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Central Asia And Afghanistan As The Drawdown Deadline Arrives

Members of an ethnic Turkmen militia in northern Afghanistan who are fighting the Taliban -- Central Asian states have mostly abandoned efforts to groom ethnic kin as proxies against the Taliban.
Members of an ethnic Turkmen militia in northern Afghanistan who are fighting the Taliban -- Central Asian states have mostly abandoned efforts to groom ethnic kin as proxies against the Taliban.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has increasingly been warning of a "plague" headed to Central Asia: the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Other Central Asian leaders have also been expressing concerns about IS.

It's interesting that the Tajik president seems so worried about a group that is more than 1,500 kilometers from his country, especially since there is trouble right on his, and Central Asia's doorstep.

The deadline for the drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan has arrived. Only about one-10th of the once 140,000-strong foreign force will be in Afghanistan in 2015 and that number will gradually decrease in the years to follow.

During 2014, Qishloq Ovozi and RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, have been reporting about the shaky situation in northern Afghanistan, along the border with Central Asia.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir assembled a panel discussion to look at the situation in northern Afghanistan as 2014 comes to an end and what that situation bodes for Central Asia in the near future. Participating in the discussion were former U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan John Herbst, former European Union special representative for Afghanistan Michael Semple, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Massachusetts Brian Glyn Williams, who is also author of "Afghanistan Declassified: A Guide to America's Longest War" and "The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum," and I said some things as well.

The discussion began with a recap of the state of affairs in the Afghan areas bordering Central Asia. Williams said in recent years the security problems in some northern provinces such as Kunduz and Faryab has rivaled known hotspots in southern and eastern provinces such as Kandahar, Helmand, and Khost. Williams credited the policy of 19th-century Afghan ruler Abdul Rahmon, who "planted Pashtun colonies in the north" as having sown the seeds of the current trouble.

Williams said the Taliban has been able to advance its cause in northern Afghanistan using ethnic kin as a vanguard. But Williams noted the Taliban has been successful in including members of other ethnic groups in the north.

Semple concurred on this last point, saying, "over the past few years...the non-Pashto-speaking Taliban of those areas, the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkmen, also have mobilized and they're now some of the Taliban fronts in the north." Semple added that in some northern provinces such as Kunduz, Takhar, and Faryab, Taliban operations are run "by commanders from the ethnic groups based in that area, not just the Pashtuns."

For Central Asia it is an important development. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is Central Asia's best-known militant group, and it is an ally of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The IMU was in northern Afghanistan in late 2001 and suffered heavy losses in the U.S. bombing campaign. They fled into Pakistan's tribal areas and have been regaining strength and spreading again into northern Afghanistan.

Semple noted that as the Taliban reached out to non-Pashtun peoples of northern Afghanistan, making some locals commanders, the IMU has come right behind "trying to build on their links with the people up in northeastern and northwestern Afghanistan and they are again managing to establish their fighting forces in those areas."

As dire as that might sound for Central Asia, there is still some breathing room. Semple said that while Afghanistan will remain at war through 2015, the government "is not about to collapse imminently, the government will still be charge in Kabul and in the provinces but will have to fight." Williams added, "Don't forget that the Afghan army and security forces still have 344,000 troops and we look at history, the [Muhammad] Najibullah regime lasted for years after the withdrawal of Soviet support forces."

Still, as the recent kidnapping of four Tajik border guards and, earlier this year, the killing of six Turkmen soldiers demonstrates, Central Asia is already experiencing some of the dreaded "spillover" from Afghanistan.

Herbst suggested two scenarios looking ahead, both of which could cause IMU militants to consider trying to cross back into Central Asia. Herbst said a resurgent Taliban could facilitate the IMU reestablishing safe haven areas just south of Central Asia's border, from which it could launch raids. Herbst said that alternately, if the Ghani government "could assert control throughout most of the might see the terrorists forced out and head back home."

Herbst agreed the estimated several thousand IMU fighters "don't represent an existential threat to the government of [Uzbek] President [Islam] Karimov," but he said, "They could, however, represent a tipping force in either Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan."

Of course, in the 1990s the Central Asian governments, certainly the Uzbek and Tajik governments, had "their man" in Afghanistan, an ethnic cousin commanding a military force and, hopefully, capable of guarding the gates to Central Asia. In Tashkent's case it was General Abdul Rashid Dostum, currently Afghanistan's vice president, and in Dushanbe's case it was Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Masud, both later assassinated, though years apart.

Tashkent, like the rest of the Central Asian countries, dealt with Rabbani while he was installed in power in Kabul but the Uzbek government's main contact in Afghanistan was with Dostum in Mazar-e Sharif. Dushanbe continued its recognition of, and support for the Rabbani government even after the Taliban seized Kabul in September 1996.

There is a concern that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and perhaps others, might see such proxies as their best defense from Afghan problems. Earlier this year Turkmenistan experimented briefly with courting better ties with Afghan Turkmen along its borders before abandoning the policy.

Using the Uzbek example of the late 1990s, Semple said any similar attempts now to circumvent the central Afghan government would be ill-advised. "If Tashkent were to try to develop direct relations with their own man, whether it be Mohammad Atta in Mazar or one of the other figures, to try to have direct relations cutting out the central government in Kabul they would very soon get into trouble, they would find that this would be extremely controversial in Afghanistan would precipitate a lot of strong political reaction."

It would also play into the hands of instability, but in the past that has not stopped the Central Asian governments from interfering in Afghan politics or even each other's politics in Central Asia.

The full roundtable discussion can be heard here:

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-- Bruce Pannier

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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

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


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