The Washington Review of Turkish & Eurasian Affairs

Havoc on the Horizon: The Dangers of State Failure and Radical Islam in Central Asia

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Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, academics and policymakers alike have issued stark warnings stating that radical Islamic groups constitute a clear and present danger in modern Central Asia. According to such thinking, scholars and government officials maintain that militant Islamic organizations such as Al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Hizb ut-Tahrir seek to overthrow the secularist regimes currently in power and establish a region wide Islamic caliphate.

Charles J. Sullivan is a PhD candidate in Political Science at The George Washington University. Mr. Sullivan specializes in the politics of the FSU region and has published articles in the Journal of Central Asian Studies (Halk, Watan, Berdymuhammedov! Political Transition and Regime Continuity in Turkmenistan 2010), the Washington Review of Turkish & Eurasian Affairs (Dmitry’s Dilemma: The Resurgence of Insurgent Activities in the North Caucasus 2011), and the Journal of Energy and Development (Pipeline Politics in the Post-Soviet Space: The View from Ashgabat 2011). He has also written a chapter, Dealing with Despotic Regimes: U.S.-Central Asian Relations in the Post-9/11 Era for The Handbook of Central Asian Politics (forthcoming). Mr. Sullivan is a fellow at the Institute for European, Russian & Eurasian Studies.

Obviously, the events of September 11, 2001 demonstrated to the world at large that such groups can inflict massive carnage especially if they are able to plan and conduct their operations in secrecy from afar. Yet to what extent are radical Islamic groups in Central Asia able to carry out their missions today? Does the specter of radical Islam pose a threat to Central Asia’s security or is it a phantom menace? Overall, despite that radical Islamic groups have been weakened as a result of the 2001 U.S.-led military overthrow of the Taliban regime and ensuing multi-national effort to rebuild Afghanistan into a stable governing polity, this article posits that such groups continue to pose a threat to regional stability. On this point, in echoing the arguments which have been put forth by scholars, this article contends that radical Islamic groups could work to undermine regional stability if they are able to effectively craft their messages so that their values and beliefs come to strongly resonate with their respective target publics. Unfortunately, the problems which plague Central Asia are manifold, ranging from the demonstrable ineffectiveness of secularist authoritarian rule over the course of the past twenty years and sheer pervasiveness of government corruption, to the simultaneous occurrences of economic downturns and rising drug addiction rates spanning across the region.

In brief, this article posits that such problems make several Central Asian countries vulnerable to experiencing ‘state failure’ in the near future, thus giving radical Islamic groups the opportunity to acquire a popular following in the region. To prevent such an occurrence from happening, this article proposes that the United States government should initiate a gradual break with its current strategy in neighboring Afghanistan by reshaping its military footprint and focus more on trying to convince Central Asia’s ruling elites to gradually adopt political and economic reforms.


In retrospect, the collapse of the Soviet Union set the stage for the revival of radical Islam in Central Asia. According to Olcott, during the late 1980s and early 1990s the delegitimation of Communist rule and “loosening of Soviet control” over remote areas in modern Central Asia (particularly the Ferghana Valley) led to the creation of an ideological vacuum in the region, thus providing radical Islamic groups with the opportunity to compete for political supremacy. During this time, militant Islamists in the Ferghana Valley migrated to nearby Tajikistan to fight under the banner of the Islamic Renaissance Party (which battled alongside a variety of groups under the umbrella of the United Tajik Opposition) against the government in the Tajik civil war (1992-1997). Simultaneously, radical Islamists also began to establish a foothold in Uzbekistan.[1]

