Contributed by Nathan Barrick
Is there a terrorist threat to Central Asia after the ISAF drawdown in Afghanistan in 2014?
In recent publications, the warnings range from an imminent FATA-like region of militant-dominated, ungoverned space in the Ferghana Valley to the “these are not the terrorists you’re looking for” Jedi mind trick “2014 Central Asia looks a lot like 2012 Central Asia”. However, Nathan Hamm, in “Central Asia 2014: The Terror”, makes the excellent point that:
“Assessments of the risk of terrorism need to capture the scale and timeline for the risk.”
In the many years I’ve spent studying Central Asia, I’ve found that most viewpoints tend to extremes – whether in the service of academia, national security, or policy-making. Rarely are the positions expressed moderated by reality, even if the experts expressing those views have much more balanced and nuanced personal understandings of the region through travel, study, and personal relationships. So, let’s “keep it real” about terrorism in post-2014 Central Asia…
Firstly, Hamm is exactly right – 2014 in Central Asia is very likely to look a lot like 2012 in Central Asia, especially if we do not see any changes in national leadership. The drawdown of ISAF in Afghanistan will likely be timelined for a very late 2014 departure. Even if, in the worst of all possible worlds, terrorists were just waiting behind Afghanistan’s Central Asian borders to rush across following the last trains, planes, and automobiles of ISAF’s retrograde – we still would probably not see terrorist attacks in Central Asia in 2014 as the threat-heavy perspective might envision. In reality, terrorist planning for major attacks is assessed to take six months to a couple years before the execution. Central Asian terrorists are much more likely to be focused on assisting their Pakistani and Afghan allies in attempting to garner tactical successes against a retreating ISAF and a not-likely-to-be-so-self-reliant Afghan National Army, than to be devoting efforts to attack planning in Central Asia.
Therefore, from a “normal” terrorist threat perspective, we might not see the actual impact of ISAF withdrawal, even assuming worst case futures in Afghanistan, until at least mid-2016 or even 2017.
Additionally, regardless of how precipitous a US departure occurs — an as yet unknown variable – one oft-repeated US strategic priority for a minimum effort is a focus on counterterrorism abilities. We are not likely to see programs like drone strikes summarily grounded, which argues against terrorist groups having very much added freedom of maneuver to establish the training camps and bases needed to deliberately project terrorist attacks into Central Asia. Realistically, this pushes the redline for increased threat of terror attacks, that are a direct result of ISAF’s 2014 departure from Afghanistan, even further to the future. Also affecting the timeline, there will be a new U.S. President elected in late 2016, inaugurated in 2017, with a possible – not likely to be implemented in a first-term, first year – curtailment of counterterrorist operations to a more realistic timeline for the “post-2014” terrorist threat to Central Asia in mid-2018 to late 2019.
National security decision-makers from any country must take the stated intentions of terrorist groups seriously. A “more realistic” timeline for this particular threat does not mean Central Asian governments can ignore the threat, nor will they — multiple terrorist groups seek to change the regimes in Central Asia. There is another dynamic for Central Asian governments to consider from this perspective: over the next six years the uncertainty regarding succession or government transition is likely to worsen. Except for Kyrgyzstan, the other governments face the prospect of long-term rulers of advanced age who may pass away suddenly, as Turkmenistan’s Niyazov did in December 2006, or any number of other possible succession scenarios. Undoubtedly, unless a new leader has an obvious Islamist character, an unlikely prospect, these terrorist groups, or new groups formed and motivated by post-2014 developments, will attempt to challenge new governments at such a critical stage of vulnerability.
Whether this security dilemma prompts the existing rulers to try to maintain more draconian grips on power or whether security organizations naturally drift to assessing and preparing for these threats, there is likely to be a gradual increase in the repressive tactics that are a two-edged sword for the regimes. On the one edge, these governments can argue that their security forces have successfully protected their countries and handled the threats that have occurred. On the other sharper edge, as many experts in Western countries believe, these security practices have prompted civil discontent and facilitated recruitment and motivation for the anti-regime objectives of the terrorist groups.
Zenn, Donnelly, and others have highlighted the “return” of hundreds, or even thousands, of terrorists from the Afghanistan-Pakistan area of operations to Central Asia as a cause for concern. I believe the numbers need to be better scrutinized. While it is possible for a group of only 19 committed, and suicidal, terrorists to conduct a massively catastrophic attack, we have not seen this type of attack by known Central Asian terrorist groups. In fact, while the prospect of fighting infidel superpowers, propagandized as suppressing Muslims, drew terrorists like moths to a flame in Afghanistan and Iraq, the motivation for these volunteers to take on the autocratic, nominally Muslim governments of predominantly moderate Muslim countries is considerably less. We are unlikely to see Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, or Tajikistan top the “Most Hated” target list for salafist jihadist violent extremist organizations. It is more likely that the number of terrorists who want to take the fight to Central Asia will only be a small fraction of the current members of those groups and those will find it difficult to surreptitiously return and actively, rapidly generate a significant capacity for operational tempo. Further, we have not seen Afghans migrate to help other Muslims fight their wars, and it’s not likely to start in a few years. The bonds of warrior brotherhood and obligation that the foreign fighters have developed in Afghanistan are more likely to earn them a temporary home, if they are successful, rather than the participation of their Afghan allies in operations outside Afghanistan.
Of genuine concern is that a core element of these Central Asian terrorist groups will have learned what is called “hybrid warfare” – the blend of conventional, asymmetric, irregular, terrorist, criminal and cyber capabilities that have characterized this conflict in the past several years. This group of insurgent experts could attempt to combine their lethal capabilities with a popular protest movement, like those revolutions in the Arab world. Had the events and results of Tunisia and Egypt alone described that phenomenon, we may have seen more sympathetic movements arise in Central Asia. However, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria have daunted would be organizers of such protests in Central Asia. Over the next several years though, globalization, continued development and success of popular movements desiring political change, and perceived opportunities in Central Asian political transitions, may generate similar momentum in Central Asia. Central Asia has a history of syncretic developments and a terrorist-hijacked popular movement is a possibility, even if remote.
Lastly, and the details of this point will be left to another time in the service of brevity, the particulars of each Central Asia terrorist group need to be examined to assess the likelihood of how much capability or capacity they might be able to shift to conducting operations in post-2014 Central Asia. There are significant differences between the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union, East Turkestan Independence Movement, Jund al-Khalifa, and the Caucasus Emirate, as well as other jamaats that are part of the Central Asian terrorist threat picture. These groups have experienced leadership losses and changes, as well as operational or strategic developments that have affected their ability or capacity to wage war in Central Asia. In general, it is worth considering that each of these organizations will face a decisive moment within twelve months of ISAF’s departure from Afghanistan and those strategic choices may affect those organizations for years following. An example illustrating this for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is Christopher Anzalone’s excellent article.
In conclusion, the post-2014 terrorist threat environment in Central Asia is not something to be alarmist towards in terms of “doing something about it” before 2014. Our focus on this issue should address: “How much continued sponsorship to other countries’ counterterrorism efforts can the U.S. afford to provide after 2014?” and “How will our own counterterrorism strategy shift?” Within that perspective, more realistic appraisals of the evolving security and stability threats in Central Asia can be made and better informed decisions reached regarding U.S. security cooperation with each Central Asian state.
Nathan Barrick is a former U.S. Army Russia-Eurasia specialist with a Master’s Degree in Russia, Eurasian, and East European Studies from Stanford University. He has provided over a decade of subject matter expert consulting on Central Asia to a variety of customers, including the U.S. government. This article represents his own opinion and should not be construed as representing any official position or endorsement.