Central Asia after 2014

When one thinks about the regional impact of the Afghan issue after 2014, the consequences for Pakistan come first to mind. And it is something natural: the historical, human and geopolitical links are of great importance between the two countries. Pakistan and Afghanistan are, indeed, at least through the Pashtun population, “conjoined twins”, for better or worse, to quote Hamid Karzai. No other country than Pakistan will be more affected by any problem in Afghanistan, and no other state can better help Kabul stabilize in the future. This is something Pakistani diplomats should never get tired to remind to other states after 2014, as Western powers sometimes forget this basic and well-known fact. In the region, only Iran can pretend to have an importance close to the one Pakistan can rightfully claim to have on Afghanistan's future. This fact is actually so important that it could bring analysts in South-West Asia (Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan) to forget that post-Soviet Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan) is also, as a region, a direct neighbour of Afghanistan. And those neighbours are very concerned by what happens after 2014. It should be kept in mind that, contrary to Iran and Pakistan, Central Asian connections with Afghanistan are not that strong. Both of these countries have to take care of a large number of Afghan refugees, and have cultural and linguistic links with them. There had been, indeed, human links between Central Asia and Afghanistan in the past. There are, after all, Turkmen, Tajik, and Uzbek minorities in Afghanistan. And until the beginning of the 20th century, the Central Asians could look to the South to find a political refuge or, to some extent, for religious guidance. But the rise of the USSR changed that. During the whole Soviet period, Central Asians have been disconnected from their Southern neighbours, and from the rest of the Muslim world. Independent approach towards religion was banned, however, Islam has been able to survive in that period.

Moscow's repression in these times had been particularly strong against Sufism. After all, this form of Islam was key to Islamize Central Asia, and to protect its culture against foreign aggressions. The time under the Soviet Union changed Central Asia in a way that makes this part of the Muslim world radically different from its Southern neighbours. Secularism and a de facto westernization of the vision of societal issues was imposed through force by the Soviet state, but is now very natural for the average Central Asian citizen. Of course, there are differences between the different countries of this region: Tajikistan is, for example, influenced by Persian language and inheritance, and Kazakhstan has still an important Russian minority, and is in many ways closer to Russia, Europe, and now China rather than South Asia or the Middle East. But what they share together is a history that keeps them historically and intellectually disconnected from their Southern neighbourhood. Such situation makes the Central Asian policy-makers and average citizens even more worried about the Afghan issue. The lack of deep links and knowledge about Afghanistan, the ongoing security problems, and expected security issues of Afghanistan after 2014, explain the concerns of Tashkent, Dushanbe, and other Central Asian capitals.

But this fear is also related to history. The years following independence from Moscow have not been easy for the post-Soviet region. Tajikistan has seen a terrible civil war between 1992 and 1997. During this period, it was said that “Islamists” or “Islamo-Democrats” (the Islamist opposition associated with democratic parties) fought “governmental forces”. But in fact, it had nothing to do with ideology and all to do with state weakness: there was no strong man controlling the country and the army that was deeply divided by regional groups. The war was indeed a fight for access to power between different regional groups. A fight that has been actually so violent that some Tajiks preferred to become refugees in Afghanistan rather than to stay in their own country – at a time when Afghanistan itself was torn apart by its own civil war. At the beginning of the 1990s, Uzbekistan met the same fate as the Uzbek part of the Fergana Valley (the historical and demographic heart of the whole region), revolted against the central state, mostly under the influence of non-state actors inspired by political Islamism. Two important personalities emerged at this period: Juma Namangani and Tahir Yuldashev, who would become the leaders of the main Central Asian terrorist groups, i.e. the “Islamic” Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Tashkent crushed the rebellion before it could become a nation-wide phenomenon, but Namangani and Yuldashev, and part of their followers were able to escape overseas.