Today, the two most well-known radical Islamic groups in Central Asia are the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb ut-Tahrir (The Party of Liberation or HuT). With respect to the IMU, this group came into being shortly after the signing of the 1997 Tajik peace accords. The stated mission of the IMU is to overthrow the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan and establish an Islamic caliphate. During the late 1990s, the IMU was responsible for carrying out a series of bombings in Tashkent as well as for orchestrating a failed assassination attempt on Uzbek President Islam Karimov and organizing several incursions into the Batken province of southern Kyrgyzstan. In response, Karimov sought to eradicate the IMU. Unable to wage a protracted military-style campaign against the Uzbek government from within the country, many IMU fighters decided to flee to Afghanistan in the early 2000s and fight alongside the Taliban.[2] With respect to Hizb ut-Tahrir, the origins of this group date back to the 1950s in Jerusalem. Today, although HuT (much like the IMU) seeks to overthrow secularist regimes throughout the Muslim world and establish an Islamic caliphate, this group attracts more followers across the globe, operates as a clandestine organization, and does not publicly sanction the use of violence. That said, the International Crisis Group argues that the usage of heavy-handed state-sponsored repression tactics by the governments of Central Asia is provoking the radicalization of HuT.[3]

In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, Washington began to more aggressively pursue radical Islamic groups such as Al-Qaeda and the IMU while Central Asian governments cracked down on HuT at home. In late 2001, the U.S. military dealt a devastating blow to the IMU in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz by killing Juma Namangani (one of the group’s co-founders) as well as scores of other IMU fighters. Shortly thereafter, as the Taliban regime fell to advancing military forces of the Northern Alliance, remnants of the IMU fled southward to seek refuge in the Pashtun tribal belt.[4] In doing so, the IMU rendered itself largely incapable of carrying out any large-scale operations in Central Asia. However, in 2004 a splinter group known as the Islamic Jihad Union conducted a series of terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan (most notably by orchestrating a spate of suicide bombings targeting the American and Israeli embassies as well as the Uzbek Prosecutor General’s Office in Tashkent). Additionally, German authorities in 2007 foiled an IJU plot to attack U.S. military installations in Europe.[5] Aside from these instances, however, by the end of 2007 it appeared as if the radical Islamic threat had become virtually nonexistent in Central Asia. In retrospect, the two most widely publicized events that took place in the region after the overthrow of the Taliban were the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan in March and May of 2005, respectively. Despite claims to the contrary, it is unlikely that the unrest which erupted in Andijan on May 13th was instigated by Islamic militants who sought to forcefully overthrow the Karimov regime.[6]

Still, the U.S. State Department in 2008 issued a warning stating that the ranks of Hizb ut-Tahrir have been steadily increasing as evidenced by the gradual rise in membership estimates over the course of the past few years.[7] Additionally, journalist Ahmed Rashid surmises that membership in the IMU has expanded over the past year to around 5,000 fighters because the group has succeeded in establishing a viable recruiting system in the Fergana Valley. Finally, a series of battles took place in 2009 in Jalal-Abad province in Kyrgyzstan and the Tavil-Dara district in Tajikistan between government forces and militants reported to be affiliated with the IMU.[8] The resumption of fighting in Tajikistan between government forces and militant Islamists also comes on the heels of the death of Mirzo Ziyoev, a prominent UTO commander who fought against the central government during the Tajik civil war but ended up siding with Dushanbe after the signing of the 1997 Tajik peace accords. The events which led to Ziyoev’s death remain shrouded in mystery.[9] In sum, it seems as if a storm is looming over Central Asia.


Does radical Islam pose a threat to Central Asia today or is it merely a phantom menace? In response, a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report posits that the existence of radical Islamic groups does pose a threat (albeit in varying degrees) to the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan today.[10] That said, other scholars maintain that since some Central Asian governments exaggerate the danger which radical Islamic groups pose to the prevailing social order (mainly because doing so helps advance certain political interests), the specter of radical Islam in Central Asia is overblown. In reference to Uzbekistan, Khalid (2007) argues that “Islamic militancy…provides an excellent alibi for cracking down on all dissent, religious or otherwise, by proclaiming it to be the work of “religious extremists” and “terrorists.” The regime exaggerates the threat and uses it to control religious activity, even as it celebrates Islam as part of the country’s heritage.”[11] Although this statement is not in dispute, radical Islam is not an imaginary bogeyman being propagated by Central Asia’s elites. To the contrary, this threat is real and will keep growing if left unchecked.

