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Should Central Asia Fear Taleban Spillover?

Upsurge in militant activity in Central Asia will be contained, although security should be stepped up in border areas.
By Sanobar Shermatova
In the eight years the United States-led Coalition has been in action in Afghanistan, the northern provinces have remained largely calm – until recently, that is.


Taleban attacks focused on southern Afghanistan, and the overland routes via which Coalition forces brought in fuel and ammunition from Pakistan.



There was never a hint of a Taleban threat to Coalition airbases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, or to the airfield in Tajikistan used by the French.



The decision by Central Asian states to allow their territories to be used to bring in military freight into Afghanistan via the northern route changes things dramatically.



The new supply line carries with it the risk that the Central Asian region could be dragged into the Afghan conflict.



This danger was highlighted in stark terms in September, when the Taleban stepped up their activities in Kunduz province, a region close to Tajikistan which is controlled by German troops in the NATO force and which until this year was quiet.



When the Taleban seized two fuel tankers in Kunduz in early September, NATO responded with an air strike that resulted in a number of civilian deaths, causing an international crisis. Attacks on German military vehicles have also been reported in the region.



Afghan officials say Taleban activity in Kunduz has also involved non-Afghan militants of Central Asian origin. One senior commander, General Mustafa Patang, told journalists on September 12 that “hundreds” of militants had come to northern Afghanistan from the tribal areas of Pakistan.



On October 12, President Hamid Karzai confirmed that the Taleban were moving men to the north – adding that they were using military helicopters to do so.



The bulk of these foreign fighters are assumed to belong to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, which was active in Central Asia in the late Nineties before relocating to Afghanistan and then, after 2001, lawless parts of Pakistan. Estimates of their numbers range wildly from a few hundred to 5,000.



However, these Central Asian militants are not entirely homogenous. One known group affiliated to the IMU is the Islamic Jihad Union, which has apparent connections with Turkish and Afghan émigrés in Germany. The German police believe the group was planning to bomb airports, restaurants and cafes, an American military base and the Uzbek embassy in that country. The aim was apparently to prompt Germans to call on their government to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and from the military base in the Uzbek border town of Termez.



The IMU itself appears to have shifted its priorities from toppling the Uzbek government to the broader international jihad agenda. In practical terms, its focus has been fighting the enemy on its doorstep – the Pakistani government. The military has mounted periodic offensives in the tribal areas, and the IMU has fought back on the side of the Pakistani Taleban. The IMU was closely aligned with top militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, killed by a rocket from an unmanned US plane in early August.



For its part, the Pakistani army told civilians in the tribal zone that its offensive was not directed against the Pashtun population, but against the foreign militants causing instability in the area.



Incessant Taleban attacks on the overland route from Pakistan through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan have brought a halt to Coalition convoys carrying fuel and munitions.



Now that the northern route via Central Asia is being used, it would seem logical from the Taleban’s perspective to apply pressure here, too.



The IMU is an obvious choice for the job – many of its fighters spent time in northern Afghanistan in the mid-Nineties when they were part of the Tajik opposition guerrilla movement fighting the government in Dushanbe. The ethnic factor is also important, since this part of Afghanistan is populated by Tajiks and Uzbeks.



Effectively, there are three front lines for defending Central Asia against a spillover of the Afghan conflict in the shape of incursions by Taleban-allied militants.



Given the arrival of the latter so close to the border, it did not come as a complete surprise when there were sightings of them in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan this spring and summer.



(For reports on these incursions, read Chasing Phantoms in the Tajik Mountains, RCA No. 581, 24-Jun-09; Upsurge in Militant Presence in Kyrgyzstan, RCA No. 582, 03-Jul-09; and Taming Tajikistan’s Eastern Valleys, RCA No. 584, 23-Jul-09.)



The Tajik-Afghan frontier goes through difficult terrain and is porous in parts, allowing drug traffickers and militants to slip across unnoticed. There are mountain pathways providing routes through Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The IMU knows the ground well, since its guerrillas used the same routes in 1999 and 2000 to mount raids on Kyrgyz and Uzbek territory. The fact that armed groups appeared in roughly the same areas this year – eastern Tajikistan and southern Kyrgyzstan – suggests that local law-enforcement is still unable to monitor and intercept suspects using these drug routes.



The second defensive line, therefore, runs along Central Asia’s borders with Afghanistan to reduce opportunities for infiltration. It should be recalled that both the German base in Termez and the French forces in Tajikistan are within easy reach of the border.



The third line of defence lies deeper inside Central Asia. Militant groups, for example in Pakistan and the North Caucasus, are quick to adapt and will rapidly extend their attacks to new areas so as to disperse the forces arrayed against them. Weakening the security forces also has the aim of undermining the governments they support.



There have been several examples of such targeted attacks in Uzbekistan in recent months. In May, police were targeted in and around the eastern city of Andijan, while in August the deputy head of the interior ministry’s counter-terrorism department, Colonel Hasan Asadov, was killed.



Two Muslim clerics were attacked around the same time in what seem to have been related incidents. Abror Abrorov, deputy head of the Kukeldash madrassa in Tashkent was murdered in mid-July, and the capital’s chief imam or mosque leader, Anvar-Qori Tursunov, was targeted in a failed assassination attempt at the end of the month. It seems most likely that both clerics were singled out by militants for being too close to government and for preaching against radicalism.



While attacks on police and clerics are unprecedented in Uzbekistan, they are fairly standard practice in Pakistan and the North Caucasus. It seems reasonable to predict that militants will use these tactics again in the Central Asian context.



Yet in contrast to other parts of the world, they will find their room for manoeuvre severely constrained in Central Asia. There are no places of refuge where they can hide out and no stockpiles of arms, and the local population will not supply them with food and intelligence information. The fact that the armed group which tried to establish itself in Tajikistan was eventually confronted and dispersed by government troops shows that there are limits to such insurgent efforts.



Assuming that the militants will be unable to start operating deep inside Central Asia, there is thus little chance that these states will become drawn into the conflict with the Taliban and IMU in Afghanistan.



It is therefore the defensive lines on either side of the Aghan border that will be decisive.



The Coalition members and the Central Asian states are aware of the dangers posed by the Taleban relocating to northern Afghanistan. After security services from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Germany and the Central Asian states gathered in Dushanbe last month, they remained tight-lipped about the outcome, but coping with the new challenge from the “northern” Taleban must have been at the top of their agenda.



Sanobar Shermatova is a Moscow-based expert on Central Asian affairs and sits on the RIA Novosti news agency’s advisory council.

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