The Central Asian Front
Central Asia doesn’t receive full attention in discussions about the regional impact of apparently unending conflagration in Afghanistan, despite the fact that three out of the six immediate neighbours of Afghanistan (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) are Central Asian states. Even Xinjiang, the Chinese western province that also borders Afghanistan, is historically part of Central Asia. It is probably because most of the Central Asian Republics (CARs) have closed state systems and the international media doesn’t have access to information for reporting. So whatever impact the Afghan situation has over these countries remains mostly obscure for the world at large.
Secondly, CARs don’t have the type of large scale involvement in proxy wars in Afghanistan like Pakistan and Iran despite their equally strong geographical contiguity and ethnic connections. Even in terms of economic engagement, none of the CARs has the capacity or will to invest in Afghanistan on the scale that India, China and some other countries have been doing. But that doesn’t mean that there is no fallout of the political, military and socio economic developments in Afghanistan for the CARs. Recently I attended the Central Asian Security Dialogue in Kargyzstan (June 16-17, 2016). The aforementioned dialogue had a threadbare discussion on the threat posed by extremism and terrorism, particularly when it uses modern communication technologies. The entire debate was conscious of the context provided by the escalation of violence in Afghanistan over the last two years, although the rise of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ was was also a source of deep concern. It was a good opportunity to exchange views with representatives of the academia, think tanks, security experts and the politicians of the CARs on threat perception in the region in the context of the struggle against the menace of extremism and terrorism.
Unlike the military and ideological conflict in Afghanistan in the 1990s that was rightly evaluated as a legacy of the big power rivalry of the Cold War, the new escalation is regarded as a direct and imminent threat to the very existence of the CARs. The Taliban phenomena is viewed not just as a demolition squad that has been let loose on Afghanistan, but as something that is equally dangerous for the countries across Oxus.
This threat perception is particularly reinforced by the prominent role played by Uzbek, Chechen and other Central Asian fighters alongside the Taliban in the current war in Afghanistan. This fact belies the pretensions of the Taliban and their Pakistani mentors about the “limited nature” of the Taliban project. The pledging of allegiance by Aiman-ul-Zwahiri, the head of Al-Qaida, to Haibatullah Akhunzada, the new leader of the Taliban, removes any doubt about the international character of the Taliban terrorist threat. Efforts to make the Taliban look good by projecting them as “bulwarks” against the expansion of the Islamic State rings hollow in view of common Wahabi ideology and the international connections between the two outfits. They may clash over turf in some parts but such conflicts are usually resolvable on pragmatic terms using the Taliban-Al-Qaida equation model.
There are socio-political fault lines within many CARs that can be used by terrorists to de-stabilise these states. The first and foremost is the closed and oppressive nature of the political systems that prevail in most of these countries, it is unfortunate that they are ruled by despotic dynasties or cliques with narrow social basis and with little connection to the masses. Unfortunately, the CARs have not been able to develop a process of transition through continuous socio-political reforms towards establishing more open and democratic societies. Similarly, the socio-economic marginalisation has also been leading to the emergence of conflict. It is particularly severe when accompanied by regional and ethnic factors. And last but not the least, Arab charities in general and the KSA in particular, have been pumping huge amounts of money into the CARs to build mosques and seminaries that function as springboards for spreading Wahabi, Salfi and Takfiri ideologies. It is something similar to what Pakistan and certain other countries are going through.
Recently, Kazakhistan, a big country with huge natural resources, witnessed suicide attacks in its western town Aktobe, which is quite close to that country’s border with Russia. The area is supposed to be suffering from social unrest because of the economic slump created by the fall in the oil prices in general and regional disparities in particular. But the three immediate neighbours of Afghanistan are feeling particularly nervous. The Taliban, particularly their Central Asian contingents, have launched incursions into these neighbouring countries, leading to several clashes on the borders. In Tajikistan, the reconciliation of the secular government with Islamic Renaissance Party has fallen apart recently. The religious party has banned once again and its leadership is behind bars, as it was accused of conspiring to stage a violent uprising against the system. The Taliban’s focus on the northern Afghan town of Kunduz, which is close to the Tajikistani border, in their fighting during the last year is not a coincidence. Similarly, the Taliban’s zeroing in on Badakhshan, the Afghan province bordering the Xinjiang province of China also has strategic consequences. The demolition of the cultural identities of the central Asian nations along with the Afghans is the target of the “Jihad” in Central Asia launched by the Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Turkish Islamic Party (ETIM) and other outfits.
Numerous recruits from the CARs have joined the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. These fighters constitute a threat to the security of the region, as the tragedy of the recent terrorist attack in Istanbul has proved. It is an ideological threat that has the eminent potential of translating into a physical threat. But the challenge of the creation of stateless patches or physically establishing terrorist enclaves emanates from the Taliban menace in Afghanistan (and this is obviously the bigger threat). This explains the deep concern of the CARs in general and of the countries bordering at Afghanistan in particular about the developments in Afghanistan. In the 1990s’, the CARs had adopted a neutral posture towards fighting in Afghanistan. That may be changing. At least Turkmenistan has demonstrated a keen interest in supporting the Uzbek and Turkmen commanders fighting the Taliban in Jowzjan and other northern provinces.
Lacking the financial and intellectual resources to fight the terrorist threat, the CARs are turning to Russia for support. Russians have recently reinforced their troops based in Tajikistan near the Afghan border. Sergei Shoigan, the Russian Defence Minister paid his first visit to Turkmenistan on June 8th this year. Cooperation between the security forces of the CARs and Russia is rapidly rising. Pakistan as an author and the implementer of ‘Project Taliban’ is regarded as part of the problem by most Central Asians, the economic overtures of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in their direction notwithstanding.
An earlier version of this article appeared in The Nation and is being republished here with permission.
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