Central Asia at Risk From Post-2014 Afghanistan
A recent upswing in activity by Central Asian militants in northern Afghanistan may indicate that they plan to exploit a possible vacuum left by the departure of NATO troops next year to reinsert themselves into their own countries, regional experts say.
To fund their operations, Islamist groups might engage in drug trafficking, already a destabilising force in Central Asia, the analysts add.
Experts point to the reported involvement of Central Asian militants in recent Taleban offensives in Badakhshan and Faryab, provinces of northern Afghanistan adjacent to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, respectively.
Interviewed by RFE/RL in April, the provincial governor of Afghan Badakhshan said militants including some from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, had massed 30 or 40 kilometres from the border with Tajikistan.
Founded by Uzbek Islamists from Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley, the IMU gained notoriety with raids into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 1999 and 2000. The group relocated to northwest Pakistan after its allies, the Taleban, were driven from power in Afghanistan in late 2001. In recent years, though, IMU members have been sighted in the north of Afghanistan.
In late May, both the IMU and the Taleban claimed responsibility for what they said was a joint attack on the provincial governor’s compound in Panjshir, south of Badakhshan. All six suicide bombers and a policeman died in the incident. The two statements named the same attackers, who included two Uzbeks and one Kyrgyz.
The statement also promised “future conquests in the Mawarannahr region" – a historical term referring to the lands north of the Amu Darya river, in other words what are now the Central Asian republics.
On June 8, a senior figure linked to the IMU was targeted in an operation in Sar-e Pul province; it was not clear whether he was one of two militants killed. Two IMU commanders were detained in Baghlan province in May.
The strength of the Taleban’s offensives in the north suggests an effort to gain a country-wide presence ahead of the drawdown of NATO forces, so as to be in a better position to challenge Afghanistan’s national security forces once they are left to fend for themselves.
Where the IMU fits in this strategy is an open question. For the mainly Pashtun Taleban, the militants provide an experienced, trusted fighting force with some affinity to Tajik and Uzbek communities in the north of Afghanistan.
Many Central Asian analysts agree that the Taleban’s own ambitions are limited to Afghanistan. The same might not be true of their allies of Central Asian origin, though. These might have their own agendas, and intend to use their location to push into “Mawarannahr”.
“Instability in Afghanistan presents a threat to its neighbours only because conditions for [other] radicals will improve,” Almaty-based Kazak political analyst Marat Shibutov said.
Qosimsho Iskandarov, a political analyst in Tajikistan, believes that militant groups plan to take up positions south of the border so that they can mount attacks on border posts and villages and retreat back into Afghanistan.
Alexander Zelitchenko, director of the Central Asia Centre for Drug Policy in Bishkek, said governments in the region needed to ready themselves to counter such threats.
“As soon as international forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan, these organisations will immediately exploit the opportunity,” he said. “Not the Taleban – they have never made any claims to the territory of others.”
“Each of these groups is… focused on a particular country,” Zelitchenko continued. “The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is against the regime of Uzbek president Islam Karimov, and so on.”
Iskandarov added that as well as the IMU, “There has recently been talk of a group called Ansarullah, set up by Tajiks and led by Mullah Amruddin, and operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
According to Zelitchenko, each group has its own funding sources.
“While NATO troops were operating in areas they needed to cross, they did not dare move openly across the country,” he said, adding that now “they’ve begun to step up their activity within the Central Asia countries and actively recruit jihadi supporters from the local population. That indicates that they have resumed their activities and are preparing for something.”
Of the three Central Asian countries bordering on Afghanistan, only Uzbekistan is able to seal its frontier and cope with military threats. This 137 kilometre stretch has two lines of barbed wire fences, one of them electrified, plus landmines and heavily-armed patrols. If need be, Uzbekistan could easily close its bridge across the Amu Darya.
By comparison, the 1,300-km Tajik and 744-km Turkmen frontiers with Afghanistan are poorly defended. As Zelitchenko pointed out, Tajikistan’s government struggles to control movement across its southern border, due to the difficult mountain terrain, a shortage of funding for protection efforts, and widespread corruption. The Tajik-Afghan border provides a transport corridor into Kyrgyzstan and on to Kazakstan and Russia; this is also a well-established drug-trafficking route.