During 1990s, political actors and fighters from Afghanistan helped forces of subversion in Central Asia. In Tajikistan, some Afghans and Arab veterans from the war against the Soviets came on the side of the “Islamists” during the Afghan civil war; later on the Taliban did not accept to see Tajik “Islamist” turning as political realities. But it was for Uzbek jihadists that Afghanistan and the Taliban have been the greatest help. At the end of the 1990s in particular, the IMU was strongly aligned to the Taliban, and had begun to create strong links with another terrorist group in exile, using Afghanistan as a safe haven – Al Qaeda. The Afghan links helped the IMU to become a dangerous force in Uzbekistan, as it got associated with the drug trafficking from Afghanistan to Central Asia, making it independent from financial point of view. It explains how, between 1999 and 2001, the IMU was able to organize military and carry out terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. It is during this period that all the Central Asian nations learned through the hard way that Afghanistan could be, by itself, a threat for their stability.

The American campaign against the Taliban at the end of 2001 helped to attenuate the threat, but only temporarily. First, because Afghanistan was only a safe haven, not the source of all problems linked to terrorism in Central Asia. Second, because the IMU and other Central Asian terrorists who associated themselves to Taliban did not disappear because of a military campaign, but had lost their terrorist camps in Northern Afghanistan, and their military leader, Juma Namangani, had been killed. But the ones who survived followed their allies and protectors, and switched from Afghanistan to the FATA. After being welcomed by naive Pashtuns, who took them to be only mujahedeen fighting for religious rights in their own homes. But the visitors soon tried to impose themselves on local communities, trying to acquire wealth and influence through force.

It was especially in the case of IMU, which, led by Yuldashev, soon allied itself with TTP, and it became a source of trouble not for the local Pashtun communities (using terror tactics against them, in particular killing numerous tribal elders) but also for Pakistan Army. They became an important terrorist tool for the TTP, and Yuldashev became an ideological mentor for Baitullah Mehsud. But at this time, part of the IMU, influenced by the time spent in Afghanistan under Taliban and Al Qaeda, had decided to secede to create a group closer to Bin Laden's transnational ideology – the IJU (Islamic Jihad Union). This group was involved in terrorist attacks in Central Asia after 9/11. For example, it claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings in Tashkent and Bukhara during March-April 2004, and in Tashkent in July the same year.

The IJU showed that it was indeed becoming, more and more, the Central Asian Al Qaeda when it planned a terrorist attack in Germany in 2007 at the Frankfurt International Airport and other places in the country. The CIA and the German intelligence service stopped them in time, but it showed clearly a link between hardcore Central Asian terrorists based in Afghanistan, and cells overseas. Even Kazakhstan, which seems so far away from those terrorist problems, has had the experience of such reality. In May 2011, its Parliament had accepted the idea of sending troops to Afghanistan. Quickly the Taliban reacted, threatening Kazakhstan. And a few days later, suicide bombers attacked the local Security Services' Headquarters in Aktobe (in the north west of the country). 2011 was a year when the Kazakhs had to suffer from terrorist attacks on their own territory, organized by local cells connected with Jund al-Khilafah, a group fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

From 2009/2010 onward, it appears that Central Asian extremists are now back in northern Afghanistan with the support of the Taliban. There has been proven infiltrations from Afghanistan to Central Asia, using political tensions in the region to their advantage. What should be of concern is that after having been part of a regional fight linked to the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and its regional environment, part of the Central Asian rebels are now fully integrated in the fight in Syria, on the side of the most extremist of rebels and foreign terrorists. It is proof that after going through the Afghan “school”, some Central Asians have now “graduated” in jihadism, and can be seen as professional non-state actors. After 2014, if some decide to come back to Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Central Asia, they could be a significant help for any local terrorist group.

As usual, after having this situation in mind, one may ask, how Pakistan is affected by this? First, it is important for Pakistan, broadly speaking, to follow Central Asian issues, because Afghan and Central Asian affairs are intertwined. In many ways stability in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia are connected. Afghanistan is a weak state struggling not to become a failed once again, after 2014. And of course, whatever happens in Afghanistan can have an impact on Pakistan. But fact of the matter is that Central Asian states are also weak ones; at least some of them. Not as weak as Afghanistan, of course, but weak enough to be a source of concern for the future. And because of geography, when one Central Asian state suffers from terrorist violence and instability, others can feel the negative ripple effect. Kazakhstan is in a different situation as its oil and gas make it richer than the rest of the region. As we have discussed above, it does not make it immune from a terrorist threat because of instability in Afghanistan. More importantly; the situation of the states closer to Afghanistan, especially Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (the countries of the Fergana Valley) are more vulnerable, because of the geographic “curse”. In more than one way, the countries of the Fergana Valley, and Pakistan, have both been suffering due to their geographical proximity with Afghanistan that has been a pawn for foreign powers and a playground for terrorist and criminal groups. The Afghan issue connects Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such fact has partly been understood in Washington D.C. It explains the vision of Fred Starr, the Chairman of the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute, when he talked about a “Greater Central Asia” integrating Central Asia and the Middle East. His analysis influenced the State Department in creating the “Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs”, understanding the links between the two areas: the possible positive links (in terms of energy) but also the negative ones (linked to security). Pakistan should also adopt such approach as it reflects a regional reality in terms of terrorism and counter terrorism.

