall of the U.S.S.R., the U.S. presented itself as the obvious source for counterbalancing Russia in the region. While no Central Asian states have been prepared to bank on the United States entirely as an alternative to Russia in the region, America’s presence has meant that the Central Asian states do not always need to take marching orders from Moscow. No Central Asian state, therefore, has been prepared to turn its back entirely on the U.S. As soon as Uzbekistan found out what it meant to be entirely isolated from the west after Andijan, for example, it looked to re-establish relations with the U.S. Likewise, other Central Asian states have always made just enough concessions to American interests to keep us engaged.
While the U.S. has not always taken full advantage of this leverage (witness our complete inability to engage a post-Turkmanbashi Turkmenistan in a meaningful way), it has led to what has been a mutually beneficial relationship between the U.S. and the Central Asian states. In the early 1990s, Kazakhstan let western oil companies in to develop its oil fields at the exclusion of Russia, and after September 11th, both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan went out on a limb to allow the U.S. to set up airbases on their territory, an act, which annoyed the Russians to no end. Most importantly to the Central Asians, however, engaging the Americans has always allowed them a means to circumvent Russia when they really needed to do so. Perhaps the biggest advantage to the Central Asians in this regard has related to their export of energy resources. While the region remains dependent upon Russia for the transport of their oil and gas exports, the involvement of the west in the extraction of natural resources has limited Russia’s ability to completely low-ball the Central Asians on the price of their energy resources and the terms of their transport.
The recent conflict between Georgia and Russia, however, may change these geopolitical dynamics in Central Asia entirely. Everybody in the former USSR considers Georgia to be one of America’s closest allies in the region, and they are all watching to see what the U.S. can actually do to help Georgia as it faces a Russian onslaught. This is not to say that most former Soviet citizens, Central Asians included, are cheering the Georgian side in the conflict – in fact, the contrary is true. Fed a regular diet of Russian news and information, most people likely view Georgia as the aggressor. The Central Asian media, for its part (even the opposition press), has been generally silent on the conflict. But, nonetheless, one has to think that the Central Asian leaders are watching carefully to see how strong a partner the U.S. actually can be in the face of Russian agression.
If Russia succeeds, after it has bombed strategic sites inside Georgia, in emerging from this conflict without any substantial repercussions (which it probably will), the Central Asian leaders will inevitably see the U.S. as a weak partner, unable of providing support when a country faces a Russian onslaught. The Russians will also likely capitalize on this sentiment by reminding Central Asian leaders that they cannot rely on the U.S. and that Russia is the only power able to provide them security. Furthermore, Russia will be embolden to dictate to Central Asians all the more, since – if the Americans cannot help Georgia, they will definitely do little against Russian aggression in Central Asia. And, the United States is unable to act any differently because – as with China – we have put ourselves in a position where we cannot outwardly defy Russia, especially in an armed conflict. We have burned too many bridges internationally by provoking conflicts ourselves, and we have become too invested in Russia’s economic success.
As a result, U.S. leverage in Central Asia can be expected to diminish substantially. Central Asian leaders will only become less trusting of relations with America and less tolerant of U.S. efforts to engage them on democratic reforms. In short, the conflict in Georgia is likely to have serious ramifications that reach far beyond the imaginary borders of South Ossetia. It has the power to reinforce a long-held belief in Central Asia, and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, that western liberalism is not a realistic path for former Soviets to follow. The only path to follow is one dictated by Moscow and the Kremlin. Whether one likes it or not, that path will be understood popularly in Central Asia, even more than it is now, as the region’s fate.
Lambs to the Slaughter: What is the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and is it really a Terrorist Threat at the Olympics?
Photo by Joshua Kucera
Today’s news carried yet one more item about alleged Uyghur terrorism in China. According to Chinese sources, two Uyghur men, aged 28 and 33 respectively, drove a truck into a group of Chinese border guards during their morning marching exercises at a border post outside the city of Kashgar. The two Uyghur “terrorists,” then got out of the truck and reportedly stabbed several guards with knives, subsequently killing a total of sixteen guards and throwing two homemade grenades into the border guard barracks without resultant damage. The perpetrators were reportedly promptly arrested. With China’s “debutant ball” marking its induction into the leading nations of the global order about to begin Friday with the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games, this incident received a column in the New York Times as opposed to what would likely be a two inch news brief (if that) any other time. Even in a column-length story, however, the New York Times was unable to really examine the significance of this incident.