Today, however, the primary challenge facing Central Asia is not Islamic terrorism per se but the spread of radical Islamic ideals as a consequence of ‘state failure’. On this point, if we define a state as a sovereign legitimate governing entity which wields a monopoly over the use of coercive force and exercises authority over a population residing within a given territory, then a failed state is considered to be a governing entity which neither possesses legitimacy nor the ability to exert total authority within its recognized borders on account of its own functional ineffectiveness. Hence, failed states are best defined as states which lack both legitimacy and functionality since they are unable to regularly provide their populations with social services.[12]

What does a failed state look like? In response, one may reasonably think that anarchy prevails when the state fails. Hence, if we see anarchy then we know that a state has failed. Although such thinking sounds reasonable, the fact of the matter is that anarchy need not (though it occasionally does) prevail in instances of state failure. Generally, scholars such as Rotberg (2004) posit that a good indicator of state failure is the existence of multiple governing entities laying claims to various pieces of territory within a given country.[13] Additionally, Rotberg contends that a variety of other indicators exist which social scientists can utilize to study state failure. Accordingly, scholars can analyze life expectancy and infant mortality rates, literacy rates, levels of infrastructural development, crime rates, and GDP per capita levels in a country to determine whether a state has indeed failed or is in the process of ‘failing’. As well, when conducting analyses of state failure scholars should focus on indicators dealing with social services since one of the two defining attributes of a failed state is its functional inefficiency.[14]

Overall, although it may appear as if state failure is primarily an African-centric issue [15], this article contends that state failure is now becoming a major concern in the former Soviet Union region. Furthermore, states can fail for a variety of reasons. To begin, states tend to experience failure when rival (ethnic) groups begin to challenge one another for political supremacy. On this point, Cederman, Wimmer, and Min (2010) contend that the primary cause behind most civil wars in the contemporary era is the fact that groups in power tend to exclude other groups from sharing power. In doing so, groups in power essentially force other groups to perceive the government as illegitimate on account of the fact that they are not given any say in governing matters.[16] In the FSU region, Collins (2004) argues that the main reason why four of the five newly independent Central Asian countries did not fall victim to civil war in the 1990s was due to the fact that rival clans chose to form “pacts”. In doing so, these governments were able to ensure the preservation of order. Needless to say, since rival clans in Tajikistan found themselves unable to broker a pact, the country was forced to endure a devastating five-year long civil war.17 To serve as another example, although Afghanistan lies outside of the FSU region, state failure gripped this country in the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan War when rival Mujahideen warlords hailing from different clans proved to be unable to broker such a pact in 1992. Sadly, Afghanistan remains very much segregated along clan-based lines to this very day.

