Afghanistan and Central Asia: A Collective Security Problem (Complete Series)

Afghanistan and Central Asia: A Collective Security Problem, the entire three-part series, is condensed below.

Thank you for reading.

Eric Jones
Foreign Intrigue

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. Part One is below.

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.


 

Part Two

In Part One of this three-part series on Afghanistan’s growing security problems and the threat to Central Asia, I introduced the threat that an unstable or failed Afghan state poses to the five states of the region: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In Part Two (below), I outline the individual threats facing each Central Asian state. You can find Part One here. Part Two is below.

 

Afghanistan’s Instability: Threats to Central Asian States

The potential fracturing of Afghanistan along sectarian and tribal lines represents a significant threat to the security of each Central Asian state. However, while the threat of Islamist militancy is the greatest security priority for each country, it affects each state to varying degrees. The drug trade and, to a lesser degree the potential flooding of refugees, also impact each country.

A lack of border control and a growing drug trade serve to eventually support and facilitate an even greater threat to regional security. Unless the government in Kabul proves itself capable of securing its territory the intensifying insurgency will result in the collapse of the Afghan state. Among the byproducts of this strengthening of the Afghan national government is the accomplishment of U.S. national security policy and the original motivation for the invasion in October 2001: the denial of haven to Al Qaeda.

Many of the groups that constitute the foundation of the anti-government forces in Afghanistan are motivated by, while making for convenient and temporary alliances, are ostensibly a significant pressure point. These competing motivations can be exacerbated to fracture and destroy the overall insurgency. The potential for infighting among the groups is high. Ethnic divisions, territorial disputes, and ideological differences are all significant fissures within the insurgency alliance. An examination of a failed Afghanistan’s threat to each state is necessary.

 

Kazakhstan

While Kazakhstan does not share a border with Afghanistan, the country’s security is nonetheless impacted in a powerful way by a failure of the Afghan national government. Kazakh government officials have recently begun addressing the impact of Afghanistan’s future on Kazakhstan. Richard Weitz states:

“Kazakhstani national security experts note that proximity alone ensures that civil strife, state failure, organized crime, and other problems in Afghanistan will radiate outward to contaminate nearby countries, even those such as Kazakhstan that do not share a common border with Afghanistan.” (Weitz, The Jamestown Foundation, April 19, 2013)

As the ISAF mission has begun winding down, Kazakhstan has eyed warily the need for economic investment to continue to develop Afghanistan. Weitz again notes the participation of Kazakh in the efforts to stabilize the country and mitigate the chances for a spillover of security problems:

“Kazakhstan has also cooperated with non-NATO governments and institutions to try to promote Afghanistan’s economic recovery as well as resist the spread of Afghanistan’s terrorism and narcotics problems. Kazakhstani leaders often discuss how to help Afghanistan at various bilateral and multilateral meetings.” (Weitz, The Jamestown Foundation, April 19, 2013)

Kazakhstan’s post Cold War rise as a potential regional power in Central Asia is largely attributable to its vast natural resources, particularly oil and gas. As Reid Standish noted for Foreign Policy Magazine, officials in Kazakhstan are aware of their potential role in the stabilization of Afghanistan:

“In particular, the regime in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana is concerned about how increased drug trafficking and religious extremism could derail the government’s plans to become an economic force in the region — causing it to lose out on both riches and prestige.” (Standish, Foreign Policy Magazine, December 16, 2014)

As Kazakhstan has grown into its role as an important player in Eurasia-based international organizations such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) under longtime President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country has emerged as a potential power broker and arbiter for disputes throughout the region. This rising status among Central Asian states uniquely qualifies Kazakhstan to address the problems causing an erosion of government authority in Afghanistan. With its rising status and its potential as a regional power, Kazakhstan stands to lose the most with the spread of instability from Afghanistan. The continuation of development in Kazakhstan is key to its efforts to continue attracting foreign investment, particularly from China, in the form of pipelines and infrastructure such as rail lines and roads. Russia’s interest in Kazakhstan is also important to note as any spread of Islamist militancy or the collapse of the government in Astana would lead to a crisis that could easily spill over in the form of refugees into the Russian Federation. Further, Kazakhstan’s development is important to the development of Central Asia itself. As the country attracts foreign investment, builds its infrastructure, and diversifies its economic base, Kazakhstan could emerge as a hub for economic vitality in Central Asia, catalyzing improvements in governance and economic viability in neighboring states. Consequently, continued Afghan instability is a direct threat to the emergence of Kazakhstan as a regional power and its future as an economic hub of prosperity in Central Asia.

