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Qishloq Ovozi

Alleged fighters for the Islamic State and Taliban in Afghanistan

The view southward from Central Asia has been grim since 2014, when groups of Taliban militants started fanning out across northern Afghanistan.

Thinly stretched government forces in the area were forced to enlist the help of local paramilitary groups, known as Arbaky, who arguably are often little more than bandits with a sheriff’s badge and might not be fighting Taliban forces at all. Some Arbaky are suspected of trafficking narcotics or even selling the weapons and ammunition that the government gives them to the Taliban.

And as the security situation in northern Afghanistan deteriorated, particularly in the northwestern part that not so many years ago was relatively peaceful, the black flag of the militant group Islamic State (IS) was raised in some isolated areas.

It was an added complication few wanted to see, including those north of the Afghan border.

Which is why the killing of Qari Hikmatullah, or simply Qari Hikmat, is probably welcome news for much of Central Asia and Russia.

Hikmat was killed in Faryab Province on April 5. He was the commander of an IS force in the Darzab district of Jowzjan Province, which borders Faryab to the east. Both provinces border Turkmenistan.

Hikmat had managed to hold off government and Taliban forces attacking him since summer 2017, and it was about the time Hikmat seized control of the Darzab district that there were reports that a handful of IS militants were caught in Turkmenistan. Ashgabat never confirmed that, but the Turkmen government in power at the time had virtually never confirmed any security threat to the country.

Russian officials have been warning Central Asian states about the threat from militants in Afghanistan for years. Hikmat’s announcement that he joined IS, and his ability to hold territory in Darzab, fueled the Kremlin’s dire predictions of instability spilling over into the “CIS southern border.”

Russian officials claim there are thousands of IS militants roaming northern Afghanistan, but the only place where there was absolutely someone occupying ground and declaring himself to be IS was Darzab under Hikmat.

Hikmat’s group was quick to announce a new leader -- Qari Habibul Rahman -- but he will be hard-pressed to replace the formidable Hikmat.

Hikmat was an extraordinary opportunist. He was part of the Taliban, but he apparently grew tired of following the commands of the Taliban leadership so he took his fighters over to the government, pledging to fight against the Taliban.

That did not last long, and he reportedly struck out on his own. He reinforced his own force with pro-IS militants who were already in northwestern Afghanistan, remnants of a Taliban-splinter group that had declared loyalty to IS and also a splinter group from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) militant group that were present in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas, and had also sided with IS.

The two groups joined to fight Taliban forces in northwestern Afghanistan at the end of 2015, but the Taliban pummeled them and the fighters scattered throughout northwestern Afghanistan.

Hikmat, himself an ethnic Uzbek from Afghanistan, was able to gather some of the former IMU fighters and others. There were reports that some IS fighters from Syria and Iraq had fled the battlefields there and joined Hikmat’s group.

The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, said Afghan and U.S. forces had killed Hikmat “and they will kill any successors.”

So IS in northwestern Afghanistan seems to have suffered a major setback, and with both the government and Taliban forces intent on attacking them, the IS group’s days might be numbered.

It might be a rare bit of welcome news out of Afghanistan for the governments of Central Asia, and presumably Moscow, though it is unlikely the latter will tone down its alarming statements about the IS threat in Afghanistan.

Hikmat’s armed group is still in Jowzjan Province.

And of course, the Taliban is still there, too.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
Kazakhstan's armed forces have trained for peacekeeping duties for most of the country's independent history. (file photo)

Deputy Kazakh Defense Minister Talgat Mukhtarov has announced that Kazakhstan will be sending peacekeepers to Lebanon to serve among UN forces there.

It was a surprise announcement despite the fact that units of Kazakhstan's armed forces have trained for peacekeeping duties for most of the country's independent history, most recently with U.S. and British troops as part of the Steppe Eagle-2017 exercises in Kazakhstan last summer.

In fact, Kazakhstan's peacekeepers have already served abroad, in Tajikistan in the 1990s; but what happened there one day almost exactly 23 years ago is at least part of the reason large numbers of Kazakh peacekeepers have not served abroad since then.