Additionally, certain FSU countries equipped with an ethnofederal design (in the sense that the central government grants a measure of autonomy to ethnic groups inhabiting specific areas) may in fact be prone to experiencing state failure. On this point, both Bunce (1999) and Brubaker (1996) maintain that one of the principal causes behind the collapse of the Soviet Union was the fact that the USSR was a multi-national federalist state divided into fifteen separate Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) and a set of Autonomous Republics (ASSRs) in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and elsewhere. Thus, by equipping each of these sub-national entities with their own governing institutions, Bunce maintains that sub-national elites were able to seize upon these “building blocks” once the CPSU began to exhibit signs of weakness.18 Flash-forwarding to the contemporary era, Cornell (2002) posits that with respect to the South Caucasus region, out of four cases in which a minority ethnic group was granted autonomy from the central government, three (Ajaria being the exception) have resulted in attempts by sub-national elites to secede (i.e. Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh).19 Hale (2004) also posits that historically, countries which possess a “core ethnic region” are more likely to experience state collapse as opposed to countries in which a predominant ethnic group remains dispersed throughout.20 Hence, it appears as if the existence of a “core ethnic region” and/or an ethnofederal governing structure predisposes weak states to experience failure. After all, in such instances all that is needed is for sub-national elites to press for secessionism from a weak central government. The case of Georgia aptly illustrates how Tbilisi remains incapable to this day of reasserting its authority over the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In retrospect, it is important to recall that the origins of the wars in the South Caucasus of the early 1990s can be traced back to sub-national elites seizing upon the moment and utilizing a variety of “building blocks” to pressure Tbilisi into ceding them authority.21 To this day, Georgia has not been able to reestablish control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Although it appears as if states can fail for a variety of reasons, ‘state predation’ seems to stand out as the predominant factor which could potentially bring about state failure in Central Asia today. Broadly defined, state predation is a type of syndrome in which ruling elites abide by what Evans (1995) refers to as “neo-utilitarian” logic; they loot state coffers, terrorize the local population, strip assets from enterprises, misappropriate resources, and exercise authority by establishing patronage networks.22 Needless to say, under such a system it is but a matter of time before citizens will begin to look elsewhere in search of a governing entity that can provide them with basic social services. At present, at least three Central Asian countries (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan)23 run the risk of experiencing state failure in the near future because of state predation. As a case in point, McGlinchey (2009) argues that many Kyrgyz citizens are joining Islamic organizations today because Bishkek has proven itself to be largely incapable of providing basic social services to its citizens on a regular basis.24 Furthermore, the riotous events of April 2010 which led to the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev followed by the deadly ethnic violence that took place in June in the southern half of the country (in which ethnic Kyrgyz massacred hundreds of ethnic Uzbeks) have clearly showcased the fledgling Kyrgyz state’s inability to ensure social order and shield its citizens from the wrath of hooligans.

Thus, in such a setting radical Islamic groups may be able to flourish because of their ability to provide citizens with some measure of social services and the inability of the central government to suppress them. After all, scholars such as Fearon and Laitin maintain that the driving force behind the continuation of most civil wars in the contemporary world is “state weakness”. In their words, “Insurgents are better able to survive and prosper if the government and military they oppose is relatively weak - badly financed, organizationally inept, corrupt, politically divided, and poorly informed about the goings-on at the local level”..25 Still, in order for radical Islam to thrive in Central Asia, Islamists must convince others to embrace their cause.


According to the aforementioned CSIS report (2010), judging by the sheer number of terrorist attacks that took place in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in 2009 (especially when compared over the past five years since the occurrence of the 2005 Uzbek state-sponsored crackdown at Andijan), it appears as if a sizeable contingent of militant Islamists originally hailing from Central Asia are now returning from abroad to wage jihad back home. Why is this so? Generally speaking, the CSIS report stipulates that the recent surge in U.S. and Pakistani military operations along the AF-PAK border (particularly in the districts of Swat, Buner, and South Waziristan in Pakistan) is unintentionally triggering jihadists residing in the area to migrate back to Central Asia. Hence, despite that heavy fighting has significantly depleted the ranks of the IMU and Tohir Yo’ldosh (one of the group’s co-founders) was killed by a U.S. Predator drone missile strike in late 2009, the possibility still exists that remnants of the IMU as well as jihadists affiliated with other radical Islamic groups fighting in Afghanistan may soon return to the political scene in Central Asia with the intent to set-up a new base of operations.26

It is important to note, however, that radical Islamic groups will only be able to acquire a following in Central Asia if they are able to craft their messages in such a way so that their beliefs come to resonate with their respective target publics. According to Collins (2007), in order for radical Islamic groups operating within an authoritarian system to attract a large social base, (i) a sense of “socio-political uncertainty” (owing mainly to the delegitimation of “secular authoritarianism”) must exist so that radical Islamic ideals can come to acquire widespread acceptance, (ii) such groups must craft their messages in a way so that their ideological views come to resonate with the local population, and (iii) radical Islamic groups must rely on a series of “informal social networks” to spread their messages and recruit new members. To date, radical Islamic groups which sanction the use of violence (such as the IMU) have not been able to garner as much of a popular following in Central Asia as have nonviolent groups (HuT).27 That said, (with the exception of HuT) such groups have not been able to acquire much of a following because the Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek governments have also sought to suppress these organizations through repression. Hence, although some scholars contend that the usage of repression only further emboldens militants and forces people into the radical Islamic camp28, none of these countries appears to be on the cusp of descending into chaos as a result of the widespread acceptance of radical Islamic views. That said, the multitude of problems which plague Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan today (ranging from the ineffectiveness of secularist authoritarian rule and pervasiveness of corruption, to the steep rise in drug addiction rates and spread of infectious diseases, to the occurrences of economic downturns and introductions of price hikes on utilities) make the region a potential breeding ground for the spread of radical Islamic ideals, especially if any of these countries were to succumb to failure.29