With its extraordinary supply of natural resources and its rising status among the Central Asian states, Kazakhstan is especially incentivized to participate in a regional, collective effort to stabilize the Afghan government an ensure its survival. As an editorial in The Astana Times clearly communicated in March 2015, Kazakhstan has an undeniable interest in the future of Afghanistan:

“Kazakhstan, together with its neighbours and the international community all share a common objective to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for international terrorism, nor a threat to regional stability. This gives us a common purpose: to build the capacity of the Afghan government and the Afghan National Security Forces, and to give Afghans the opportunities to build a stable and prosperous future.” (The Astana Times, March 11, 2015)

In a speech to the Brookings Institution in March 2015, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted Kazakhstan’s importance to regional security, specifically referencing the role that Kazakhstan has played in assisting ANSF in the battle to rollback the insurgency:

“Kazakhstan has also fostered stability in its own region, contributing to Afghanistan’s future by funding the Afghan National Security Forces and police and enabling 1,000 Afghan men and women to study at Kazakhstani universities.” (Antony Blinken, “The United States and Central Asia: And Enduring Vision for Partnership and Connectivity in the 21st Century. An Address by Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken.” {Speech at the Brookings Institute, Washington, DC., March 31, 2015})

Kazakhstan’s role in the future stability of Afghanistan serves its own security interests as much as it serves those of Afghanistan.

 

Kyrgyzstan

Like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan does not share a border with Afghanistan. However, with a post Cold War history ridden with regime instability and a still unsteady democratic government structure, the continued resurgence of militancy in Afghanistan poses a great threat to the future of representative governance in Kyrgyzstan. Of particular note in recent years is the foreboding increase in Islamist militancy in the Ferghana Valley. The valley stretches into three Central Asian states: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. This geographical fact underlines that the problems that emanate from the valley are inarguably an international concern. However, given Kyrgyzstan’s nascent democratic government and recent ethnic clashes in Osh, the militancy that grows in the valley is of particularly urgent concern to Bishkek.

Among the most powerful groups known to have taken up haven in the Ferghana Valley is the IMU. While the IMU has in recent years largely integrated into the command structures of al Qaeda and a number of Pakistan-based terrorist groups, it remains a powerful group and a threat to a number of Central Asian states. As Igor Rotar noted in 2012 for The Jamestown Foundation:

“But after the Uzbek-Kyrgyz clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010, the IMU is likely to increase its activities in this state. Following the clashes, several hundreds Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan joined militant camps of IMU in Afghanistan (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 17, 2010). ‘Repressions against Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan are continuing. In this situation, Uzbek militants from Afghanistan could return to Kyrgyzstan,’ according to Dr. Alexander Knyazev, an Almaty-based coordinator of the Central Asia and Caucasus program at the Russian Institute of Oriental Studies.” (Rotar, The Jamestown Foundation, October 3, 2012)

The IMU has been a common threat to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan since before the invasion of Afghanistan:

“The IMU began as a small group of local imams, known as Adolat (justice), who in 1991 attempted to impose Islamic law to counter widespread corruption in Namangan, a city in the Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan’s most fertile, densely populated, and conservative area. But Adolat turned toward extremism and began seeking the overthrow of the government the following year, when an official crackdown forced its members to flee to Tajikistan and Afghanistan.” (Jones Luong, Pauline and Erika Weinthal. “New Friends, New Fears in Central Asia,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 81, No. 2 {Mar. – Apr., 2002}, 63)

As the IMU has resurged in Northern Afghanistan, fears of the group re-emerging as a serious threat to the security of Central Asia have grown with it. Historically, the IMU has operated largely with impunity during periods of weak central governments in Afghanistan. It is in this respect that Kyrgyzstan’s interest in a stabile Afghanistan and a strong national government in Kabul are most stark. Again, Rotar notes:

“The situation with radical Islam in the Ferghana Valley is likely to worsen when NATO and US forces withdraw from Afghanistan after 2014. At that point, the Central Asia militants, who fought in Afghanistan, are likely to return home to pursue a new agenda. The IMU wants to eliminate Christians and Jews and establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate (see the IMU website, furkon.com). The destabilization of the Ferghana Valley is a good start for the export of Islamic revolution. Increased terrorist activities in the valley could cause destabilization in the Central Asian region and present a danger to Russia, where, as the IMU believes, twenty million Muslims live.” (Rotar, The Jamestown Foundation, October 3, 2012)

