May 25, 2016 1:00 pm JST
Commentary

Raj Kumar Sharma -- Will Afghan instability inundate Central Asian republics?

The declining security situation in Afghanistan due to the reduced presence of international forces has other Central Asian nations concerned about a possible spillover of militancy into their territories. For these nations -- Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan -- terrorism tops their list of worries. 

Militancy on the advance

The Taliban has traditionally been seen as a threat by Russia and the Central Asian republics that supported the Northern Alliance fighters against the Islamic fundamentalist group during the 1990s. The Taliban has now taken its fight against the Afghan National Security Forces to provinces in northern Afghanistan, such as Kunduz, Badakhshan, Faryab and Takhar, that share a border with the Central Asian nations. The shift in the battle zone from southern Afghanistan to the country's north has led to speculation that the group may expand its presence in these republics.

However, it is unlikely that the Taliban would encroach into the Central Asian republics, as doing so would hamper its domestic agenda and invite a strong response from Russia. Realities on the ground suggest that rather than the Taliban, it is the Islamic State group's Afghan branch that is being viewed as the main threat in Central Asia and Russia. Indeed, to fend off the Islamic State group advance into Afghanistan, Russia has established a communication channel with the Taliban. 

The appearance of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan has given a certain degree of legitimacy to the Taliban, which is seen as a lesser evil compared with a monster like ISIS. Another threat to the region is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has been fighting in Afghanistan along with the Taliban since 1999, when the movement moved its base from Tajikistan to northern Afghanistan. 

Rise of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan

Incidentally, Afghanistan also played a role in the creation of IMU. One of its founders is Juma Namangani, an Uzbek who was a paratrooper in the Soviet army and served in the Soviet-Afghan war. While in Afghanistan, he was influenced by radical Islam propagated by Pakistan-supported mujahedeen fighters. After returning to Uzbekistan, he established an organization called Adolat, which means justice in Uzbek, in 1991.

The group was based on a radical salafist ideology and operated from the eastern city of Namangan in the Fergana Valley. It was renamed as IMU in 1998 with a declared objective to overthrow Islam Karimov's regime in Uzbekistan. IMU had also fought in support of opposition forces during the Tajik civil war. The group carried out a number of terrorist attacks in Central Asia, such as the Batken attacks in Kyrgyzstan in 1999, the Tashkent explosions in 1999 and the Surkhandarya attacks in Uzbekistan in 2000.

Once IMU settled in Afghanistan, it interacted with militant groups that had transnational ambitions, like al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden is believed to have given $26 million to IMU in early 2000 for purchasing transport helicopters. In return, IMU helped bin Laden establish contacts in Central Asia, an area where he lacked his own network.

The IMU leadership was dismantled after the U.S. launched its operations in Afghanistan in 2001. Namangani was killed in 2001, and another IMU leader, Tahir Yuldashev was killed in 2009. IMU also suffered a split in 2002 that led to the birth of a pro-al Qaeda offshoot, Islamic Jihad Union, later renamed as the Islamic Jihad Group. In September 2014, Usman Ghazi, the current leader of IMU, declared his allegiance to ISIS, but the group is believed to have close links with the Taliban.

Amid the decreased presence of Western troops and the growing influence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, concerns are growing that Central Asian terrorist groups like IMU could use Afghanistan as a safe haven to target the Central Asian republics. According to Tokon Mamytov, a former deputy head of Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security, professional militants could return home from Afghanistan and take over the Fergana Valley in a week because the Kyrgyz army is so weak there.

Although Kazakhstan does not share a border with Afghanistan, it has been targeted by terrorist groups that have links to Afghanistan. In 2011, attacks were carried out by Jund al Khilafah in the Kazakh cities of Almaty, Atyrau and Taraz. The authorities in Kazakhstan believe the group is hiding in areas around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Porous borders, drug trafficking and refugees

Apart from terrorism, other concerns emanating from Afghanistan include porous borders, drug trafficking and an influx of Afghan refugees. Afghanistan shares about 2,300km of its total border with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the north. Only Uzbekistan is able to guard its border well. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have pervious borders with Afghanistan, which facilitates the movement of terrorists and drugs.

Afghanistan is the largest opium producer in the world, accounting for 80% of global production. Key supply routes to Russian and European markets pass through Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with Tajikistan witnessing annual smuggling of around 80 tons of heroin and 20 tons of opium through its territory.

In Turkmenistan, drug use is reported to have engulfed some sections of the military, mainly the units that serve on the Afghan and Iranian borders. The issue is so deep-rooted that Turkmenistan has established a ward for military personnel in a drug treatment center run by the government.

It is estimated that 0.8% of the Central Asian adult population uses opium, which is double the world average. Criminal gangs and extremist organizations fund their activities through drug trafficking, especially in the Fergana Valley. The drug trade undermines the legitimacy of state institutions in the form of corruption at various governmental levels. 

Concerns over the influx of refugees from Afghanistan into Central Asia led to establishment of the Almaty Process in 2011, which addresses complex and myriad migration issues in the region. Despite such efforts, though, the national refugee policies are inferior to international standards.

Not knit together

In the near future, Afghanistan could play an important role in the economic security of the Central Asian republics, as economic integration is likely. Currently, Afghanistan and the Central Asian nations are marginal economic hinterlands that are not mutually connected, but rather oriented in different directions. The Afghan economy is more linked with Pakistan, Iran and India, while Russia and China dominate the economies of the Central Asian republics.  

The U.S. has backed projects that economically integrate Central and South Asia via Afghanistan, such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline and the Central Asia South Asia project, named CASA-1000. Such initiatives will lessen economic dependence on Russia and China. The landlocked republics can also find a gateway to the sea through Afghanistan. However, these projects will come to fruition only if there is stability in Afghanistan.

There has been no unified response from the Central Asian republics in response to the Afghan situation. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have shown a willingness to join multilateral forums to deal with the issue, while Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have pursued unilateral, non-aligned and even isolationist policies.

Kazakhstan is assisting Afghanistan economically and has the capability to deal with the effects there. Turkmenistan follows a neutral foreign policy and had commercial relations with the Taliban in 1990s. Uzbekistan hedges between the U.S. and Russia, but it has been supportive of the Russian role recently. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are dependent on Russia for their security, and lately Russia has beefed up its military presence in Tajikistan.

Home-grown issues

Despite concerns over the spillover of militancy, there is general agreement among experts that such external threats are exaggerated by the Central Asian governments to deflect attention from more serious risks that are internal in character. This also allows them to undermine opposition forces and strengthen their hold on power. A case in point is Tajikistan, where the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan has been branded a terrorist group, and all its activities have been shut down since September 2015.

This is not to say that terrorists based in Afghanistan and on the Afghan-Pakistan border do not pose a threat to the Central Asian nations. However, groups like IMU constitute a limited threat to Central Asia, which becomes a force multiplier when combined with problems such as poverty, ethnic tensions, food insecurity, unemployment and state repression, among other issues.

Militant groups in Central Asia have run out of steam and lack popular support because society in the region is more inclined toward a Marxist-Leninist approach, rather than an Islamist outlook, due to the impact of communism. In addition, the Sufi tradition of Islam that is prevalent in Central Asia is peaceful and inclusive, which largely negates the influence of radical Islamic ideologies like Salafism and Wahabism. 

Raj Kumar Sharma is a research associate at the United Service Institution of India, New Delhi, and has a doctorate from Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views expressed here are the author's and not those of the institution.

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