As previously stated, despite the fact that radical Islamic groups such as Al-Qaeda and the IMU have been weakened as a result of the 2001 U.S.-led military overthrow of the Taliban regime and ensuing nation-building effort, the aforementioned CSIS report proclaims that the recent surge in U.S. and Pakistani military operations along the AF-PAK border is triggering a migration of jihadists into Central Asia. That said, since Afghanistan remains inextricably linked to its neighbors, how should the U.S. proceed so as to forestall the spread of radical Islamic ideals? Put simply, this article posits that the U.S. should begin reshaping its military footprint in Afghanistan as well as focus on trying to convince Central Asia’s ruling elites to adopt reforms.

To begin, in order for the U.S. to achieve victory in Afghanistan Washington needs to realize that victory cannot be achieved in the short-run. Unfortunately, a variety of structural factors such as the existence of rough terrains and low population densities make it extremely difficult for the new Afghan government to extend its writ throughout the entire country.30 Furthermore, since neighboring states such as Iran and Pakistan have sought to exploit Afghanistan for their own strategic interests in the past (mainly by sponsoring, equipping, and providing safe haven to radical Islamic groups since the 1980s), America should not assume that Tehran and Islamabad have seen the errors of their ways and decided to reverse policies in an effort to make Afghanistan into a stable democratic polity. Finally, Washington has to come to grips with the fact that the Afghan government under the questionable stewardship of President Hamid Karzai presides over a pre-industrial society in which most Afghans do not know how to read or write, thus making the nation-building effort an extremely complex, protracted endeavor.

Based upon these facts, it would be unwise for 90,000+ U.S. soldiers to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. As well, Americans should not assume that the strategy of ‘Clear-Hold-Build’ is bound to succeed in Afghanistan simply because it facilitated the Iraqi stabilization effort. After all, the socio-economic and socio-political conditions in Afghanistan differ substantially from those found in Iraq today. That being the case, in order to ensure the continuation of the Afghan government, a contingent of U.S. military forces should remain stationed in Afghanistan while U.S. Special Forces continue to fight alongside Afghan soldiers in the Pashtun tribal belt. In the meantime, as America begins to draw-down its military forces (presumably in 2011) Washington should increase its aerial campaigns of drone missile strikes into suspected terrorist hideouts while Kabul sows divisions within the enemy’s ranks by offering amnesty to combatants who lay down their arms and engaging in negotiations with moderate Taliban leaders. Herein lays the blueprint for America’s gradual exit from Afghanistan.

To be certain, this strategy is susceptible to criticism on a variety of fronts, most notably because of the notion that accelerating the aerial campaign in the Pashtun tribal belt may well result in further spurring the migration of jihadists back into Central Asia. In response, this article contends that the U.S. seeks to avoid both becoming bogged-down in an unwinnable war as well as forcing a large contingent of jihadists hiding in the Pashtun tribal belt to migrate northward onto Central Asia. However, since a quick victory in Afghanistan appears to be impossible, America must find a way to broker some type of negotiated political settlement. In order to do so, the U.S. must both deny the Taliban a safe haven in neighboring Pakistan and convince Taliban moderates that they have no choice but to enter into negotiations with Kabul. At present, a ramped-up aerial campaign appears to hold-out the most promise for Washington since the Taliban has so far failed to devise a counter to America’s superior airborne weaponry.

