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Conflict in Afghanistan-Pakistan and its impact on Central Asia

Most of the Central Asian states, as well as Russia, exaggerate “the Afghan threat” to justify the buildup of muscles and to resist a common danger through a primarily military and repressive way, and to justify their own failures in domestic and foreign policy and to receive external assistance, which is, judging by the continuing disturbing news, not bringing the expected effect, says Kamoludin Abdullayev, a Tajik historian, in his article written exclusively for cabar.asia (Dushanbe, Tajikistan).
Complicated geopolitical processes in the South and Central Asia, the lack of objective information, conflicting political interests of those who stand behind experts, as well as the pressure of historical stereotypes and prejudices, have led to the fact that the assessment of the danger posed by Afghanistan varies widely. Let us try to understand them. We will begin with a brief historical overview.
Discussions about the possible infiltration of Taliban and other radical groups in Central Asia after the withdrawal of coalition forces began six years ago, when the US President, Barack Obama, decided to introduce more troops, before leaving Afghanistan in 2014. Recently, the term for withdrawal was postponed to January 2017, i.e. the date when Obama’s powers of the presidency will end. In connection with the news of the appearance of militants in the northern provinces of Afghanistan, the debate about the dangers for the countries of Central Asia have resumed with renewed vigor.
From the past cross-border incidents between Tajikistan and Afghanistan
In the later history of relations between the two neighboring countries, serious tension occurred several times, but direct armed conflict never happened.
Muslims have always considered an honorable duty to assist fellow believers, regardless of where they live, whether in Bukhara, Bosnia, Afghanistan or China, because Islam does not recognize the canonical territory boundaries, cultural and linguistic boundaries and countries in their present form. That is why the (pan) Islamic solidarity and cross-border infiltration took place during periods of instability and weakening of the government “braces” on both sides of Amu Darya, which the Russian and the English made the boundaries of their controlled territory – Bukhara and Afghanistan – more than a hundred years ago. Throughout the 20th century, there have been several such cases:
1. In the 1920s, Afghanistan became home to half a million people of Central Asia, who disagreed with the Soviet government. In turn, the Afghans have expressed sympathy for their fellow believers who fought against the Bolsheviks on the other side of the river. During the anti-Soviet uprising in Eastern Bukhara under the leadership of a Turkish General Enver Pasha, in winter and spring of 1922, a group of volunteers led by Pandshera Habibullah Kalakani (also known as Bachai Saco) traveled to Dushanbe to participate in the war against the Red Army. After protests by the Soviet side, a detachment of 300 volunteers was recalled by Afghan emir Amanullah, who needed the support of Soviet Russia in his confrontation with Great Britain. However, the “betrayal” by Amanullah of Islamic ideals would soon become one of the causes of his downfall. In January 1929, Amanullah no longer was in power, and a Tajik Habibullah Bachai Saco, who positioned himself as Amir al-muslimin, i.e. the ruler of Muslims in general (not a tribal chief and ruler of (only) Afghans), came to power. Having come to power in Kabul, he promised to march the troops to India, free Central Asia from the Bolsheviks, and if necessary, to reach Moscow. In reality, however, his 9-month reign turned into chaos.
In April 1929, taking advantage of the anarchy in Afghanistan, a fugitive Basmach Fuzayl Maksum, who was hiding with 5-6 supporters in Afghanistan, among whom there was a Russian Cossack Pimenov, invaded the Soviet Kalaikhumb. He managed to win over some 500 of their countrymen, including representatives of the authorities. With their support, he executed several supporters of the Soviet power and looted shops and warehouses. The population of Darwaz, Tavildara and Garm did not supported Fuzayl, but did not rebel against him either. They took a neutral position or simply went to the mountains – to wait out. Two volunteer detachments, made up of Soviet workers seconded here – Russian and Tajik – whose lives were in mortal danger, made resistance to Fuzayl. 18 volunteers from a detachment under the command of Gutovsky, an employee of the State Bank, former White officer, died, resisting the attack of “jihadists” in the battle near the village of Nimich on April 21. But the main blow was made near Garm by Red paratroopers under the command of T. T.Shapkin and A.T. Fedin.
