The Central Asian front

“The pledging of oath of allegiance by Aiman-ul-Zwahiri, the head of Al-Qaida, to Haibatullah Akhunzada, the new leader of Taliban removes every doubt about the international character of the Taliban terrorist threat.”

AFRASYAB KHATTAKCentral Asia doesn’t receive full attention in discussions about the regional impact of apparently unending conflagration in Afghanistan, despite the fact that three out of the six immediate neighbours of Afghanistan (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) are Central Asian states.
Even Xinjiang, the Chinese western province that also borders Afghanistan, is historically part of Central Asia.
It is probably because most of the Central Asian Republics (CARs) have closed state systems and the international media doesn’t have access to information for reporting.
So whatever impact the Afghan situation has over these countries remains mostly obscure for the world at large.
Secondly, CARs don’t have the type of large scale involvement in proxy wars in Afghanistan like Pakistan and Iran despite their equally strong geographical contiguity and ethnic connections.
Even in terms of economic engagement, none of the CARs has the capacity or will to invest in Afghanistan on a scale that India, China and some other countries have been doing.
But it doesn’t mean that there is no fallout of the political, military and socioeconomic developments in Afghanistan for CARs.
Recently I attended the Central Asian Security Dialogue in Kargyzstan (June 16-17, 2016).
The aforementioned dialogue had a threadbare discussion on the threat posed by extremism and terrorism, particularly when it uses modern communication technologies.
The entire debate was conscious of the context provided by the escalation of violence over the last two years in Afghanistan although the rise of the so-called IS was was also a source of deep concern.
It was a good opportunity to exchange views with representatives of academia, thank tanks, security experts and politicians of CARs on threat perception in the region in the context of struggle against the menace of extremism and terrorism.

Unlike the military and ideological conflict in Afghanistan in the 1990s that was rightly evaluated as a legacy of the big power rivalry of the Cold War, the new escalation is regarded as a direct and imminent threat to the very existence of CARs.
The Taliban phenomena is viewed not only as a demolition squad that is let loose on Afghanistan, but it is seen as equally dangerous for the countries across Oxus.
This threat perception is particularly reinforced by the prominent role played by Uzbek, Chechen and other Central Asian fighters alongside the Taliban in the current war in Afghanistan.
This fact belies the pretensions of the Taliban and their Pakistani mentors about the “limited nature “ of the Taliban project.
The pledging of oath of allegiance by Aiman-ul-Zwahiri, the head of Al-Qaida, to Haibatullah Akhunzada, the new leader of Taliban removes every doubt about the international character of the Taliban terrorist threat.
Efforts to make the Taliban look good by projecting them as “ bulwarks” against the expansion of IS rings hollow in view of common Wahabi ideology and international connections of the two outfits.
They may clash over turf in some places but such conflicts are resolvable on pragmatic grounds on the model of Taliban-Al-Qaida equation.

There are socio-political fault lines within many CARs that can be used by terrorists to destabilise these states.
First and foremost is the closed and oppressive nature of political systems prevailing in most of these countries, ruled by despotic dynasties or cliques with narrow social basis and with little connection to the masses.
Unfortunately, CARs have not been able to develop a process of transition through continuous socio-political reforms towards establishing more open and democratic societies.
Similarly, socio-economic marginalisation has also been leading to the emergence of conflict.
It is particularly severe when accompanied by regional and ethnic factors.
Last but not the least, Arab charities in general and KSA in particular, have been pumping huge amounts of money into CARs for building mosques and seminaries that function as springboards for spreading Wahabi, Salfi and Takfiri ideologies.
It is something similar to what Pakistan and other countries are going through.

Recently Kazakhistan, a big country with huge natural resources, witnessed suicide attacks in its western town Aktobe, which is quite close to that country’s border with Russia.
The area is supposed to be suffering from social unrest because of the economic slump created by the fall in the oil prices in general and regional disparities in particular.
But the three immediate neighbours of Afghanistan are particularly feeling nervous.
Taliban, particularly their Central Asian contingents, have have launched incursions into these neighbouring countries leading to several clashes on the borders.
In Tajikistan, the reconciliation of secular government with Islamic Renaissance Party has fallen apart recently.
The religious party is banned once again and its leadership put behind bars, as it was accused of conspiring to stage a violent uprising against the system.
Taliban’s focus on the northern Afghan town Kunduz, which is close to the border with Tajikistan, in their fighting during the last one year is not a coincidence.
Similarly, Taliban’s zeroing in on Badakhshan, the Afghan province bordering at Xinjiang province of China also has strategic consequences.
The demolition of cultural identities of Central Asian nations along with Afghans is the target of “Jihad” in Central Asia launched by Taliban, IMU, ETIM and other outfits.
Numerous recruits from CARs have joined the ranks of so called IS in Iraq and Syria.
These fighters constitute a threat to security of the region as the tragedy of the recent terrorist attack in Istanbul has proved.
It is an ideological threat that has the eminent potential of getting translated into physical threat.
But the challenge of creation of stateless patches or physically establishing terrorist enclaves emanates from the Taliban menace in Afghanistan and this is obviously the bigger threat.
This explains the deep concern of CARs in general and of the countries bordering at Afghanistan in particular about developments in Afghanistan.
In the 1990s’, CARs had adopted a neutral posture towards fighting in Afghanistan.
That may be changing.
At least Turkmenistan has demonstrated a keen interest in supporting Uzbek and Turkmen commanders fighting Taliban in Jowzjan and other northern provinces.

Lacking financial and intellectual resources to fight the terrorist threat, CARs are turning to Russia for support.
Russians have recently reinforced their troops based in Tajikistan near Afghan border.
Sergei Shoigan, the Russian Defence Minister paid his first visit to Turkmenistan on June 8 this year.
Cooperation between the security forces of CARs and Russia is rapidly rising.
Pakistan as an author and the implementer of ‘Project Taliban’ is regarded as part of the problem by most Central Asians, the economic overtures of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in their direction notwithstanding.

Writer: Afrasiab Khattak

The writer is a retired senator and a leader of Awami National Party (ANP). He tweets    @a_siab 

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