However, Mukhtarov said on April 9 that 120 peacekeepers would be sent to Lebanon, probably in September. He made clear they would be wearing the "blue berets" of UN forces in Lebanon but did not mention where in Lebanon they would be stationed, though he did mention he had recently been in Lebanon and seen the areas where the Kazakh unit might be based.

"We have not deployed them before because we had no law on peacekeeping activity," Mukhtarov said in allusion to a law that was passed in 2015.

Prior to the passage of that law, Kazakhstan had sent service members to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraqi role, from 2003 to 2008, was the more significant. Those troops were sometimes labeled peacekeepers, but primarily they were engaged in the dangerous work of demining and detonating unexploded ordnance and are credited with neutralizing millions of potential explosions during their time in Iraq.

Kazakh authorities talked briefly at the end of 2010 and early 2011 of sending a small number of troops to Afghanistan, but that idea was unpopular with the Kazakh public and was quickly scrapped, though some handfuls of officers and medics from Kazakhstan have rotated through.

And it is true that Kazakhstan has four soldiers serving with UN peacekeepers in Western Sahara and one soldier with UN peacekeepers in Ivory Coast.

Bad Memory

Earlier this week, at a military base near the northeastern city of Oskemen (Ust-Kamenogorsk), Kazakh soldiers took time to commemorate the anniversary of a national tragedy.

Far away, in the mountains along the Tajik-Afghan border, a unit of Kazakhstan's peacekeepers were ambushed by Tajik opposition forces on April 7, 1995.

The Kazakh troops were peacekeepers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) deployed -- essentially at Russia's urging -- during Tajikistan's civil war (1992-97). Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan also contributed to the force. They were in Tajikistan to help secure the Afghan frontier while government forces fought the opposition inside the country.

Seventeen Kazakh peacekeepers were killed in the ambush and dozens more wounded. It was the worst single incident involving CIS peacekeepers during the Tajik civil war was a shock to Kazakhstan, at that time not even four years an independent country. Kazakhstan had sent peacekeepers and was receiving coffins and wounded soldiers.

Officially, Kazakhstan continued to rotate troops through until 1999; but in reality, after April 1995, the numbers were only a few officers serving on the CIS peacekeepers' command staff.

A generation has passed since then.

Bad Timing?

The ceremony at the base in Oskemen received some publicity in Kazakhstan's media, but not much.

The timing of Mukhtarov's announcement of an impending deployment of peacekeepers would seem poor, considering the somber anniversary two days earlier. But timing might be the most important detail.

In June 2017, Russian officials started mentioning the possibility of sending peacekeepers from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to Syria to guard so-called safe zones that the Russian and the Syrian governments were talking about creating. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, both CSTO members, were named as potential contributors.

Kazakh soldiers stand to attention during joint military exercises within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Kyrgyzstan. (file photo)
Kazakh soldiers stand to attention during joint military exercises within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Kyrgyzstan. (file photo)

If officials from either of those Central Asian countries discussed with Russian officials the deployment of peacekeepers to Syria, it was not widely known in Astana and Bishkek.

The Kazakh and Kyrgyz governments said they knew of no such plans, but the matter did not go away. Russian officials have since continued to mention the possibility from time to time. Kazakh officials have equivocated, not rejecting the idea outright but suggesting a formal request would be needed before any consideration could be given to such as proposal.

Astana might feel that by deploying peacekeepers to Lebanon under the UN flag, it has done its share for peacekeeping efforts in the Middle East and should not be asked to contribute an additional force to Syria.

Of course, the Kremlin probably won't be disappointed to have Kazakh troops among the UN forces in a state neighboring Syria.

But there is still some risk to deploying the Kazakh peacekeepers. A new generation has grown up in Kazakhstan since the ambush in Tajikistan, and memories have faded of Kazakh soldiers trapped in a gorge fighting for their lives.

After the first stage of Steppe Eagle-2017 in March 2017, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov said Astana would be deploying peacekeepers to a UN mission but added, "We will select a less dangerous place."

Of course, the situation in Lebanon is difficult to predict. If the Kazakh unit were to get caught up in violence that caused casualties, the Astana government could face serious criticism.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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