In November 1929, Bachai Saco was defeated in a military expedition financed by the money of the English. New King Nadirshah ended the anarchy, restored order in the country, made peace with the mullahs and Akhunds and forbade anyone to interfere in the affairs of northern neighbors. By 1934, the border was completely closed on the Soviet side, thereby putting an end to contacts between the communities on both sides of the border. Moscow also claimed a monopoly in foreign policy, and the Central Asian republics had been deprived of the right to communicate with Afghans and Indians without a proper sanction of the Kremlin. An iron curtain was lowered above Amu-Darya.
2. A second chance for possible infiltration from the Afghan side came in the midst of the Soviet-Afghan war. In 1985, at a meeting of mujahidin groups in Peshawar, the Afghans promised Americans and Pakistanis to “liberate” Central Asia after the expulsion of the Soviet army from Afghanistan. However, the direct invasion of Soviet territory had not happened, and his promise was limited to a single shooting attack by the troops of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar of Tajik border villages in March 1987. The Soviet Union at that time experienced the last years of its existence, but it was still strong, and the border remained under heavy guard.
The war in Afghanistan made the Afghan mujahideen the conquering heroes, and the idea of ​​jihad popular both in the West and in the East. The collapse of the Soviet Union legitimized Jihad as an effective ideology that could unite people of different nationalities and mobilize them against the strong professional armies. Veterans of the Afghan war, including Arabs, celebrated the victory and did not want to quit a military occupation “just like that”. They left for hot spots where “local jihads” took place – in Bosnia, Chechnya, the Middle East, and offered their knowledge of the technology of subversive and terrorist activity and their experience there, without any interest to know local conditions, culture and politics. They wanted to destroy “everything” and build a caliphate, which would be “everywhere and nowhere”. They were going to start negotiations with the West and the local rulers-infidels. Veterans of the Afghan war became the core jihadists acting today for an Islamic state (ISIL).
3. The third case of religiously motivated, cross-border, non-governmental interaction happened during the Tajik civil war of 1992-1997, which showed a clear trend towards internationalization. Delegates from Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, the North Caucasus were seen among the demonstrators in the squares of Dushanbe. Later, some of them joined in the “jihad” against the government in Dushanbe.
Weapons from Afghanistan and warehouses of the Soviet Army turned the conflict into a bloody chaos. However, the scale of the intervention, both in 1922 and 1929 were limited, mainly because of the position of the official in Kabul. In 1992-1996, the government of this country was headed by a Tajik from Badakhshan, a pioneer of political Islam in Afghanistan, Burhanuddin Rabbani. The Military Minister under his rule was Ahmad Shah Massoud from Panjshir valley, a follower of Dahbed Samarkandi. Massoud’s Northern Alliance received Russian military assistance to fight against the Taliban who seized Kabul in 1996.
Help came from Tajikistan. This circumstance prevailed over the temptation of the Afghans to play the nationalist card, trying to promote cross-border Tajik nationalism, or to bet on the pan-Islamism and Islamic solidarity. Mujahideen of the Northern Alliance, the former enemies of “infidels” of the USSR, sought to preserve the Russian support. They needed stable Tajikistan, to get weapon from there, heal wounds there and then continue to successfully fight for the retention of the dominance of the party in Afghanistan as a unitary national state.
They refused to receive support from the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), which was fighting together with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) for the creation of a caliphate. As a result, under pressure from Kabul and Tehran (Shiite enemy of Sunni Taliban), Tajik Opposition refused from jihad and joined the UN-sponsored negotiations that culminated in the signing of a peace treaty in June 1997, and three years later the IMU crossed the river and entered the international terrorist network. Thus, Tajik and Afghan state nationalism won over dead-end chimerical project of “Islamic state”, which was promoted by Tajik-Uzbek “Army of Islam”. As a result, the Taliban were isolated from the north and west, which further facilitated their defeat by the combined forces of the USA, NATO and the Northern Alliance in late 2001.
Under the Taliban (1996-2001), Afghanistan took a lot of militants from Central Asia, Kashmir, Western China, the North Caucasus and other regions of the world. The IMU became the largest non-Afghan jihadi group. The Taliban did not and does not care about the overthrow of the Karimov regime, and even more, they did not care about the idea of ​​”Turketan”. They needed only the IMU military force to fight against the coalition forces and the Afghan government. In 2001, Mullah Omar even appointed Juma Namangani a deputy defense minister of the government. Even after the coalition forces defeated the Taliban in late 2001, Mullah Umar managed to control the foreign jihadist groups. Using persuasion and threats, he could ensure the priority of the Afghan jihad over the abstract extra-territorial “global jihad”.