Unfortunately, like all information pertaining to Uyghurs inside China, we cannot fully trust what we are told. According to the Chinese state, this incident was the work of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which they also claim has links to Al-Qaeda. The ETIM is also recognized by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization and, by implication, an enemy of ours in the Global War on Terror. If thinking conspiratorially, however, one might be inclined to suggest that this entire incident was fabricated by the Chinese authorities prior to President Bush’s arrival in Beijing to discuss human rights among other things with Hu Jintao, intended to inspire sympathy in Bush concerning China’s security situation prior to the Olympics. While always a possibility given the controlled and unreliable nature of information in China, this is unlikely. Afterall, if the Chinese were to fake a terrorist attack, I would hope they would make it more frightening than a two-person knife attack on some remotely located border guards. In all likelihood, this incident did happen, but it is very unlikely that it was the work of a transnational terrorist organization, or at least a sophisticated one with links to Al-Qaeda, as claimed by the Chinese authorities.
The reasons why the Uyghurs in Xinjiang may now be resorting to violence, albeit in isolated and disorganized bursts, are fairly clear. As I have noted elsewhere, the Uyghurs are staring in the eyes of cultural genocide. While Uyghurs have defied Chinese rule on various grounds since the eighteenth century, the urgency of this resistance is different today as China’s economic machine is rolling westward. Kashgar, close to where this latest conflict took place, is perhaps ground-zero for the confrontation between Uyghur culture and Chinese development. When I was last there in 2000, a newly constructed six lane highway emerged from nowhere in the desert to enter the city – the precursor to a massive face-lift for the city. Over the last several years, large parts of the historical Uyghur city have been displaced to make way for Chinese construction as the Chinese state develops this ancient trading city into a modern port for its economic globalization strategy in the west.
Meanwhile, the Chinese state is increasingly marginalizing the Uyghurs to make way for investors from China proper. In a discourse all too reminiscent of colonial and neo-colonial conquests past, the Chinese truly understand this development to be in the Uyghurs’ interest as it offers them an opportunity to replace their backward (i.e. Uyghur) culture with China’s peculiar brand of modernism. Most Uyghurs, however, do not see it that way. They see it as the last step before they disappear as a people, overwhelmed by ethnic Chinese migrants and the machinery of the Chinese state and its exploding industrialism. In this context, many Uyghurs, like Tibetans, view the Olympic Games in Beijing that open this week as perhaps their final opportunity to cry for help to the international community. Is this latest act of violence in Xinjiang then a desperate attempt to attract attention away from the birds nest stadium and NBC “color” stories about the Great Wall, Chinese food, the affect of smog on athletes, and Yao Ming’s ankle? Maybe, but, even if so, is it the work of the ETIM, and, if so, what does it tell us about this alleged dangerous terrorist group?
Let's start with the basics - what and who is ETIM? Does this organization really exist, and, if so, who are they and what are they capable of doing? Well, the organization does exist on youtube at least(see below) in the form of the Islamic Party of East Turkistan and the East Turkistan Liberation Organization (which are frequently cited by the Chinese as wings of ETIM), but a lot of fictitious things exist on youtube. One Uyghur I know in the United States, however, has told me that a colleague of his had interviewed an ETIM member, who incidentally denied that the group had any links with Al-Qaeda. Furthermore, the Islamic Party of East Turkistan appears to once have had a website, but its sponsors have evidently let their contract expire as evidenced by the “suspended page” notice one gets when visiting the site. Unfortunately, beyond this, there is little reliable information about the ETIM, which the U.S. State Department so confidently recognized as a dangerous terrorist group.
Islamic Party of East Turkistan
East Turkistan Liberation Organization
Wikipedia tells us that the founder and organizer of ETIM was Hasan Mahsum, but an extremely suspect report without footnotes from Singapore’s Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies (IDSS) tells us that Mahsum was the second leader of ETIM, while failing to tell us who its first leader was. Both sources claim that Mahsum was killed by the Pakistani military in Waziristan in 2003, and there is no mention of his successor. Youtube also offers us some footage that is allegedly of Mahsum in Afghanistan (see below).