In response, critics may also argue that an increase in drone missile strikes in the Pashtun tribal belt will result in the further destabilization of Pakistani society on account of the fact that this policy comes equipped with collateral damage, particularly with respect to the loss of civilian lives. Interestingly, however, statistics show that the percentage of civilian deaths related to U.S. drone missile strikes has decreased considerably over the past few years. Even more so, despite that Pakistani government officials regularly deplore America’s use of this strategy in public, it appears as if they only do so because ordinary citizens view the policy with contempt.31 Hence, it remains to be seen as to whether America’s ramping-up of drone missile strikes in the Pashtun tribal belt will result in the worsening of relations between Washington and Islamabad.

For better or worse, the U.S. has chosen to intervene in a civil war in Afghanistan. In doing so, it has become increasingly difficult for Washington to extricate American soldiers from the battlefield because the U.S. continues to equate success in Afghanistan with the establishment of a stable democratic polity ruled by a legitimate, popularly elected government which possesses the functional efficiency to exert total authority within its recognized borders. Unfortunately, such a government does not exist in Afghanistan nor will it likely exist anytime soon in the future. Instead, Washington needs to come to the realization that victory in Afghanistan is best achieved by retaining only a contingent of U.S. forces in the country. In order for peace to prosper in Afghanistan, the warring factions must come to a negotiated settlement. Thus, the key to victory in Afghanistan lies in brokering some type of political solution in which insurgents lay down their arms in return for amnesty and societal reintegration.

Of course, in order for this strategy to succeed U.S. and coalition forces cannot simply set a withdrawal date, for doing so will only embolden Taliban forces to wait until all foreign armies depart from Afghanistan before reviving their war effort. Instead, America should step-up its drone missile attacks throughout the Pashtun belt and maintain a sizable contingent of its forces in-country for several more years to assist the embattled Afghan government in waging its counterinsurgency campaign. By doing so, Kabul will in all likelihood be able to enter into negotiations with the Taliban from an elevated position of strength. Hence, to achieve victory in Afghanistan the U.S. must somehow convince the Taliban that they cannot win-out but can still claim a second prize; a voice in the political, economic, and social affairs of Afghanistan. In the meantime, America should focus on sowing dissension within the Taliban’s ranks to the best of its abilities before the enemy accepts one of Karzai’s repeated offers to enter into negotiations.


Still, it is imperative that the ruling elites of Central Asia realize that if they do not change their ways then militant Islamists may succeed in enticing the masses to take up their cause. As previously stated, radical Islamic groups will only be able to acquire a popular following in Central Asia if they are able to craft their messages in such a way so that their views come to strongly resonate with their target publics. So far, radical Islamic groups which sanction the use of violence have not been able to garner much of a following in Central Asia. That said, the multitude of problems which plague countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan today, coupled with the fact that ruling elites throughout the region regularly engage in state predation, make Central Asia a fertile breeding ground for the spread and growth of radical Islamic ideals (particularly if one of these countries were to succumb to state failure). Thus, knowing that such a military strategy in Afghanistan is likely to force jihadists to migrate northward, the best way to counter this threat lays in convincing Central Asia’s elites to eschew their old ways in favor of embracing reforms before it is too late to halt the onset of state failure.

This article posits that although radical Islamic groups operating in Central and Southwest Asia have been weakened, they nevertheless remain a credible threat to regional stability on account of the fact that the ruling elites (particularly in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) regularly engage in particularism. In order to counter this precarious trend, it would thus be prudent for the U.S. to become more intimately involved in Central Asia’s affairs. Specifically, the U.S. government should focus its efforts on increasing developmental aid to the region, funding technical assistance programs, and trying to convince ranking government officials of the necessity to begin gradually reforming their dilapidated political systems and liberalizing their economies. Simultaneously, encouraging Central Asia’s leaders to try to work together on resolving a variety of regional challenges (such as on issues concerning intra-regional trade, preservation of the environment, management of resources, and narcotics trafficking) as well as establishing a series of military training centers in the region could prove useful. Still, realistically the U.S. can only do so much in its efforts to guard against the hazards of state failure gripping the countries of Central Asia and radical Islam acquiring a greater popular following. Therefore, the best way to effectively confront these twin dangers lies in convincing the ruling elites of Central Asia that their preferred way of governance needs to change now and then assisting them in gradually implementing the necessary changes over time.