4. Peace in Tajikistan was broken in the spring of 2009, when the former Tajik opposition commander Mullah Abdullah (Rakhimov) appeared in Tavildar. At his time, this former UTO commander refused to accept the peace agreement in 1997, fled to Afghanistan and then to the tribal areas on the border with Pakistan. His return in Tajikistan in May 2009 caused panic. See more information here.
It was a fourth notable cross-border incident involving Afghanistan.
Mullah Abdullah was trying to establish contact with the authorities and former colleagues on the opposition. However, neither the government, nor his former brothers-in-arms were interested in a dialogue. By 2009, the former UTO field commanders were either imprisoned or joined the government of Rakhmon. The Government managed to prevent a large-scale crisis through a combination of negotiations and the use of force. However, in August of the following 2010, there was another alarm event: prisoners-former combatants, including Caucasians and Afghans, escaped from prison in the capital, and then there was a suicide bombing in Khujand. It all seemed to speak in favor of the forecast of the direct impact of the conflict in Afghanistan, Pakistan on Central Asia. However, the situation at that time was solved by the Tajik government, without interference from the outside. More information here.
In addition to the incidence on the Tajik-Afghan border, in July 2012, in Khorog, there was held la arge-scale special operation of Tajik government forces against Badakhshan “commanders” who were involved in the murder of General Nazarov. In the operation, which could be seen with the naked eye from the Afghan side, there were involved nearly 3,000 men. About 44 people were killed from both sides. In its course, several Afghan civilians had been arrested.
A couple of years later, according to media reports, on the border with Tajikistan, people began to notice the cluster of militants, including Uzbeks and Tajiks who allegedly moved here from Waziristan – unrecognized by the ISIL at the border with Pakistan. People began to talk that “fighting may break out almost any moment”. Is this true?
No Preconditions
To find the answer, let us ask first of all a question: what “triggers” can cause the mechanism of penetration of jihadism at the Central Asia? In our view, this requires the following pre-conditions:
1. Availability of local jihadist organizations working under the direction of, or similar to al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda and similar jihadist groups are a movement of various violent Salafi groups of Sunni Muslims of all races and cultures under a single flag of jihad. The jihadists are not versed in local politics, deny folk traditions and local values ​​and serve to unite like-minded Muslims on the ruins of the “old world”. They should be distinguished from the legal representatives of the existing political Islam and local protest movements, including the Taliban, who are followers of a very strict code of Pushtunwali (traditional law) and do not have an international strategy.
2. The presence of territories that are not under state control and that can become the nucleus, around which an “Islamic state” can be built.
3. Presence of protest mobilization for military jihad in order to build the Islamic State, rejecting alliances with the national-democratic and national-Islamist
parties and movements.
4. The presence of cross-border ethnic groups (“Brothers from the other side of river”), which may become carriers of radical ideology from one country to another.
5. The presence of Western assistance to local dictatorships that restrict religious freedom and harass local Islamist groups. The “jihad” needs a replicated image in the media and on the Internet that “Islam is in danger”.
A quick glance at the above list is enough to cast doubt on the availability of preconditions for successful export of “jihadism” in our country. Calls to join the ISIL, at least in the short term, have no chance of success. We do not have our own Taliban, radical protest against the West and local regimes supporting the international coalition in Afghanistan. There are no territories that are not controlled by the government. Our Muslim neighbors in the CIS and us do not attempt to introduce Sharia law. There is, of course, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), which leads a difficult dialogue with the secular government, without, however, breaking the law and saying about the establishment of an Islamic State.
Almost a quarter-century passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but there have not been any attempts to revise the artificial boundaries, drawn by the Russian, British, and Soviets. A powerful layer of Soviet mentality with their civic culture of intolerance for unauthorized armed violence, as well as the possession, carrying and use of weapons by individuals has not been erased from the memory.
The Soviet period interrupted our historical memory and cut it off from the Islamic past. Nobody remembers the khans and wants to restore the emirate. The Soviet memories and values are dominating. Let’s remind ourselves that the Muslim Central Asia was on the side of the Soviet Union in the war against Afghanistan. Central Asians still celebrate Victory Day and do not perceive the Soviet past as a period of ruthless exploitation and national humiliation, which should be revenged.