Islamic militancy is a powerful driver of destabilizing violence in Central Asia. This is particularly true for the Ferghana Valley. It is in this respect that Kyrgyzstan’s security is intertwined with the stability Afghanistan’s national government. Should the government in Kabul fail and groups such as the IMU continue to secure havens in Northern Afghanistan, it is conceivable that the groups could once again begin to project power northward beyond the borders of Afghanistan itself. This scenario could include the emergence of Islamist militancy in Kyrgyzstan itself, threatening the stability and the security of the state. This sort of threat is an existential one to the government in Kyrgyzstan. As such, it is essential that the government in Bishkek be a part of a regional collective action to ensure stability in Afghanistan.

 

Tajikistan

After gaining independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan was wracked by five years of bloody civil war. Estimates of the number of Tajiks killed during the conflict vary wildly but between the onset of the war in 1992 and the peace agreement in June 1997, at least 100,000 people lost their lives. In the latter years of the conflict, the Islamist and liberal opposition alliance received significant support from the Taliban-run Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Many Tajiks relocated to Afghanistan.

“Over 100,000 civilian refugees also fled from Tajikistan to Afghanistan.” (“Tajikistan and Afghanistan,” Institute For the Study of War)

The potential for a massive refugee crisis in Tajikistan has been heightened in recent years. The Afghan provinces that share a border with Tajikistan have increasingly been the target of insurgents and criminal groups. Specifically, Badakhshan Province has been increasingly wrought by violence brought by drug traffickers and insurgents since 2012. Badakhshan had experienced little of the violence that had wracked Afghanistan throughout the previous decade of war. However, with the ISAF mission winding down and with ANSF increasingly responsible for denying freedom of movement to militants and drug traffickers, Badahkshan has observed a severe degradation of security.

“In Badakhshan, a struggle is underway to prevent the Taliban from gaining more territory in this strategic corner that borders three nations — Pakistan, China and Tajikistan — and is a gateway for the smuggling of opium to Europe.” (Raghavan, The Washington Post, February 13, 2015)

 

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan shares a 744-kilometer border with Herat, Badghis, Faryab, Jowzan, and Balkh provinces to Afghanistan’s northwest. Throughout the U.S. led war in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan’s government has provided quiet support for ISAF operations.

Recent reports on the status of Turkmenistan’s military have highlighted the urgency of the Turkmenistan government in battling the illegal flow of drugs (specifically opium) into Turkmenistan from Afghanistan. Paul Goble observes:

“The state of morale inside the military is horrendous, the analyst says. Drug use and even drug trafficking, especially in units along the Afghan and Iranian borders, are now endemic; suicides are frequent, forcing the regime to cover them up; and desertion has ‘acquired a mass character.’ Drug abuse is now so serious, Mamedov says, that Ashgabat has set up a special “military section” in the government’s national drug treatment center.” (Goble, The Jamestown Foundation, March 2, 2015)

The drug problem wracking Turkmenistan’s army is an alarming reminder for the government of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow that the porousness of Turkmenistan’s border with Afghanistan is an urgent national security concern. While the military is incapable of functioning as an effective border control unit, it is also reflective of the problems that it is emplaced to reduce: the trafficking of drugs from Afghanistan to Turkmenistan. If the military itself is susceptible to the drugs originating in Afghanistan, then no real security strategy that focuses solely on security of the border can be assessed as effective. The result will be a free flow of drugs from Afghanistan into Turkmenistan, further infesting the military and eroding its capabilities. As the military is incapable of defending the state, an opportunity for the spread of militancy (especially in the form of the Islamic State) opens up.

As a result of Afghanistan’s intensifying insurgency and given the status of the Turkmenistan army, the border (already porous) could effectively disappear. Without a plan to combat the drug and Islamist militant problems growing in Afghanistan, no impediments to the travel of militants or traffickers would stand in the way of their freedom of movement.