While this footage and the stories of Hasan Mahsum may or may not be true, it still tells us little about the ETIM and its alleged threat today. Even the Singaporean source, which is full of undocumented statements about the organization’s connection to Al-Qaeda, only provides us with the accounts of actual events during the 1990s. During this time, there was a larger presence of Uyghurs in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but by the late 1990s, China was courting both the Pakistani government and the Taliban to ensure that Uyghurs did not have access to the militant training camps in those countries. Ironically, therefore, some Uyghurs may have been training in militant camps Pakistan and Afghanistan in the early 1990s, but, if they were, they were likely wiped out or severely crippled by the time that the US declared ETIM a terrorist group on September 11, 2002.
Since that time, China has repeatedly tried to suggest that ETIM is active and dangerous. In 2003, for example, the China Daily published profiles of 11 Uyghur alleged terrorists living abroad and reportedly linked to ETIM. While not all the names of these 11 Uyghurs are well known, at least two of them lead non-violent Uyghur activist organizations in the west and are unlikely to be linked to a terrorist group supposedly located remotely in the Pakistan/Afghan frontier. Furthermore, the Chinese authorities have continually claimed that virtually any political violence in Xinjiang is the work of the ETIM. Additionally, they claim to have both destroyed an ETIM training camp in the Pamir mountains last summer and foiled several ETIM terrorist attempts this summer, including the capture of an ETIM terror cell in Urumchi several weeks ago. Despite the alleged presence of this active and dangerous terror threat in Xinjiang, there have been no incidents that can be clearly defined as terrorism in the region in recent years. There have been no suicide bombers, no IEDs, and no hand-held rocket launcher attacks. Instead, we have several reports of terrorists with knives when it is well known that almost every adult Uyghur male carries a knife.
So, the actual existence, capacity, and linkage to recent violent acts of the ETIM all remain murky questions by most accounts. If we are to take the various incidents blamed on the ETIM by Chinese authorities at face value, however, the organization appears to be very poorly equipped. Essentially, the list of weapons attributed to the ETIM by the Chinese have been knives, homemade grenades, and gasoline. All of these items could obviously be obtained without the benefit of links to Al-Qaeda or without ETIM itself. They could just as easily be developed and used by angry and frustrated Uyghur youth acting alone. Similarly, if we are to believe that ETIM is behind the disparate acts of violence that have occurred in Xinjiang in recent years, the organization is also poorly trained in tactical terrorism. No act of violence has held any real symbolic value, and no violence has been high profile.
In trying to find truth in the available information on ETIM, therefore, I have come to two possible conclusions about this organization’s threat to China, the Olympics, and the world. First, the organization either does not exist anymore, even if it once did, or it is merely a shell trying to claim credit for acts with which it has no connection. Second, it is a poorly organized group with meager resources that is unable to accomplish any serious acts of terror beyond some isolated violence in remote locations far from international or even Chinese attention.
Whichever is true, one must ask why the U.S. ever declared this organization a dangerous terrorist group? Was it done entirely out of political expedience to court China’s inclusion in the Global War on Terror? What intelligence do we actually have that this organization poses a threat? Is it even as legitimate as the flawed intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that led us into a tragic war? Are we merely relying on the intelligence of China and the Central Asian states concerning Uyghur terrorism? These are questions that somebody in Washington should be asking, perhaps at the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Afterall, our recognition of the ETIM as an active and dangerous terrorist organization has facilitated further repression in Xinjiang, and somebody should be checking the facts before we keep sending the lambs to slaughter.
Sean R. Roberts lives in Washington, DC. He is an Associate Professor of International Development at George Washington University (GWU) and the Director of GWU's International Development Studies Program. In addition, Dr. Roberts works as a consultant on democracy and governance development projects around the world as well as on issues related to Central Asia. He has lived in Central Asia on and off since 1989. He has a Masters degree in Visual Anthropology and a Doctorate in Social Anthropology both from the University of Southern California. In addition to conducting extensive research in the Uyghur community of Central Asia, Dr. Roberts also worked for approximately six years at the United States Agency for International Development in Central Asia.