Afghanistan and Central Asia: A Collective Security Problem (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.

Map courtesy of Cacahuate and Wikimedia Commons.

Map courtesy of Cacahuate and Wikimedia Commons.

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.

 

(Featured photo courtesy of the United States Department of Defense. An Afghan special operation forces member with the 5th Commando Kandak looks over a wall while standing security watch during a presence patrol at Bibi Gawara, Donde Ghori district, Baghlan province, Afghanistan, Feb. 11, 2012. Afghan and coalition special operation forces, along with Afghan policemen conducted the patrol to show that the security concerns of the Afghan elders living in the area are being addressed.)

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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.