The information is sketchy, but this much is certain: Islamic guerrillas have taken hostages, including four Japanese, in the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan. The number of hostages, the number of guerrillas, their nationality and their demands are uncertain. This incident set the stage for the Central Asian summit meeting that was held this week in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The five presidents — from China, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan — attending the two-day meeting fear the Islamic contagion and the threat of separatism. The summit is designed to help them deal with this threat. It may strengthen their hand in international law, but that is unlikely to have much impact on the guerrillas themselves.

This is the second kidnapping incident in Kyrgyzstan this month. Earlier, Islamic rebels took hostages in the same region, but released them after negotiating with the Kyrgyz government. Those militants were Tajik fighters opposed to the reconciliation plan that ended a five-year civil war in Tajikistan. The same group has been blamed for this week’s attack, although Tajik officials accuse guerrillas from Uzbekistan who tried to assassinate the president of that country in February.

Ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, there has been growing unrest about the “Islamic contagion” in Central Asia. Millions of people throughout the region have embraced the religion since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan increased concern that fundamentalists would overturn secular governments throughout the region. In the process, they would encourage separatist forces in China’s western provinces and in Russia’s “near abroad.” The kidnappings, the bloody war in Chechnya and the recent outbreak of fighting in the Russian republic of Dagestan are signs that this fear is not just paranoia.

To head off this threat, the five presidents met in Shanghai in 1996 to sign a declaration opposing separatism. By doing so, the “Shanghai Five” wanted to strengthen the international legal standing of their claim that combating such movements is a sovereign prerogative. In Moscow and Beijing, that project has taken on increased urgency in the wake of the NATO attack on Yugoslavia.

This week’s summit was designed to put more substance be
hind that declaration. Central Asia is a prime incubator for insurgencies. The region is thinly populated — about 55 million people are spread across an area the size of Continental Europe. As the recent attacks have demonstrated, borders mean little to rebel groups. That creates problems for governments trying to fight back. When Uzbekistan responded to Kyrgyzstan’s call for help, its air force bombed villages in Tajikistan.

Central Asia is ripe for trouble for other reasons. It is rich in natural resources. Oil and gas reserves under and near the Caspian Sea are thought to be the largest untapped supply in the world. If the five governments are worried about threats posed by separatists, the Central Asian leaders are also wary of their neighbors, concerned that they might try a land grab of their own. Either way, reinforcing the sanctity of national borders makes sense. To that end, China, Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan signed a three-way border agreement during the summit.

The problem for the Central Asian governments is that they are being pulled in two directions at once. Combating separatist insurgencies requires military forces. Yet the confidence-building measures agreed upon at previous summits require cuts in troops near border regions. While greater cooperation is to be encouraged, there is the danger of increasing reliance on the Russian military to combat any threat. That pleases Russian strategists, but it is no guarantee of regional security, if the past is any guide.

Russian officials are now claiming victory in Dagestan, after retaking the villages seized by the Islamic rebels. The rebels say they withdrew ahead of the Russian offensive, and have threatened to resort to “military-political” tactics — terrorism — in the future. It is unclear how that strategy would differ much from the one they currently use. Taking civilian hostages and seizing villages looks like terrorism from here.

The message seems clear. The Islamic insurgents have not been defeated. They may retreat, but they will not go away. No one thinks they will be beaten on the battlefield. The only solution to the threat posed by insurgencies of whatever kind is political representation and the promise of a better life. The Japanese hostages were on a mission to help deliver on that promise. The dangers involved are no reason to give up.

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