In order for the government to achieve reduction in trafficking of drugs from within Afghanistan and mitigate the threat of Islamic militancy spilling over into Turkmenistan, Ashgabat must pursue a strategy that strengthens the Kabul government and ANSF. By strengthening both the Afghan government and its security forces, Turkmenistan’s government would achieve a more tangible reduction in the flow of both drugs and Islamist militancy from Afghanistan. To achieve these security goals, Turkmenistan’s government must be willing to cooperate with other Central Asian states in a collective approach to ensuring the stability of the Afghan government and the reach of its security forces. Any further degradation of Kabul’s ability to govern its territory in the provinces that buttress the border with Turkmenistan would cede vital terrain to militants and drug traffickers. The freedom of movement for these groups would eventually destabilize vast areas of Turkmenistan, possibly inspiring Islamist insurgency and a toppling of the ruling government. It is therefore vital that Turkmenistan’s government invest in a regional solution to the problem of Afghanistan’s slide toward instability and failure.

 

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan has been ruled by the ultra-authoritarian regime of President Islam Karimov since its independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Karimov is a holdover of the former Soviet administrative apparatus, having been previously the president of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Following the independence of Uzbekistan in August 1991, Uzbekistan held its first presidential election months later. Karimov was the runaway winner of the poll. However, elections in Uzbekistan have consistently been criticized as corrupt and unfair by international observers.

As the war in Afghanistan has dragged on, Karimov’s cooperation with the United States-led ISAF was largely manifested in basing rights. However, as human rights abuses have become more apparent to Western observers through the advent of social media and the near omnipresence of camera phones, Karimov’s grip on power in Uzbekistan has been challenged by both democratic dissident organizations and Islamic militant groups. As a result, Karimov’s regime has dealt with a number of security concerns, many originating from the rise of the IMU in Afghanistan.

In one area, Uzbekistan has demonstrated greater capacity to combat the potential security problems stemming from an unstable Afghanistan. Uzbekistan’s border control is impressive by Central Asian standards, particularly on the border it shares with Afghanistan.

“The Uzbeks, deeply distrustful of their neighbors, have more efficiently sealed their border with Afghanistan. Uzbekistan is the only country in the region where seizures rose in 2010 (by 25 percent). “The border appears to be well monitored, Uzbek staff at the border is usually well-trained and salaries are relatively high,” says the report.” (Trilling, EurasiaNet, May 18, 2012)

Uzbekistan’s mistrust of its neighbors and the closed nature of its society under the regime of President Karimov have served to prioritize the problem of securing its borders. However, with the recent surge of ISIS throughout the Middle East and into Afghanistan, Uzbekistan’s government will be eyeing the progress of ANSF in its battle against the Afghan insurgency. Should the insurgency grow or the Afghan government fall, Uzbekistan could be preoccupied with a battle against the IMU for years to come.

 

The Region’s Priority: Collective Action

While each Central Asian state is distinguished by different types of Islamist militancy, they are all threatened by the potential failure of the Afghan government. The myriad groups that would threaten the stability of regimes and societies in Central Asia would all find safe haven in a failed Afghan state. Each regime has as its priority the containment of the threat within the borders of Afghanistan. The ability of the groups to launch efforts to spread Islamist militancy throughout Central Asia therefore is a primary driver of the need for a collective endeavor to ensure the capabilities of the ANSF and the stability of the Afghan state.

 

Part Three: A Preview

In Part three, I will assess the role of the United States in facilitating a regional, collective approach to the problem of an unstable and insecure Afghanistan. I will then outline a strategy in which each Central Asian state can contribute to the collective effort to combat the rising tide of insurgency in Afghanistan. Finally, I will conclude by analyzing the potential for cooperation in building the capacity of the Afghan government to control its territory and its borders in a regional action together with the five states of Central Asia.


 

Part Three

Below is Part Three Foreign Intrigue’s three-part series examining Afghanistan’s future and the threat that instability in the country poses to the states of Central Asia. In the conclusion to the series, we analyze the role of the United States in Afghanistan’s fight against a resurgent anti-government insurgency. Finally, we explore a collective solution by the states of Central Asia can aid in securing the future of Afghanistan. You can find the two previous articles in the series here:

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

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

Thank you for reading.

