It took our political classes an unconscionable time to wake to the importance of Ahmed Rashid's definitive study of the Taliban. That book's phenomenal success, post-11 September, will ensure that Jihad hits the ground running. Indeed, this new book has been written on the run, its assessments based on the facts as they stood last October. It may be a mite repetitive but it draws, as Rashid's earlier book did, on fearless research plus "moments of illumination".
One such came when he was lunching with some Tajik intellectuals – a poet, a novelist and a journalist – on a quiet Sunday in 1993. A firefight broke out in the street involving three separate groups, with bullets zipping through the shrubbery. Bodies began to pile up, but nobody could tell him who was killing whom, or why. "But the shocking part for me was that my hosts suddenly pulled pistols out of their pockets and fired back."
Rashid is a Pakistani Muslim and writes with insight about the faith in which he grew up. He begins by demolishing the Western notion that "jihad" means a crusade in reverse. Political action was traditionally the "lesser jihad"; the "greater" was defined by the Prophet as the inward quest to become a better person. Today's global jihadi movements – led by al-Qa'ida and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) – ignore the greater jihad in favour of the lesser.
This "perversion" defines the new fundamentalism. The militants are not interested in democracy or economic progress or the creation of a just society. They depend on charismatic and shadowy leaders such as Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden and Juma Namangani of Uzbekistan. As Rashid shows, the rapidly expanding jihad of the IMU – formed in 1998 by extremists dissatisfied with the Islamic Renaissance Party – is now the biggest threat on the Central Asian horizon.
Another threat comes from a secretive, pan-Islamic movement called Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), which has as its goal the establishment of a world-wide caliphate redolent of the medieval Ottoman variety. Yet the HT was originally predicated on non-violent popular acquiescence. How come this movement, too, is now so dangerous? This is one of the questions that Rashid's unrelentingly rigorous survey is designed to answer.
He looks back to the Silk Road, when Central Asia was the focus of world trade. New sea routes turned it into an economic backwater, on which Russia and Britain played out their Great Game. Then came Stalin, in whose scheme Central Asia figured largely as a dumping ground for ethnic and nuclear problems. When the Soviet empire evaporated, Central Asia's Muslims at last had a chance to reconnect with their roots.
But this deep communal desire was thwarted by Stalin's legacy, of which his arbitrary carving-up of the map into the "Stans" was only a part. Rashid argues that radical Islam is spreading because Central Asia has been failed by the international community and its own corrupt rulers, who have fed their people repression, unemployment, poverty, war and disease. There are 300,000 people with Aids in these five republics.
Rashid reports on the insidious efficiency of the HT, on the tactical brilliance of the IMU's guerrilla incursions and on those parts of the Fergana valley that – through deprivation and oppression – have become natural recruiting-grounds for tomorrow's Islamic warriors. He chillingly chronicles the brutality with which Uzbekistan's President Karimov deals with the merest breath of dissent. Turkmenistan's President Niyazov may be certifiably mad, but that doesn't stop him terrorising his people.
When these tyrants fall, the power vacuum in this vast, oil-rich area will be awesomely dangerous. Rashid rightly blames the West for allowing this situation to develop but insists there is still room for hope. If the international community can recognise that Central Asia's crisis lies in the state rather than in the insurgents, and if aid can be harnessed in the cause of political regeneration, then calamity may be averted. Otherwise, watch out.