Marat Shibutov, a political analyst from Kazakstan, says frontier defences overall are in poor shape.
“The key thing is to fortify the borders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, but there are no visible signs of that happening,” he said.
Farid Tukhbatullin, head of the Turkmen Human Rights Initiative based in Vienna told IWPR, that recent militant attacks in Faryab province, adjoining Turkmenistan, could be a sign of trouble to come.
In Turkmenistan, he said, “Apart from military exercises this spring which involved calling up reservists to deal with the [hypothetical] influx of refugees, nothing has been done.”
Tukhbatullin said the late Turkmen president Saparmurad Niazov was believed to have negotiated an informal deal with the Taleban when they ran Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. In return for leaving Turkmenistan in peace, he offered them fuel supplies.
“Niazov used to be friendly with the Taleban, paying them off with fuel and sealing the border to keep ethnic Turkmen Afghan refugees out. He was probably afraid that the Afghan Turkmen would bring in outside influences including religious ideas,” Tukhbatullin said.
Since then, he said, “a lot of young people from Turkmenistan have studied in various religious institutions in Pakistan, Turkey and a number of other countries. They returned home to spread the knowledge they acquired there. Judging by recent reports of Turkmen combatants [on the rebel side] in Syria, they were successful.”
While the trafficking of Afghan heroin through Central Asia has gone on for years, Zelitchenko warns that if militant groups have more freedom of movement in Afghanistan, they will use the drugs industry to raise revenues.
“With the withdrawal of NATO forces, this threat will increase because in addition to the traditional form of drug trafficking that exists today, these organisations will try to expand opium cultivation and increase the drugs trade so as to get their hands on an additional source of funding for the jihad,” Zelitchenko said.
Abdusalom Ergashev, an analyst based in the Ferghana Valley, fears that this area, where Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan converge, could become a lawless area as drugs money undermines governance.
He notes that this is already apparent in southern Kyrgyzstan – part of the Ferghana Valley – where central government has only limited influence and is challenged by local power groups. The same could happen in Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, he argues.
“The absence of a vertical hierarchy of power in Kyrgyzstan could lead to inter-ethnic conflicts which could spread to the entire Ferghana Valley,” Ergashev said. “A rise in drug trafficking will, above all else, result in increased corruption in all the institutions of power, leading to a further erosion of the rule of law, particularly in Uzbekistan where stability exists only on the surface, and is maintained not because citizens are law-abiding but because they fear… the machinery of repression.”
Zelitchenko says organised crime groups already wield considerable power behind the scenes.
“The drugs trade is making serious attempts to claim political power. It is turning into a mafia that controls a large portion of political and economy activity… in some of the Central Asian countries. They have merged with the political establishment, and nominated their own parliamentary candidates… who represent them there. They have provided partial funding for various election campaigns.”
Speaking at a discussion event in Moscow last November, Alexei Malashenko, a specialist on Central Asian politics and political Islam at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, said Islamic groups could come to the fore in the event of power-struggles to replace Central Asia’s aging leaders. Political groups on the losing side might turn to Islamic groups for support.
Sergei Abashin, from the Institute for Ethnology and Anthropology in Moscow, agrees that Islamic groups would be likely to make a move at a time of political turbulence.
“They would undoubtedly attempt to exploit mistakes made by the authorities and social problems to boost their influence,” he said. “They would most probably become active in Kazakstan or Uzbekistan if these countries faced the political crises which experts are predicting, or in Turkmenistan as a way of showing that stability there is only relative.”
At the same time, Abashin said that the security threats posed by Islamic militant should not be exaggerated.
“Over their 22 years of leading an independence existence, the Central Asia countries and their elites have grown stronger and have learned – albeit not without setbacks – how to solve problems, overcome periods of crisis, and reach agreement with one another,” he said.
Abashin believes this is also true of the response of these mainly Muslim nations to radical ideas, because of the strength of grassroots opposition to any kind of instability.
“These societies have their own… antidote against extremism,” he said. “The balance of power doesn’t necessarily favour the radicals.”
Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor in London.