Occurring anti-Russian sentiments are mild and do not have anything to do with national hatred or religious fanaticism. Rather, they are a response to the decreasing Russian influence and unpopular foreign policy moves of the government of the Russian Federation, and are part of the general discussion that took place in the former Soviet Union. Moving away from Russia and the “Soviet” is inevitable, because the population born after the collapse of the Union is entering into maturity. Likewise, Russia’s younger generation is growing, too, which, unlike their fathers and grandfathers, does not see compatriots and brothers in Tajiks, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. As a result, independent Central Asian nations are gradually pushing out the horizons of their cultural identity and foreign policy priorities, which will inevitably weaken their ties with the Soviet and Russian past.
However, with or without Russia, Central Asia in the short and, hopefully, in the medium term, will move in the direction of modernization, industrialization and secularism given in the Soviet past. This trend, however, is not imposed by force, but has its historical roots in the ideology of Bukhara Jadidism.
Fears of religious radicalism and violence emanating from South Asia are hidden largely in the political culture of the northern neighbors of Afghanistan, formed in the Soviet era, particularly during the combat against Basmachi and during the Soviet-Afghan war. The generalized image of a bearded Basmach-Dushman-Mujahideen-Taliban jihadist as an irrational tyrant and absolute villain, existing in another, different from ours, world was created, maintained and strengthened by our fears, prejudices and imposed doctrines. It was replicated in numerous scientific publications, educational programs, films and works of art.
The alarmist view complicates the search for rational explanation, generates fear and lack of confidence in our own capabilities. We still believe that we cannot deal with this scourge, that nothing depends on us. Therefore, we can easily agree to the stationing of foreign military bases, we seek to strengthen military cooperation (to the detriment of the civilian and humanitarian) in the framework of international organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), large but inefficient. Finally, we tend to explain the failures in the economy, the management, as well as the failures in domestic and foreign policy, by some possible hostile penetration from the outside, in this case, from the south. Accordingly, the surrounding, including potential investors, look at Tajikistan through the prism of “radical Islam” and see in us not potential Dubai or Singapore, but “another Afghanistan”, which should be helped to protect the border and equipped with military uniforms and armored vehicles, and not books and tools.
What to do?
The importance of strengthening military power and strengthening the borders is difficult to deny. But a military component is not enough. Rejection of a paradigm of confrontation, the transition from war to peace, deliverance from this trap, staged on the shores of the Amu Darya by Great Britain and Russia more than a hundred years ago, will require a lot of effort. So far it is hard to see internal and external players throwing the ball to each other in this field to refuse the vision of the border with Afghanistan as a line of confrontation between East and West, civilization and savagery, to abandon the stereotype imposed on us, that we should be wary of neighbors, and only foreign players can ensure the stability of the region.
The influence of external players is still strong, but the tendency to turn the Central Asian states and Afghanistan into an independent subject of international relations is strong, too. In my opinion, it, namely the strengthening of subjectivity understood as the development of democracy and independence – of our own and our neighbors to the south – is a sure path to recovery in the region. During the years of isolation of Central Asia from the South, there was a lot of distrust and hostility, myths and prejudices which we have to get rid of. Another way – to lower the iron curtain again over the Amu Darya – is not realistic and will require huge expenses. So far, unfortunately, the votes of ordinary Tajiks, Uzbeks and Afghans who have lived in peace and good-neighborliness for many years, are not heard. They are either too weak or simply muted by alarming headlines and hysterical cries of “the Taliban danger”!
Repressive measures against the population under the guise of fighting with the IMU, the ISIL and other jihadist groups can cause the opposite effect and materialize the threats that the authorities wanted to prevent. We have many “triggers” such as poverty, unemployment, corruption and so on, which can promote the growth of radicalism, terrorism and violence. The feeling of frustration, despair, uncertainty and loss of hope for a positive change in the near future can only push people to join the ISIL.
Overall, radicalization and penetration of religiously motivated violent attitudes and actions are likely to have potential than real and imminent threat. Recent violence in our region is not directly related to the events in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They reflect local quarrels and conflicts. Most of the Central Asian states, as well as Russia, exaggerate “the Afghan threat” to justify the buildup of muscles and to reflect the common danger using primarily a military and repressive way, and to justify their own failures in domestic and foreign policy and to receive external assistance, which, judging by the continuing disturbing news, does not bring the expected effect.
Kamoludin Abdullayev, historian
The views of the author do not necessarily represent those of CABAR