Afghanistan and Central Asia: A Collective Security Problem (Part One)

In recent weeks, insurgent gains in Northern Afghanistan have led to a renewed sense of urgency about Afghanistan’s future for the governments of the United States, Afghanistan, and the states of Central Asia. Border incursions and exchanges of fire between Afghanistan-based militants and the security forces of Turkmenistan, the escalation of drug trafficking from Badakhshan Province in Afghanistan to Gorno-Badakhshan in Tajikistan, and the general instability wrought by the recent insurgent offensive in Kunduz Province in Afghanistan have brought the threat of wider regional instability into starker relief in the past year.

Given the present security landscape of the region and the potential impact of a failed Afghan state on Central Asia, this series will propose that the future stability of Afghanistan is a regional security problem. This will be a three-part series that will outline and analyze the ways in which Afghanistan’s security problems affect the states of Central Asia. Below is Part One. 


The announcement by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that it has begun operations in Afghanistan has heightened concerns in the states of Central Asia that ISIS will intensify its recruitment and targeting of young, disaffected Central Asians. While regimes such as that of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan, and President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan have inflated the ISIS narrative in their respective countries in order to use the threat to their advantage in quelling dissent and eliminating political opposition there remains the potential for jihadist recruitment in places such as the Ferghana Valley. The radicalization of many Central Asians, to include the Uighurs of Xinjiang, has elicited an increase in recruits for ISIS groups fighting in Syria. While numbers of Central Asian actual fighters are considerably varied, the environment of Central Asia is ripe for ISIS recruitment. This is especially true if violence and insurgent initiative in Afghanistan goes unmet by Afghan National Security Forces and the remaining members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). 

This three-part series will introduce the regional security problems posed by a potentially failed Afghan state to the states of Central Asia. It will then outline the threat to each individual country by highlighting specific security problems related to Afghan security failures. In doing so, the case will be made for a collective solution. Suggestions on the contributions of each state to their respective abilities will be analyzed and suggested. Part One opens the three-part series below.

Thank you for reading.

Eric Jones
Foreign Intrigue

United States military forces (and those of their allies) continue to partner with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in their mission to ensure the proper combat readiness of the force. ANSF readiness is an essential component to the strategy focused on building the capacity of the Afghan government to combat a growing and intensifying insurgency. However, following the conclusion of declared International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) combat operations at the end of 2014, the insurgency has made gains throughout Afghanistan, leaving many strategists perplexed about how to move forward with planned U.S. military withdrawals. Recognizing the intensified threat, the administration of United States President Barack Obama adjusted its withdrawal timeline and, working with the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, agreed to leave a greater number of U.S. military personnel than originally planned.

“…the decision was a necessary response to the expected springtime resurgence of Taliban aggression and the need to give more training to the struggling Afghan security forces.” (Michael D. Shear and Mark Mazzetti, The New York Times, March 24, 2015)

A collapse of the Afghan national government would elicit an enormous security problem in Central Asia. The central government of Afghanistan would therefore be unable ensure the country’s territorial integrity and secure its borders, leaving it susceptible to a complete collapse and a possible fracture along ethnic and sectarian lines. Further, Afghanistan’s failure would result in an increase in both Islamist militancy and drug trafficking across the country’s borders into the neighboring states of Central Asia. This spillover would destabilize the national governments of each state and increase the likelihood of regime collapse. The result would be that one or more states would become hubs for the spread of Islamist militancy and terrorism while also serving as transit spaces for drug traffickers and other international criminal elements.

Map courtesy of Cacahuate and Wikimedia Commons.

Map courtesy of Cacahuate and Wikimedia Commons.

As the ISAF mission shifted at the end of 2014, strategists in the U.S. and Afghanistan began to re-conceptualize benchmarks for ANSF success. As the insurgency has grown in scope to include elements of The Islamic State (also identifiable as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria {ISIS}), the threat to wider Eurasia has intensified. This is especially true for the Central Asian states. In early 2015, ISIS began a propaganda campaign that focused on the establishment of the group’s first outposts in Afghanistan. As a result of this new reality, the stability and security of the Central Asian states are affected by the Afghan national government’s capacity to project its authority over the entirety of its territory. Recently, regimes throughout Central Asia have demonstrated an intensified effort to target the growing problem of ISIS recruitment among citizens. A failure of the Afghan state, resulting in the strengthening of Islamist groups such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS, would result in even greater numbers of Central Asians joining Islamist groups and waging jihad.

