U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, for the first time in seven years since the Democrats have been in power, visited the countries of Central Asia, where he discussed threats to regional security in connection with the intensification of Islamist terrorist activities in Afghanistan. Kerry promised American assistance in maintaining stability in the region.
Central Asian experts interviewed by Russia Direct believe that the degree of threat coming from Afghanistan for the region is rather exaggerated. Meanwhile, their Russian colleagues are sounding the alarm, and calling for the start of serious preparations to deter threats to Central Asia coming from northern Afghanistan.
Moreover, all experts agree that Afghan problems are not of the greatest concern to Washington today, and thus the U.S. interest in Central Asia is more of a signal rather than a substantive change in policy.
The Central Asian states became seriously concerned about the threat of radical Islamist penetration into their region after the Taliban captured the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan on Sept. 28. A few days later, the Afghan Army, with the help of U.S. troops still stationed in the country, recaptured this city from the Taliban. Nevertheless, the situation on Afghanistan’s borders with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan remains tense.
Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon, during a working meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Oct. 8 in Sochi, said that, “Battles were being fought along 60 percent of the Tajik-Afghan border.”
Due to the sharp intensification in the activity of Islamist groups in Afghanistan, at the Summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Kazakhstan on Oct. 16, the participants agreed to establish border services groups to counter terrorists.
In mid-October, Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov visited the U.S. to discuss the situation on the Turkmen-Afghan border, where since March of this year, there have been clashes with radical groups.
Officially, Ashgabat denies that clashes have been occurring. John Kerry’s visit to Central Asia between Oct. 28 and Nov. 3, in which among other important issues, the situation in Afghanistan was discussed, marked the return of U.S. attention to this region, lost since the international military campaign in Afghanistan ended.
Waiting for real political moves from the U.S. in Central Asia
In Samarkand, during a meeting with foreign ministers from five Central Asian States, the U.S. Secretary of State announced that the political dialogue between the United States and Central Asia would continue. The meeting resulted in the creation of a new interaction format – the C5+1, that is, the five states of the region (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) and the United States. Raising the level of interest in Central Asia in U.S. global strategy, within the context of events taking place in the Middle East, “will entail geopolitical implications, even if Washington does not pursue any geopolitical goals,” assured Farhad Tolipov, an Uzbek political analyst and director of the Caravan of Knowledge Center in Tashkent.
The creation of political dialogue between the United States and five Central Asian countries, according to the expert, could lay the foundations for a regional Central Asian policy for America. “Before this, the countries of Central Asia have already been faced with the negative consequences of the destabilization and fragmentation of Afghanistan, and so the current worsening of the situation is not something new for them, in terms of security,” says Rustam Burnashev, professor of the Kazakh-German University.
Moreover, the Kazakh expert believes that the current situation in Afghanistan “is much more favorable for Central Asia than the one that existed in the 1990s – early 2000s.” Burnashev regards Kerry’s visit to Central Asia as a “technical move,” showing that the U.S. remains interested in the region, in terms of its “collective potential.” Drawing conclusions as to the effectiveness of the C5+1 format will be possible, according to the expert, “when something concrete is proposed, in terms of realpolitik, rather than diplomatic agreements of the second level.”
Russian experts are convinced that Washington, unlike Moscow, does not have any military infrastructure deployed in Central Asia that is capable of fighting back Islamic radicals in case of their breakthrough into the region. “The Russian military base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, and the Air Group in Tajikistan can help in countering any potential Afghan threats,” said Vladimir Yevseyev, head of the SCO Department at the CIS Institute.
However, he warns that, “The Russian military infrastructure currently in the region cannot be used effectively until full-fledged military bases are deployed, which would include military aircraft.”
The expert questions the ability of the Central Asian countries on their own to confront threats coming from Afghanistan. He calls on the countries in the region, which have a common border with Afghanistan, “not to flirt with the West, and clearly seek help from the state that is in a real position to help.”
Central Asian experts do not agree that the countries of the region must make a choice between Russia and the West, when it comes to countering threats coming from Afghanistan. Military-technical assistance coming from both Washington and Moscow could strengthen the defense capabilities of the Central Asian countries in case of an emergency, but for now, these countries independently cannot counter the threats coming from Afghanistan. On this point, Burnashev and Tolipov agree.
What happens if ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban combine forces?
The Russian Defense Ministry, during an international conference on Afghanistan in October, provided information showing that presently in northern Afghanistan there are a number of training camps, where militants coming from Central Asian republics and Russia are undergoing military training. Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Army General Valery Gerasimov, said that, “Currently in Afghanistan, there are 50,000 fighters, composed into 4,000 units and groupings of various kinds.”
The movement of terrorists from the south and east of Afghanistan to the north began simultaneously with the withdrawal of foreign troops from that country. “This was triggered by the large-scale operation conducted by Pakistani troops to evict all militants that moved into Pakistan after they were driven from Afghanistan by the Americans. Now these are once again returning to Afghanistan,” says Omar Nessar, director of the Center for Studies of Modern Afghanistan.
Field commanders of the Northern Alliance, which had served as a buffer shielding Central Asia and Russia, have all been practically destroyed. Andrey Kazantsev, director of the Analytical Center at the Institute of International Studies at MGIMO-University says that, “Special supplies corridors have been created for the transfer of terrorists from the central and southern parts of Afghanistan to the north.”
“Some of the terrorists are Russian-speaking émigrés from the North Caucasus and the Volga Region, and the rest come from Central Asian countries, as well as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang) of China, but all are closely associated with ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Gretaer Syria] and al-Qaeda,” says the expert.
Not all fighters in Afghanistan who have declared themselves as being supporters of ISIS actually have something in common with that group, but experts do not exclude the possibility that soon the forces of Taliban and ISIS may unite. “The Taliban has always actively supported international terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda. This provoked the invasion of Afghanistan by the Americans after 9/11, when the Taliban was harboring terrorists that blew up the Twin Towers,” says Kazantsev.
Russian experts believe that al-Qaeda is still a major player in Afghanistan, and the funding of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban are intertwined. “This factor has created the effect of interaction between field units associated with the Taliban, ISIS, and al-Qaeda,” says Kazantsev.
If the Taliban in southern Afghanistan really is opposed to ISIS and clashes between them are taking place, in northern Afghanistan, the Taliban and militants who called themselves ISIS, have the same sources of funding.
Another serious problem, which experts have noted, is posed by the terrorist networks that are now active in the entire post-Soviet space.
“These networks are not only used for the recruitment of terrorists, but also to directly commit terrorist acts,” said Kazantsev. Moreover, the preventive arrests of underground terrorist groups taking place in Russia today indicate that state structures of the country are monitoring this threat, and fighting against it.