Eric Jones
Foreign Intrigue

 

The United States and Central Asia: Afghanistan and Instability

The threat of continued instability in Afghanistan for the security of Central Asia is immense not only for the states of Central Asia but for U.S. interests as well. Recently, the United States Department of State reformulated its strategy and priorities in The region. In a speech to the Brookings Institution on March 31, 2015 Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the priorities of the United States in Central Asia. Included in this speech was a portion dedicated to security issues stemming from resurging anti-government forces in Afghanistan. Blinken noted the potential for cooperation among Afghanistan’s neighbors in Central Asia in specific areas of international concern:

“Our security is tied to a stable Central Asia and, at the same time, we see a region of enormous potential, a region that could act as an economic bridge from Istanbul to Shanghai and provide opportunities for our own businesses, technologies, and innovations to take root; a region that could offer goods and energy to the booming economies of South and East Asia; and a region that could serve as a stabilizing force for Afghanistan’s transition and an indispensable partner in the fight against narco-trafficking, terrorism, and extremism.” (Blinken, Antony. “The United States and Central Asia: And Enduring Vision for Partnership and Connectivity in the 21st Century. An Address by Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken.” {Speech at the Brookings Institute, Washington, DC., March 31, 2015.})

The United States benefits from geographical distance from the problems in Afghanistan. The U.S. has spent nearly 14 years battling to stabilize the country and strengthen its central government in order to accomplish several security goals. Among the security goals are the elimination of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the destruction of al Qaeda’s national support networks inside the country, and the successful creation of a national security force capable of denying haven to al Qaeda in the future. By accomplishing these goals, the U.S. succeeds in eliminating significant threats to the U.S. homeland and the country’s interests around the world.

SimonP - Central_Asia_political

Map courtesy of SimonP and Wikimedia Commons.

Even as committed as the U.S. has been to ensuring the long-term stability of Afghanistan, it is clear that these goals cannot be accomplished without the investment of regional states. In particular, the states of Central Asia are a key component of a successful strategy to ensure that Afghanistan does not return to lawlessness. The chaos that would arrive with the collapse of the Afghan national government would invite the re-formation of al Qaeda havens in Afghanistan and a return to the environment that existed prior to the 2001 invasion that facilitated total freedom of movement to the terrorist organization.

A collective approach to combating the threat must include the states of Central Asia. Each state’s participation in a new strategy requires national commitments to the future stability of Afghanistan but the United States would continue to both drive the strategy and underwrite its success. The national commitments of the regional states should proceed in collective fashion, driven by common security interests.

 

The Way Ahead: A Collective Approach

Due to a number of constraints (to include state affiliation with the CSTO and impermissible battlefield environments) collective action focused on exercises at the border is the most feasible way ahead for cooperation on containing the threat of Islamist militancy spilling out over into the states of Central Asia from Afghanistan. To augment this action, increased funding of ANSF (to include the provisioning of military hardware and security materiel) should be spearheaded by the United States but include each Central Asian country according to their state capability. This plan invests each Central Asian state in the successful outcome of capacity building of the ANSF and the strengthening of the Afghan national government.

Central Asian states pursue policies to contain the threat of Islamist militancy inside Afghanistan. While issues such as drug trafficking and a sudden flow of refugees across borders are of significant concern to states such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, the primary concern of the regimes in Central Asia in regards to Afghanistan is the potential spillover of Islamist militancy. Should Afghanistan once again become the somewhat lawless and failed state that it was during the years following the defeat of the Soviet occupation forces, Islamist militant groups with strong ties to the states of Central Asia could once again find sufficient haven. The threat of Islamist militants launching attacks and undermining the regimes of the governments of the Central Asian states is and should be the focus of the national governments. Accordingly, it is rather easy to convince the regimes of Central Asia to invest in the success of Afghanistan.

To tackle the challenges that remain in Afghanistan, a reconceptualization of the international community’s approach in stabilizing Afghanistan is required. To form this new strategy, key roles must be occupied by willing state actors with security interests driving their participation and clear benchmarks defining their roles. The states of Central Asia have an inarguable investment in the future stability of the Afghan state. However, the Central Asian states lack the financial resources by which to accomplish the tasks of strengthening the Afghan national government, modernizing its military, and defeating the country’s insurgency.

