Yesterday, Eurasia Daily Monitor carried a “[x] in Central Asia after NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan” story, the kind of reporting and analysis that is sure to be a fixture in all Central Asia focused publications throughout this year. This particular story deals with militant groups threatening to return to Central Asia after NATO’s withdrawal.
Should anyone be very worried about this?
Central Asian security services seem, at least at times, to be concerned about this. The article offers up quotations from officials in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan worrying about the threats posed by terrorist organizations based in Afghanistan and Pakistan or of the possibility of armed incursions from Afghanistan after NATO’s combat forces leave.
So some members of Central Asian security forces are worried about this risk. Does that make it any more or less real?
The article‘s author, Jacob Zenn, acknowledges that this — whether or not the threat is “real” — is the question. He then argues that these organizations’ intentions and historical parallels mean we should take seriously the possibility that they will return to Central Asia at some point in the future.
The last time a world power withdrew from Afghanistan—the Soviet Union in 1988—many foreign fighters from Southeast Asia returned to their home countries and used the financial and logistical networks and skills acquired in the war-torn country to form terrorist groups… Central Asian fighters do not yet appear to be returning to their homelands. But history, as well as these groups’ intent, suggests that the threat of their eventual return to their home countries—whenever it may be—is real.
This is a weak, unconvincing argument backed up with essentially meaningless evidence. Boiled down, the argument basically is that some terrorist organizations have members from Central Asia and have said that Central Asia is in their sights.
The historic parallel to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan is a terrible fit. Foreign fighters during the Soviet Afghan war were almost exclusively from countries that supported or turned a blind eye to their participation. There were no obstacles to return. With Central Asian militant groups, that is most certainly not the case. Additionally, it is more difficult to think of these organizations as indigenous to Central Asia than it was even a decade ago. Leadership of many of these organizations have much stronger ties in Pakistan and Afghanistan than they do in Central Asia. Meanwhile, the number of new Central Asian recruits, while unknown, is presumably very low. In fact, it often seems that these “Central Asian” groups have an easier time recruiting in France, Germany, and Turkey than anywhere else.
So really, all that we have to judge this threat on are the statements of intent from the groups themselves. It is very generous of these terrorist organizations to share their plans with the world, but it is crucial to view those statements as the aspirational pep talks that they are. There are few signs that any of these groups have the capacity to successfully operate in most of Central Asia. Aside from what seem to be annual outbreaks of fighting in Tajikistan, the clearest evidence of any terrorist group successfully launching an attack deep in Central Asia were the several attacks claimed by Jund al-Khilafah in Kazakhstan in 2011. And in that case, it seems that the attacks may have been launched prematurely in response to security services closing in on the group’s operatives.
Zenn is correct to point out near the end of his article that these organizations are not likely to get much traction with society. He fears though that a lack of political alternatives might bolster the groups’ numbers and increase their ability to pull off attacks. That is a fair enough point. After the Osh violence in 2010, there did seem to actually be increased interest or support for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan among some ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan. But despite the group’s calls for attacks against Kyrgyzstan, absolutely nothing has happened. It is difficult to take too seriously the idea that these groups can ever present a plausible outlet for a significant portion of society in most of Central Asia given their poor capacities for organization and action.
Whether or not terror groups are likely to be more active in Central Asia after NATO withdraws from Afghanistan is a useful thing to think about, but it is vital not to overhype the risks. The governments of the region are phenomenally imaginative at devising and hyping threats to justify not only repressive domestic policies but to extract concessions from Western governments in the forms of financial assistance and tempered criticism of their human rights abuses. Assessments of the risk of terrorism need to capture the scale and timeline for the risk. Zenn is correct that there is a risk of the “return” of Central Asian terror groups at some unspecified point in the future. However, Central Asian security services have shown more than sufficient capability to monitor and disrupt terror groups. Furthermore, as grim as it is to point out, Afghanistan and Pakistan will continue to be much more permissible and target-rich environments for all of these groups.
In other word, 2014 Central Asia looks a lot like 2012 Central Asia for its “indigenous” terror groups.