Over the course of the past few years, the world has witnessed mass uprisings in Iran (2009), Kyrgyzstan (2010), Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya (2011), all of which have resulted either in the popular overthrow of the ruling regime, widespread citizen unrest, or a violent state-sponsored crackdown. For the time being, although Central Asia appears on the surface to possess stable governing entities in control of their populations, the reality is quite different today. To the contrary, some of these countries (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in particular) run the risk of devolving into failed states as a consequence of state predation.

Recent history shows that when a country experiences state failure, it becomes exceedingly difficult for the government to prevent the infiltration of radical Islamic groups within its recognized borders. In post-Soviet Central Asia, both the Ferghana Valley and the Rasht Valley stand out as ideal locations for radical Islamic groups to establish a base of operations from which jihadists returning home from the Afghan theater can plan and carry out attacks as well as propagate their views. This is so because the Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek governments lack the functional efficiency to establish their authoritative writs in these remote areas and are widely perceived by their respective populations as illegitimate entities. Hence, in order to prevent a potential replay of the events which transpired in Afghanistan during the 1990s, the United States and the international community should remain engaged in Central Asia’s affairs, essentially by assisting these fledgling governments in combating radical Islamic groups via encouraging the ruling elites to gradually embrace political and economic reforms.

In order for the U.S. and the international community to effectively address the twin dangers of state failure and radical Islam in Central Asia, Washington and the West must be willing to make both of these issues top global priorities. Unfortunately, Central Asia’s importance in the halls of power appears to be waning on account of the American public’s growing disillusionment with the near decade-long war now in Afghanistan and the U.S. government’s failure to date to develop a strategy that takes these dangers into consideration. In closing, it is imperative that America and the international community not let Central Asia slip back into obscurity, for allowing this to happen could result in the further destabilization of the region primarily because of the occurrence of state failure coupled with the rise of radical Islam. 


[1] For an in-depth discussion of the historical origins of radical Islam in modern Central Asia (particularly during the era of Soviet rule) see Martha Brill Olcott, “Roots of Radical Islam in Central Asia”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, No. 77, Jan. 2007,

[2] Adeeb Khalid, Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), 155-160. Prior to the establishment of the IMU, the group’s co-founders (Tohir Yo’ldosh and Juma Namangani) served as leaders of another radical Islamic group, ‘Adolat’ (Justice), which came into being around the time of the Soviet collapse but was suppressed by the Uzbek government in the early 1990s (140-141).

[3] Khalid (2007), 160-164. See also “Radical Islam in Central Asia: Responding to Hizb-ut-Tahrir”, International Crisis Group, Asia Report No. 58, 30 Jun. 2003,

[4] Bruce Pannier, “Ten Years After Terror’s Arrival in Central Asia”, WorldAnalysis.Net, 16 Feb. 2009,

[5] “Islamic Jihad Union”, The National Counterterrorism Center, 2011,

[6] If one wishes to read about the alternative interpretation of the lead-up to the May 13, 2005 Andijan massacre, see Shirin Akiner, “Violence in Andijan, 13 May 2005: An Independent Assessment”, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, Jul. 2005,

[7] Joshua Kucera, “Terrorist Threat on Rise in Ferghana Valley”, EurasiaNet.Org, 7 May 2009,

[8] Bruce Pannier and Abubakar Siddique, “Ten Years After IMU Raids, Central Asia Still Battling Militants”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 6 Aug. 2009,

[9] Bruce Pannier, “Death of Prominent Tajik Highlights Instability in Central Asia’s Southeast”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 14 Jul. 2009,

[10] Thomas Sanderson, Daniel Kimmage, and David Gordon, “From the Ferghana Valley to South Waziristan: The Evolving Threat of Central Asian Jihadists”, Center for Security and International Studies, Mar. 2010,

[11] Khalid (2007), 169-170.