Prior to the U.S. led invasion in 2001, Islamist militant groups had established haven in Afghanistan with relative impunity. A rebirth of the type of permissive environment that existed in the years that the Taliban ran the country would catalyze the spread of Islamist militancy outward into Central Asia. This scenario is an existential threat to the security of the entire region. Groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and a number of others had established camps in northern areas of Afghanistan. Alexander Cooley notes:

“…the 1999 incursions of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) into Batken, Kyrgyzstan, and the Taliban’s gains in Afghanistan were causing grave concern throughout the region.” (Alexander Cooley, “Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia”, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 56.)

A continued lack of security and a failure of the Afghan central government would mean a return to an environment where Islamist groups and their supporters would be free to plan attacks not only in Afghanistan but into the neighboring states of Central Asia.

Given the current status of the war in Afghanistan, a regional strategy is necessary in order to ensure the strength of the Afghan national government in Kabul, the legitimacy of the Afghan government and its security forces, and the stability and security of Central and South Asia. The instability that would hypothetically result from a continued degradation of Afghan security forces’ ability to fight and defeat the country’s transnational insurgency is a regional security issue with consequences for states throughout Central Asia.

The risk to the security of each Central Asian state escalates with a fractured or failed Afghan state. Afghanistan’s future is subject to the onslaught of an increasingly capable and intensified insurgency. This insurgency, comprised of a myriad of subgroups with competing motivations and goals, potentially threatens the existence of the Afghan state itself. Groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani Network operate freely throughout large swaths of Eastern Afghanistan aided by international logistics and financing networks. The risk of the insurgency developing to a level that would destabilize the entire country is growing. Unless ANSF is capable of effectively securing the country, the borders it shares with the states of the region will become a primary route for the spread of Islamist militancy from Afghanistan to Central Asia.

Both the population and the insurgency of the northern areas of Afghanistan are defined by their ethnic diversity. Hazara, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Turkmen, Uzbeks, and other minority ethno-linguistic groups occupy the provinces that border the neighboring Central Asian states. Due largely to these ethnic and linguistic commonalities, lines of support between both Islamist and drug trafficking groups in Afghanistan and in those neighboring states create serious security problems for all four states. Although Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan do not share a border with Afghanistan, they remain vital to the collective action that could successfully combat the rising tide of insurgency inside Afghanistan, contain it, and roll it back.

Through research and analysis, I will demonstrate that future stability or instability of the security landscape of Central and South Asia pivots largely on the capacity of the Afghan national government to defeat its insurgency, project its governing power out to even the most remote areas of the country, and assert its authority over the whole of its territory.

This three-part series will focus on the threat of a failed Afghanistan specifically to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. It will describe the threat to each state in detail and explain why a collective action among the states of Central Asia is needed in order to ensure stability in Afghanistan. By highlighting the threats posed to the countries as individual states, the need for collective action to attack problems threatening the stability of the Afghan government is underlined. The recently reformulated policy approach of the United States towards Central Asia will be examined. An examination will be conducted to assess how the United States would augment a collective strategy of the Central Asian states to prevent the failure of the Afghan government. This new approach to the region includes renewed focus on the security threats of a failing Afghan government to Central Asia. Finally, an overarching strategy for cooperation among these state actors to tamp down the insurgency in Afghanistan and ensure the future capacity of the Kabul regime to govern its territory and protect its territorial integrity will be proposed. The collective effort should focus on strengthening the ANSF forces and building cooperation on the ground at the border.

In Part Two, I will outline and examine the threats posed to each of the Central Asian states by an unstable or failed Afghanistan.


(Featured photo courtesy of the United States Department of Defense: Afghan National Army Special Forces {ANASF} members with the 6th Special Operations Kandak practice clearing a room during a training exercise in Kabul, Kabul province, Afghanistan, Nov. 26, 2013. The ANASF practiced squad battle drills, which trained them on clearing procedures.)

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: