Kosimsho Iskandarov: The Afghan Question and Regional Security of Central Asia
“Central Asian countries do not have a unified approach in coordinating a course of action towards the questions pertaining to the resolution of the Afghan conflict, or a quest for ways to counteract threats originating from Afghanistan. It is caused by the fact that the systems of apprehension of security risks and challenges coming from Afghanistan are different with countries of the region”, says in his article written for CABAR.asia, Kosimsho Iskandarov, Head of the Conflict Resolution and Regional Research Center under the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan (Dushanbe).
Security in Central Asia, in the context of the situation in Afghanistan is being intensely discussed among the expert community in connection with the withdrawal of the main contingent of NATO forces from Afghanistan and change of status for the remaining forces. Expert forecasts on the extent of possible adverse effect of the situation in Afghanistan on the countries of the region differ. Some experts suggest that all countries in CA may indeed face the threats emanating from international terrorist groups stationed in Afghanistan, in drug trafficking. In some articles one may find statements about a real threat of incursion of extremist groups from Afghanistan into Central Asian countries, especially Tajikistan. Various case scenarios are being speculated as to the turn of events: from seizer of a part of Gorno Badakhshan and an advance on Khorog, to invasion of the Khatlon Oblast, capture of near-border villages, and raids bound for Kurgan-Tube and Sambuli shooting-range, as well as a clandestine movement into Kyrgyzstan, en route Tahar-Tavildara-Gharm, along the bordering mountain masses of Badakhshan .
In the meantime, other experts maintain that the anticipated threats from Afghanistan are grossly exaggerated. For instance, the Managing Editor of the Registan.net, research associate for the Central Asia Program at the George Washington University, Noah Tucker, holds that the “growing” threat from Afghanistan (at least, for Central Asia) is overly exaggerated and is being used by commentators of Russian intelligence agencies, as well as regional governments and their “talking heads”, since it fits the political narrative, which each of these groups deems advantageous for itself” .
All this suggests that the situation in Afghanistan is extremely convoluted, being subject to controversial events and multiple interpretations.
Relocation of terroristic groups from Pakistan to the north of Afghanistan heightens threats for Central Asian states
The situation in the regions of Afghanistan near the borders with Central Asia invariably deteriorated, beginning with 2009, especially over the last years. In the north-eastern areas, lying next to Tajikistan, this deterioration took on particularly acute forms in the past two years. While in Afghanistan the conflict is ongoing, and there are combatants here from various terroristic and jihadist organizations, ranging from Al-Qaida and ISIS to IMU, Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and many others, their activities will be limited within the territory of Afghanistan. Moreover, this country is the largest producer of narcotics in the world, which is fostering terrorism. Therefore, the threats are far from hypothetical. Presence of the Russian military base in Tajikistan, activities of CSTO and the creation of CORF present a serious obstruction in the way of armed groups. At any rate, direct incursion of gunmen into Khorog (GBAO) or the Khatlon Oblast is unlikely. However, the terroristic groups hold a variety of ways in stock, with the use of which they could penetrate the region through state borders for the subsequent destabilization of the situation. The mere fact of the continuing armed conflict in the neighboring country, where numerous extremist and terroristic groups are involved, while being assisted by a number of countries and organizations, cannot not cause concern for Central Asian states.
Against the background of a lack of any achievements in political resolution of the Afghan question, one can observe an increasing tendency of deterioration in military and political situation in Afghanistan, which makes it conducive for activities of terroristic organizations.
In the last year the situation in the north-eastern provinces bordering Tajikistan (Badakhshan, Takhor, Qunduz) has seriously deteriorated. A complex situation has arisen in the province of Baghlan, which, although not sharing borders with Central Asian states, does play a linking role between the north and the central part of Afghanistan. Remaining unstable are the provinces of Juzjan, Faryab and Saripul, which manifests itself in the intensification of armed clashes of government and pro-government forces with the armed opposition.
However, it begs the question: from whence in these provinces is the potential of the armed opposition for intensified combat? There is only one answer: the number of gunmen is on the rise and, in large part, due to the transit into these provinces, primarily Badakhshan, Takhor and Qunduz, of armed groups from Pakistan, via eastern provinces of Afghanistan.
Official explanation of this relocation amounts to the fact that in the last years (and especially after the terrorist attack in Peshawar, in December of 2014) Pakistan started launching military operations more actively in Northern Waziristan against international extremist groups consolidated there. As a result, squads of gunmen, fleeing the advance of the Pakistani army, passed over mountain areas to Afghanistan, then on to eastern provinces, and from there into Badakhshan, Takhor, Qunduz and Baghlan.
“Squeezing” foreign combatants out of Pakistan, doubtless, is taking place. However, it is not entirely clear why, in the course of this dislodgement, the situation exacerbates rather drastically in the north-eastern and northern provinces of Afghanistan, and not in the eastern provinces bordering Pakistan. In the Afghan press and political circles a version took on wide-spread circulation. It follows that, Pakistan, not only drives out armed groups from Northern Waziristan, but with help from some other countries has also organized a deliberate transit of members of international extremist and terrorist organizations, together with their families, to north-east of Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, the existence of a plan for the transit of combatants to the north of Afghanistan, with the purpose of subsequent destabilization of the region, raises no doubts with officials of Afghanistan’s government of National Unity. Namely, Hanif Atmar, Secretary of the Council for National Security of Afghanistan, addressed members of the upper chamber of the Afghan Parliament about it, on May 5th 2015. He expressed that “increasing instability in northern provinces is part of a common plan to destabilize the countries of the region and the world at large” .
This emphasizes the geopolitical importance of Afghanistan for regional and non-regional players, who manage international terrorist organizations, attempting to use them for their geopolitical purposes. In other words, terrorism is an instrument in the foreign policy of a number of countries.
Main risks and threats for Tajikistan and countries of Central Asia
These questions stand most acute for Tajikistan, which has the longest stretch of border with Afghanistan – about 1400 km, with a complex terrain, thwarting the effectiveness of its defense. In not so remote a past, Tajikistan experienced at first hand, a direct engagement of radical Islamists in combat against the government on the side of Islamic opposition, not only from Afghanistan but also from other countries.
Today, just as in the 90s of the XX century, among the main threats to security, originating from Afghanistan are: activities of international terrorist groups, such as Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Ansarullah, Jundullah, Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkistan (IMET), Lashkari Tayyiba, Council for Islamic Jihad (CIJ) and others. One must take into account that most of the foreign combatants are natives of Central Asian states and the Caucuses, who do not conceal their intents to return home. This is evident from the video addresses and propaganda clips that are being disseminated in Afghanistan, namely, by members of Ansarullah.
It cannot let Central Asian countries be unconcerned, foremost of them Tajikistan, about the efforts of international terrorist organizations and their patrons to turn north-east of Afghanistan into a second Waziristan. Accounts state that training camps, religious schools and centers are being set up in Badakhshan, Takhor and Qunduz, where terrorists are being prepared, including suicide bombers. The most reinforced area established by the terrorists is the Varduj district of Badakhshan province, which is under their total control. On the whole, according to Afghan sources, along with Taliban fighters, Islamic Party of Afghanistan of Gulbedin Hekmatiyar and the Hakani Network, there are over 400 foreign combatants in Badakhshan, and their numbers continue to grow.
The remote Badakhshan, with predominantly arduous mountain terrain has become a base of a sort for antigovernment forces. Moreover, the Afghan Badakhshan serves as an important “financial center” for terrorists. There operate drug labs in the province, the income from which sustains their activities.
A large part of Qunduz and Takhar provinces, on the border with Tajikistan is also under control of the Taliban and other extremist groups. It is here, too, hundreds of foreign combatants, including natives of Central Asia, operate. In some of the districts, training camps and schools have been established in order to prepare terrorists.
Gradually recovering its positions in Afghanistan, the international terrorist organization, Al-Qaida, is also in the process of organizing its camps. According to media sources, one of the largest Al-Qaida camps was annihilated by the Americans in a place called Shurobak, of the Qandahar province. Recent accounts of the Afghan law-enforcement agencies maintain that members of Al-Qaida operate in 20 provinces of Afghanistan, often under the guise of other groups, primarily Taliban.
“Islamic State” or DAISH
Experts also keep a close watch on the activities of the notorious Islamic State or DAISH. In January of 2015, the leader of this international terrorist organization, Abubakr Al Bagdadi, made and announcement about the creation of Khorasan province, into which Central Asian countries are also included, although members and supporters of DAISH emerged in Afghanistan already in 2014.
Regarding DAISH in Afghanistan, opinions exist that are controversial. Some experts are of the opinion that, at the moment DAISH does not present a significant threat. The presence of DAISH is limited to two-three provinces in the east of the country.
According to other sources, DAISH is currently present in most provinces of Afghanistan, including the north and north-east of the country. However, members of this group act under the guise of other extremist organizations and, it is not everywhere, yet, that they feel decisive enough to raise the black flag. DAISH is estimated to be of 10-12 thousand in number.
Messages appearing in print suggested that IMU and other foreign groupings in Afghanistan pledged allegiance to DAISH. Even though it is unknown to what extent they are in direct contact with Abubakr Bagdadi, and, moreover, having not refuted their original appellations, nevertheless, on occasion, it is precisely these foreign combatants who in the course of raids on block-posts of the Afghan army practiced decapitations, following DAISH’s experience in Syria and Iraq.
Consequently, one ought not underestimate the factor of DAISH’s presence in Afghanistan, whose potential for growth is palpable. This group can be joined by combatants from other groupings, primarily from Taliban. After the publicizing of Molla Omar’s death in 2015, the ranks of DAISH were replenished by discontented Talibans. And the Taliban itself, which is called a national movement, since long ago now is not homogenous in make-up any more, and a part of Taliban can well take part in the jihad of DAISH.
The threat of DAISH for Central Asian countries lies in that, included in the Khorasan province are all 5 states of the region, and the leadership of DAISH will strive to strengthen its influence in this region. Apart from that, participation of thousands of Central Asian citizens in the war in Syria and Iraq, the rising influence of Salafism prove the availability of a certain social base for the embracement of DAISH’s ideology in the region.
Thus, the very fact of DAISH combatant’s presence in Afghanistan, especially in the provinces bordering Central Asia can present a serious threat to Central Asian countries.
However, even under such conditions, one cannot overlook the fact that Central Asian countries do not have a unified approach in coordinating a course of action towards the questions pertaining to the resolution of the Afghan conflict, or a quest for ways to counteract threats originating from Afghanistan. It is caused by the fact that the systems of apprehension of security risks and challenges coming from Afghanistan are different with countries of the region.
The other more perilous threat for Central Asian countries is the drug traffic from Afghanistan. It has been proven for a long time now that terrorist organizations and transnational organized crime have tight links with drug mafia. Drug mafia finances activities of international terrorist organizations and attracts fighters to join their ranks. The president of the Republic of Tajikistan, Emomali Rakhmon, many a time stressed in his speeches made from international podiums, that “an indivisible part of the common fight against terrorism and organized crime is preemption of illegal drug trafficking, the scope of which is growing year by year, and often the means gained from drug trade are channeled into financing of terrorist acts and organized crime activities” .
One of the factors behind the ongoing war in Afghanistan is, perhaps, drug production, incomes from which proceed to financing of terrorist activities. Afghanistan still is the largest producer of poppy in the world. In 2015, according to data from UNODC, prepared jointly with the Ministry of counter-narcotics of the IRA, the poppy crop acres in Afghanistan totaled at 183000 ha. Despite the decrease in poppy area planted in Afghanistan, registered statistics for 2015 remain at a high level of crop cultivation, compared to previous decades, with only the following figures superseding it: 2014 – 224000 ha, 2013 – 209000 ha, and 2007 – 193000 ha .
A part of this large mass of narcotics from Afghanistan is being transferred via the so called northern route, that is, through territories of Central Asian countries. According to Russian sources and UN, 25-35% of the Afghan drug traffic moves through the “northern route” .
In 2015, the law-enforcement and security agencies of Tajikistan apprehended 4t and 676 kg of narcotic substances, which is less than those apprehended in 2012-2014, yet more than the figures from 2010-2011.
Thus, drug business, not only causes increase in drug addiction in the transit countries, but it also finances terroristic and extremist activities.
Position and actions of Tajikistan on the situation with Afghan threats
Instability in Afghanistan exerts negative influence on other spheres of security as well. Tajikistan, therefore, stands in its relations with Afghanistan based on the current realities. On the one side, it places much significance on tightening the borders, by its own means, as well as within the framework of CSTO. Much facilitation in measures to reinforce the material and technical basis of Border Guard forces of SCNS of RT and professional development of borderguards is being rendered by representations of states and international organizations in Tajikistan – US Embassy in RT, Ministry of Public Security of PRC, Border Cooperation Group of FSB of RF in RT, UNODC, EU and CSTO. On the other side, official Dushanbe actively comes forth for political resolution of the Afghan question. It has been declared in the foreign policy Concept of Tajikistan: “the Republic of Tajikistan is a supporter of a speedy reinstatement of durable peace in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and, deems the calm, security and political stability of this neighboring country to meet its national interests” .
Ultimately, peaceful and stable Afghanistan conduces to the realization of strategic purposes of Tajikistan: insurance of energy independence, a way out of communication isolation and provision of food security. Accordingly, Tajikistan considers to enhance multifaceted, mutually beneficial cooperation with this friendly neighbor, based on historical, linguistic and cultural commonalities of the two nations, as a priority in its foreign policy” .
Development of relations between Tajikistan and Afghanistan rests on a solid contractual basis. Over the years of independence dozens of treaties and agreements have been signed between Tajikistan and Afghanistan in various fields. In order to broaden and enhance bilateral cooperation, 6 bridges were built on the border of the two countries, as well as near-border markets. Tajikistan has close cooperation with Afghanistan on regional, trilateral (meetings of presidents of Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan), and quadrilateral formats (meetings of presidents of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia), where currently important regional issues and perspectives for further cooperation are being discussed. The agenda also includes implementation of major energy projects.
Another apparent fact is: as long as the war in Afghanistan continues, the implementation of all these projects and effective development of mutually beneficial cooperation between our countries is under threat. Therefore, Central Asian states, admitting to a greater or lesser extent, the challenges and threats from Afghanistan, ought to coordinate their actions not only in counteracting, but also in seeking mechanisms for a peaceful resolution of the Afghan question.
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Author: Kosimsho Iskandarov, Head of Conflict Resolution and Regional Research Center in association with the Academy of Sciences (Tajikistan, Dushanbe)
The views of the author may not coincide with the position of CABAR.asia