[12] Jack Goldstone, “Pathways to State Failure”, Conflict Management and Peace Science, Vol. 25, 2008, 285-296. For a discussion on a definition of the state, see Max Weber, "Politics as a Vocation", 1919.

[13] Robert Rotberg, “The Failure and Collapse of Nation-States: Breakdown, Prevention, and Repair”, in Robert Rotberg, ed., When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 5-6.

[14] Ibid., 2, 6-8.

[15] See Robert Bates, When Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa, (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[16] Lars-Erik Cederman, Andreas Wimmer, and Brian Min, “Why Do Ethnic Groups Rebel? New Data and Analysis”, World Politics, Vol. 62, No. 1, Jan. 2010, 87-119.

17 Kathleen Collins, “The Logic of Clan Politics: Evidence from the Central Asian Trajectories”, World Politics, Vol. 56, No. 2, 2004, 224-261.

18 Valerie Bunce, Subversive Institutions: The Design and Destruction of Socialism and the State, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 45-52. See also Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 26-41.

19 Svante Cornell, “Autonomy as a Source of Conflict: Caucasian Conflicts in Theoretical Perspective”, World Politics, Vol. 54, No. 2, 2002, 245-276.

20 Henry Hale, “Divided We Stand: Institutional Sources of Ethnofederal State Survival and Collapse”, World Politics, Vol. 56, No. 2, 2004, 165-193.

21 Cornell, 2002, 262-268.

22 Peter Evans, Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 45-47.

23 Foreign Policy has created a ‘Failed States Index’ to measure the phenomenon of state failure. Accordingly, FP ranks countries today according to a 120-point scale (consisting of 10 measurements of state failure). In 2010, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan received rankings of #36 and #38, respectively, while Kyrgyzstan received a ranking of #45. At this time, FP lists Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as countries ‘in danger’ of experiencing state failure while Kyrgyzstan is currently classified as a ‘borderline’ case. See “The 2010 Failed States Index”, Foreign Policy, 2010,

24 Eric McGlinchey, “Islamic Revivalism and State Failure in Kyrgyzstan”, Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 56, No. 3, May/Jun. 2009, 16-28.

25 James Fearon and David Laitin, “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War”, American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 1, 2003, 80.

26 Sanderson, 2010, 12-21.

27 Kathleen Collins, “Ideas, Networks, and Islamist Movements: Evidence from Central Asia and the Caucasus”, World Politics, Vol. 60, No. 1, 2007, 64-96.

28 For more on the repression-radicalization argument see Eric McGlinchey, “The Making of Militants: The State and Islam in Central Asia”, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, Vol. 25, No. 3, 2005, 554-566. McGlinchey argues that a more militant form of ‘political Islam’ exists in Uzbekistan than in Kyrgyzstan today because the Uzbek government restricts societal actors’ participation in the policymaking process. To quote McGlinchey, “The markedly stronger presence of militant Islam in Uzbekistan than in other Central Asian countries is, to a large degree, the product of the Karimov regime’s intolerance of peaceful political contestation” (565).

29 See Maria Golovnina, “Radical Islam Casts Shadow over Central Asia”, Reuters, 9 Feb. 2010,; Svante Cornell and Niklas Swanstrom, “The Eurasian Drug Trade: A Challenge to Regional Security”, Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 53, No. 4, Jul./Aug. 2006, 19; Liat Asman, “Kyrgyzstan: Utility Price Hike Squeezes Citizens”, EurasiaNet.Org, 7 Feb. 2010,

30 For a discussion on the ecological obstacles to state-building in Africa today, see Jeffrey Herbst, States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 11-12.


31 See Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, “The Drone Wars”, The Atlantic Magazine (Dec. 2010).


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