The United States can provide financial incentive by funding the partnering exercises between ANSF and Central Asian security forces. Additionally, the U.S. can induce cooperation by negotiating limited but effective military modernization efforts of states such as Turkmenistan. Given the recent troubles inside Turkmenistan’s military, the U.S. could accomplish two security goals in assisting Turkmenistan in its effort to modernize its military. First, the modernization campaign would strengthen partnering the relationship between the security forces of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Second, the modernized Turkmenistan military would more effectively deter potentially aggressive efforts of ISIS inside Turkmenistan. This is a comparatively low cost solution to mitigating at least some of the problems related to border control in the northwestern border shared by Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. Given that Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan do not share borders with Afghanistan, the contributions of the two countries could manifest in training in security forces. Kazakhstan’s relative prosperity, the government in Astana could participate by continuing to fund the training of ANSF. Kyrgyzstan has a history of partnering with U.S. special operations forces on training to conduct security operations.

“The U.S. trained 1,024 troops from Kyrgyzstan in fiscal year 2013 (that is, the year beginning October 1, 2012), up from 345 the year before. Of those, 880 were special forces troops which took part in six-week training courses led by their American special forces counterparts, documents newly released by the U.S. State Department show.” (Kucera, EurasiaNet, December 28, 2014)

Kyrgyzstan’s special operations forces would be great partners for the budding special operations elements of the ANSF.

Tajikistan’s primary concerns with a failure of the Afghan state are related to both the rise in Islamist militancy and the flow of drugs across the border into its Gorno-Badakhshan region. Recent CSTO exercises on the Panj River reflect concern in Dushanbe that a withdrawal by U.S. and allied forces could catalyze a resurgence of Islamist militancy in Tajikistan from Afghanistan.

“The CSTO, comprising Tajikistan, Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, has been helping Tajikistan strengthen its defenses along the Afghan border.” (Joanna Paraszczuk, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 9, 2015)

Partnering exercises between Tajik and Afghan troops should be increased along the border shared by the two countries. Exercises would build trust and cooperation across a number of other issues as well, to include drug trafficking originating in Badakhshan Province. The U.S. should fund monthly partnering exercises along the border to instill cooperation and build capacity.

 

Conclusion

To accomplish the essential security goals in Afghanistan, a state must act as the lead actor in the collective endeavor. Because of its economic resources, its unmatched military capabilities, and its international reputation as a partner in fostering improved governance and military modernization, the United States is uniquely suited for the lead country in this prospective collective of nations. The Obama administration has signaled its intent to remain engaged with its recent adjustment of its planned troop withdrawal and timeline. This is a positive sign that Afghanistan’s future will not be once again relegated to the motivations of a fractured system of warlords and a gradually weakened national government.

With the U.S. guiding, the Central Asian states can assume vital roles in the modernization of Afghanistan’s military, support the Afghan government’s fight for legitimacy among its citizens, and act as partners in Afghanistan’s effort to root out and destroy the last remnants of an insurgency that threatens to upend the state itself.

While ethnic relationships across the border are instrumental, there are also relationships between the security services of several Central Asian states and those in Afghanistan.

“As in the Soviet period, the Central Asian security services oversee a large part of the relationship with Afghanistan. These services have networks in Afghan intelligence circles that date back to the Soviet period and are often Russian-speaking. Directly responsible for border security and customs committees, Central Asian law enforcement agencies are prominent actors in both official and illegal trade with Afghanistan. For example, Tajik and Afghan security services shared intelligence about IMU incursions from the non-controlled enclaves on the Pianj River in 2010 and during clashes in Khorog in July 2012.” (Laruelle, Marlene, Sebastien Peyrouse, and Vera Axyonova. February 2013. “The Afghanistan-Central Asia Relationship: What Role for the EU?” EUCAM, FRIDE, P. 8)

Capacity building in the ANSF will be the most important partnering exercise in the near term for both the United States. The Central Asian states are especially well suited to take part in these exercises. The force-to-force relationships that result will cultivate cooperation between the Central Asian governments and Kabul.

With effective financial incentive packages, adequate security inducements, and a clear strategy crafted by U.S. military leadership, the states of Central Asia can become true partners with the Kabul government in its battle to defeat the Afghan insurgency. Border control and capacity building of the ANSF are key components of a strategy that, to be successful, must include all Central Asian states and the United States. With the U.S. funding a collective action and leading the way on security force training and partnering, the states involve could grow their relationships with one another and effectively reduce the threat of instability that would emanate from a failed Afghan state.

 

((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 Eric.Jones@Foreign-Intrigue.com. Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/ForeignIntrigue.

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  1. […] my article Afghanistan and Central Asia: A Collective Security Problem, I argued that a regional approach to the problem of continued security degradation in Afghanistan […]