How worried should Central Asian leaders be about the rising strength of insurgents in Afghanistan’s north?
The capture of the Afghan city of Kunduz by Taleban in late September has caused consternation in nearby Tajikistan, and sparked rumours that Russian forces might return to guard the porous border.
The militants announced a withdrawal from the northeastern city on October 3 after holding much of it since a September 28 assault. Their forces came under pressure after fresh ground troops were sent from Kabul, with United States air support.
Kunduz is strategically important as a gateway and transport hub connecting Central Asia with Afghanistan and South Asia.
The Taleban have been present in the surrounding countryside for years, but their arrival in the city itself was a major propaganda coup for them and a wake-up call to Central Asian states.
Tajikistan has a 1,200-kilometre border with Afghanistan, most of it in rugged terrain, leaving the national frontier defence force badly stretched. Fighting in northern Afghanistan has increased since the withdrawal of most NATO troops last year. (See Tajiks Talk Up Afghan Spillover Risks.)
Meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin on October 6, Tajik leader Imomali Rahmon said there was conflict going on along 60 per cent of the border.
Russia is clearly concerned about the situation. When leaders of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a post-Soviet security bloc, gathered in the Tajik capital Dushanbe on September 15, Putin said his country was prepared to assist Tajikistan however it could. Nothing new was agreed at the summit, however, and it is not clear what level of support might be on the table.
Addressing a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Kazakstan on October 16, Putin said militants based in Afghanistan were planning incursions into Central Asia.
“The situation in Afghanistan really is close to critical,” he said. “Terrorists of various stripes are building up ever-growing influence and make no secret of plans for further expansion. One of their aims is to break through to the Central Asian region. We need to be ready to respond to this threat in a coordinated manner.”
The kind of coordination that might be on offer was on display in May, when 2,500 soldiers from a joint CSTO force held wargames in Tajikistan, simulating a major counter-insurgency operation.
Russia has maintained an army division in Tajikistan since 1991, but these troops do not patrol the border. A separate force of Russian frontier guards was withdrawn in 2005, leaving the Tajiks to do the job alone.
When Russian deputy defence minister Yury Borisov was asked during this week’s CIS meeting about whether his country might send border guards back to Tajikistan, he said he “could not rule it out.” “Everything is possible,” he told Reuters news agency.
In Tajikistan, analysts are divided on how great the dangers are. Some believe Moscow is playing up the threat of Islamic insurgency in Central Asia in order to justify its claim to regional dominance.
Defence expert Parviz Rasulov believes much of the discussion of an imminent threat from Afghanistan is generated in Moscow.
“It’s an imaginary threat from the Russians,” he said. “Their sole aim is to bring Russian border guards back to the Tajik-Afghan frontier…. Russian experts are constantly scaring us with Afghans and Taleban.”
By contrast, Qosimsho Iskandarov, a conflict studies expert at Tajikistan’s Institute of Oriental Studies, believes the country’s defences are so vulnerable that Russian assistance may be necessary.
“Even though the Tajik border guards service has significantly improved in terms of personnel and infrastructure, the length of our border means that it is not capable of containing the growing threat from the south,” he said.
Others argue that the presence of non-Taleban insurgents in Kunduz is a headache for Central Asia.
One group reportedly involved in capturing the city was the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a guerrilla group originally from Central Asia. After launching raids in the region in the late 1990s, the IMU relocated to northwest Pakistan along with its Taleban allies after the United States-led invasion of 2001. In recent years, however, IMU forces have emerged in northern Afghanistan.
While the Pashtun-dominated Taleban have never expressed designs on Central Asia, the same is not true of the IMU, whose core members came originally from Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley.
More worrying still, the IMU leadership has formally aligned itself with Islamic State. The announcement over the summer that Taleban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar died some years ago annulled the IMU’s oath of allegiance to him, and the group’s leader Usmon Ghazi appeared in a video circulated in August pledging allegiance to Islamic State emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“Islamic State’s support base is growing in Afghanistan,” a defence analyst who asked to remain anonymous told IWPR. “The Taleban are divided into those who support their new leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansur and those who don’t. The latter can join Islamic State, which pays its regular fighters 200 [US] dollars, and commanders 600 or 700 dollars [monthly]. That is good money for Afghanistan.”
Tajik officials believe Islamic State is investing millions of dollars to extend its presence in Afghanistan. A number of attacks have already been claimed by Afghan groups – presumably ex-Taleban – who say they are part of Islamic State.
Iskandarov notes that there are Tajikistan nationals in the IMU and in other Afghanistan-based groups like the Islamic Jihad Union, an IMU splinter faction. He says tighter border controls are essential to stop more people flitting south to Afghanistan.
“There have already been cases where our citizens have crossed the southern border to join these groups,” he said.
If Islamic State is able to draw in recruits for an Afghan front, it will add to Central Asian governments’ concerns about domestic stability. Hundreds of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kazaks, Kyrgyz and Turkmen are fighting alongside Islamic State in Syria, and there are concerns that some will return home intent on starting a jihad. (See Does Islamic State Threaten Central Asia? from earlier this year.)
The anonymous defence expert said the rising power of Islamic State in Afghanistan was a real concern for Tajikistan.
“The Kunduz battle does not pose a direct hazard for Tajikistan, whereas Islamic State does. The Taleban are focused on regaining power in Afghanistan, whereas Islamic State has global ambitions. Central Asia is not on Islamic State’s priority list at the moment, but the region is part of its strategic plan to expand its influence to the whole Muslim world.”
Lola Olimova is IWPR’s editor in Tajikistan.