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U.S. Drawdown Stirs Fears In Central Asia

An Afghan soldier stands guard at the gate of an air-force compound in Kabul in April 2011.

An Afghan soldier stands guard at the gate of an air-force compound in Kabul in April 2011.

WASHINGTON -- "The countries in the area that border Afghanistan are going to have a problem on their hands," Seth Cropsey, a former assistant to the U.S. secretary of defense, warns of the gradual drawdown of international troops there, "because even if the Afghan forces have been trained to defend their country from the Taliban, there are other places that the Taliban can go."

Immediately after President Barack Obama's June 22 speech announcing a timetable for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, several other NATO allies, including the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, followed suit with statements detailing pullouts of their own. Canada has since ended its combat mission.

Today the Taliban may lack a physical presence in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, but those are the countries that have the most to fear as the security situation in northern Afghanistan continues to deteriorate.

It is direct neighbor Tajikistan that is likely to feel the impact most directly. A nation of 7.5 million people that shares a 1,400-kilometer border with Afghanistan, it competes with Kyrgyzstan for the title of Central Asia's poorest country.

Tajikistan's already fragile security situation contributes to its vulnerability, with some homegrown militant groups fighting against the government of long-serving President Emomali Rahmon.

But the challenges to stability come not only from local militants. Culprits also include regional organizations like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), with its close ties to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Reports suggest that the IMU is actively coordinating attacks with the Taliban in northern Afghanistan. The IMU is also said to be involved in insurgent activities in other parts of Central Asia.

The IMU's stated goal is the creation of an Islamist caliphate across Central Asia. Founded in 1991, it has fought and trained with Al-Qaeda, notably along the notorious border region separating Afghanistan from Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Alexander Cooley, a professor at Barnard College in New York City, notes that "one has to be careful about statements from Central Asian governments, who play militant cards to get military assistance from foreign countries. But the situation in Tajikistan is serious."

"In the case of Tajikistan, we see a country that's already deteriorating by a number of measures, and especially the eastern part of the country might be susceptible to sort of cross-border types of campaigns and insurgencies," Cooley says.

The cross-border threats are real, and infiltration across the border into Tajikistan is already a serious source of concern despite the presence of thousands of coalition forces on the ground in northern Afghanistan.

Incidents in which Afghans cross the border and kidnap Tajik citizens on the other side have lately become a fixture of life for Tajik villages in the border region.

Tajiks whose relatives have been taken hostage are forced to pay large sums to secure the release of their loved ones.

In addition to the constant threat of infiltration by militant groups, the cross-border drug trade is another serious cause of concern for Tajikistan and the wider region, including Russia.

On July 1, Russian's antidrug tsar, Viktor Ivanov, visited Dushanbe to discuss Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan and the possibility of Russian soldiers returning to the Tajik-Afghan border to bring the situation under control. Russian troops were stationed on that frontier until 2005, when Moscow withdrew them to demonstrate confidence in the Tajikistan government.

Farther to the north, officials in Kyrgyzstan blame Afghan drug money and local Islamist militants for shaky security in southern Kyrgyzstan, where ethnic tensions led to bloodshed and massive displacement in 2010.

Uzbekistan's leaders accuse Afghan groups of fomenting a 2005 revolt in the Ferghana Valley -- though such claims are disputed by independent analysts who contend that that rebellion should be blamed on domestic factors rooted in resistance to Uzbekistan's harsh authoritarian government.

Afghan security officials acknowledge their failure to clamp down on the border but blame their inability to control the situation on a lack of troops and equipment.

Speaking on Afghan television, the commander of border security forces in the north of the country, General Abdul Habib Sayedkhil, said on July 8 that he had only 4,000 personnel to protect the entire 2,431-kilometer border with Central Asian states.

How the Afghan forces will fare in the absence of coalition troops remains an open question.

The ex-Pentagon official Cropsey, who is now a senior foreign policy fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank, says that "such a scenario will only raise more serious concerns about the stability and security situation of the Central Asian countries, which are already unstable."

"There are serious problems in Kyrgyzstan...[and there are] serious problems in Uzbekistan," Cropsey says. "The question of political stability is a constant one in central Asia. If a country is politically unstable, its ability to resist invasion is reduced tremendously."

Barnard College professor Cooley points out that the security situation in Central Asia is not only a matter for concern to local governments. It is also a factor in the geopolitical competition among the great powers with direct interests in the region.

"I think one of the hidden consequences of the U.S. drawdown is that it's going to throw into sharper relief Russian and Chinese competition over the region, which I think has been hidden so far, in that they are both concerned and nervous about the permanency of the U.S. presence," Cooley says. "But with the U.S. drawing down, I think it's going to focus more the question of whose security priorities are being served in the region, China's [or] Russia's, and I think it's going to intensify the rivalry between the two."

Additional evidence of the regional anxiety about the drawdown came at the June 15 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a security forum that brings together Russia, China, and the Central Asian states. The meeting devoted significant discussion to Afghanistan.

In an interview with "The Christian Science Monitor," Russian expert Aleksandr Dugin, who heads the right-wing International Eurasian Movement allying Russian academics, policymakers, and interested observers, said that "the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan concerns all the surrounding countries."

"The West is far away, but we are near," Dugin said. "This is our security zone, and that is why only an organization like the SCO can potentially hold out a constructive alternative for Afghanistan."