“Thousands of terrorists and fundamentalists will seek refuge in Afghanistan as well as the region around the country,” said Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin on a visit to India back in October 2012. “It [Afghanistan] may change the situation drastically around the region and for countries like Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Central Asia.”
In response to spillover fears from Afghanistan, Russia has been making its case for taking on the role as the leading security provider in the wider region, as the U.S. and the rest of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) downgrade their presence come 2014. Moreover, in anticipation of the spread of Afghanistan’s security issues into Central Asia, an effort is underway to redraw security arrangements in Central Asia in order to stall off future destabilization along the southern frontier.This has come in the form of military base deals, military aid and training, and of course, strong rhetoric about the security challenges that that will face Central Asia after 2014.
As the deadline looms closer, this rhetoric has been growing. In October 2012, a report released by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) warned that the pullout of international forces from Afghanistan may turn northern areas of Afghanistan in to a bridgehead of terrorist activity against Central Asian countries. Since then, vocalizing post-2014 fears have continued from Russian officials and from Russian-dominated security organizations. Just last month, at a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit held in Kyrgyzstan, the gathering’s centrepiece was the regional tensions and dangers after the 2014 drawdown. In the lead up to the summit, the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, issued a statement that it expects the influence of extremist Islam and the reach of the Taliban to grow in Afghanistan after the ISAF drawdown.
However, ever since ISAF military operations began in Afghanistan, Russia has been weary of a NATO—particularly U.S.—presence in its backyard. Over the past decade, Russia has managed these fears to varying extents, but the general norm has been to block any U.S. security initiative—regardless of whether it aligns with Russia’s interests or not. This, of course, makes Russia’s alarmist rhetoric of the dangers that will face Afghanistan after 2014 curious, and naturally leads to two key questions: how credible are the spillover fears being expressed for Central Asia? And what purpose does spillover rhetoric serve for Russia?
First off, beyond any issues spreading from Afghanistan, Central Asian states have a host of their own domestic issues. In recent years, there have been indications of growing violence in Central Asia with serious clashes in Tajikistan in 2010 and 2012, the violent overthrow of presidents in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and 2010—which was later followed by ethnic conflict—the 2011 supresison of protests in Zhanaozen, and the bloody crackdown by Uzbek authorities in Andijan in 2005. All of these events have had major domestic and geopolitical ramifications and none of them have been related to causes originating in Afghanistan.
However, that isn’t to say that there aren’t conditions in Central Asian states for spillover from Afghanistan to manifest. One such scenario is the return of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to the region. Originating in Central Asia, in 1999 and 2000, the group launched devastating raids from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Over the past decade much of the original group has been destroyed—by coalition forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but more recently authorities in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan have claimed that the IMU has been involved in terrorist events in their countries, although the evidence presented to back these claims is thin. While the IMU remains a force in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the group appears to be small. It is also far from certain that Central Asia is a principal target for current or future operations.
Still, fears emanating from radical Islam are not wholly unfounded. “The religious situation in Uzbekistan is much worse than any other Central Asian country,” said Dr. Anar Valiyev, Dean of International Affairs at Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, “and if Uzbekistan blows up, the whole of Central Asia will blow up” he added. Population appears to be big factor in its strategic importance in spillover scenarios. Not only is Uzbekistan Central Asia’s largest military power, it is also the region’s most populous country with a population that is approximately 45% under the age of 25.
“The population is mostly young people, there are no political parties, it is pure disenfranchisement. This is the perfect ground for religious extremism, as religious extremism remains the only real form of power that can go against the [Karimov] regime.”
After the 2014 withdrawal, a lot depends on what will happen with Afghanistan. If Afghanistan is able to stabilize after the drawdown, extremists will not be able to spillover into Central Asia or Russia. “Everything depends on Afghanistan” remarked Dr. Valiyev, “If a civil war between Taliban and the government happens, then the spillover of religious extremism is a very real threat.”
However, the likelihood of these scenarios taking place still remains up in the air. Depending on whose analysis you decide to accept, Afghanistan may be able to stabilize or the country is destined to erupt back into conflict. There does appear to be some credibility to spillover fears, but many of these scenarios currently remain confined to hypotheticals. Moreover, the biggest threats posed to Central Asian states appear to be from within. So, why the strong rhetoric from Moscow?
The answer could be related to the Russian-initiated Eurasian Union. Currently, Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have all signed on to the proposed union and calls for further security integration could be a move to bring stalwarts Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan into the fold on security matters and then push for integration into the Eurasian Union. Already, some steps towards further security integration in light of Afghanistan are being taken, and in this vein, Russia’s strong rhetoric can be seen as a means to unite former Soviet Central Asia under Russian leadership. Russia has been trying to minimize U.S. influence in Central Asia for quite some time, and with the 2014 drawdown set in motion, Russia may finally be getting its wish.
Yet, there is the possibility that Russia may be biting off more than it can chew. “They [Russia] are happy that the Americans are leaving without understanding that the Americans leaving is bad for the Russians also,” said Dr. Valiyev. “Sooner or later something will happen in Afghanistan and spillover, and Russia will not be able to contain it,” he added, “The enemy that comes after the Americans will be much worse than the Americans themselves.”
2014 may in fact be very dull year. Afghanistan still has the possibility of holding itself together and if things do fall apart, it is unlikely that Afghanistan will erupt the moment ISAF and U.S. troops are minimized. But in putting itself in place to become the main security guarantor for the region, Russia may be taking on more responsibility than it is capable of handling. Whether it is spillover from Afghanistan or domestic instability from Central Asia, Moscow will now be holding the reins in terms of security.
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