Besides, such approach could also be a strategic opportunity. Indeed, the post-2014 situation could be an opportunity for Islamabad to build strong links with the Central Asian countries. In the last two decades, India has taken an edge over Pakistan in the “war for hearts and minds” in Central Asia. The people of Central Asia do not feel a particular attraction for South Asia, and do not know enough about it. Their leaders have felt a connection with India because of its status of being a potential power, its growing importance economically and because its secular vision is closer to their Soviet past. Besides, the Central Asian nations, especially the ones sharing the Fergana Valley, have been influenced in the past by their fear of the Taliban who were the main protectors of local terrorists, as reminded earlier. Hence when looking for somebody to blame, they followed the simplistic approach like others, taking Pakistan as a scapegoat for a much more complex Afghan issue.

Time has come to change such an approach. Clearly nowadays it appears that more and more policy-makers in Central Asia understand the importance of Pakistani friendship to exchange information about terrorist groups operating at the regional and “Greater Central Asian” level. Uzbek and Kazakh diplomats in particular seem to have worked during the last few years to build a deeper relationship with Islamabad, at least on security-related issues. Such a situation should be used by Pakistan to its full potential: Pakistani intelligence services should do their best to be as helpful to the Central Asians as they have been for China's security over the years, to send a clear message: true friends of Pakistan can count on full Pakistani support against any kind of threat. Pakistan and Central Asian nations could also work together against criminal groups that are making themselves stronger through drug trafficking coming from Afghanistan. Of course, over time, Pakistani links with this part of the world should not be based only on counter-terrorism issues: cultural events, language classes, exchanges between universities should carry image of Pakistan much more positively than seen nowadays through Western and Russian media.

Last but not the least, it is also important for Pakistan to protect its international image that has already been damaged by simplistic visions of the Afghan issue in the West. Hence Islamabad should help the Central Asian nations to protect themselves against the little minority abusing the name of Islam to follow criminal and terrorist activities but it should always remind that Pakistan can only be an auxiliary on this matter. The fact that Central Asian “jihadists” have been fighting in Afghanistan, and now more and more in Syria, cannot be blamed on Pakistan. Too often in the past, Pakistan has been blamed for the security issues of others, in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Some Western analysts have sometimes used Pakistan as a scapegoat in their writings to explain how NATO has been unable to stabilize Afghanistan after all these years. Such approach, coming from American sources in particular, could have a bad influence in Central Asia and elsewhere; hence it is of great importance for Pakistani diplomats to counter it with a rational, no-nonsense narrative. Such narrative should remind that Pakistani intelligence services can assist only on security related matters at regional level, as the internal issues of those states need to be dealt by them locally.

There is a need for a regional Central Asian cooperation, and the need also for each Central Asian nation to deal with its particular set of issues. This is something that is actually well understood in Central Asia itself. One can remember, for example, the analysis of the Kazakhstani political expert Rassul Zhymaly to a video uploaded by the “Site Intel Group” in summer 2013, showing a militant calling for jihad in Syria in the Kazakh language – it is not only a question of better law-enforcement actions or a better understanding of religion. Like anywhere else, fighting terrorism and extremism must be linked to social and economic issues. Education and employment are often good preventive tools against organizations trying to manipulate people in difficult situations. A foreign country can only assist in the fight against terrorism, nothing more. At the end of the day, each state is responsible of its own “War on Terror”.

The writer is a Visiting Research Fellow at Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI). He is in charge of the Programme on Iran and South Asia at IPSE (Institute for Prospective and Security in Europe).
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