Even before the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) had wound down in Afghanistan there was a shrill clamour of the Afghan “conflict spillover” into Central Asia (CA) with sweeping phrases such as “Fergana the new FATA” fashioned into its conflict lexis along with the high pitched chorus of regional leadership bracing for the “doomsday” scenario.
While the Afghan situation stipulates security spillovers for all its neighbours, the outcry emanating from CA reflects a misplaced urgency and somewhat simplification of otherwise complex dynamics.
Without underestimating the real threat to CA’s stability there is a need to review the situation in its proper context.
Overtaken by events the newly Independent Central Asian Republics were Ill-prepared to meet the challenges of newly acquired statecraft. Leadership resorted to oppressive measures to maintain order often curtailing human rights. Gaps in the governance structures were compounded by the breakdown of the welfare apparatus of the Soviet era. The rise of ‘new poor” – laid off workers of soviet era enterprises: factories, offices along with the growing pool of unemployed youth – ensued a scramble for meagre resources fuelling divisions between the Turkic population and their more urbane and competitive Russian counterparts. Added to the mix was the identity crisis experienced during the phase and the region’s newfound interface with its Islamic legacy. Like elsewhere, the prevailing sense of social injustice and lacking political deliverance created space for alternative actors to move in, in this case the right-wing Adolat – Justice Party. Fergana valley, the historic heart of CA also experienced Islamist tendencies propagated by Salafist preachers such as Tahir Yuldashev, ambitious to expand their reach to the rest of the region. During the following hot pursuit by Uzbek authorities against him, Yuldashev managed to flee to Tajikistan and onwards to Afghanistan. There along with Juma Namangani he founded the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Post 9/11 IMU relocated to the tribal areas of Pakistan where it came into contact with ultra-extremist elements within Al-Qaeda and Taliban.
IMU tried staging attacks in Uzbekistan but was unable to recruit and expand effectively due to the severe official clamp down. Finding it difficult to maintain presence in Uzbekistan it became more organized outside of CA. It became increasingly integrated with the enterprises of the Taliban and Al Qaeda - its regional hosts, becoming part of their leadership structures and playing key roles in lethal attacks such as the Karachi Airport attack in June 2014 and on Army children’s school in Peshawar, December 2014. Overtime IMU acquired a more eclectic character incorporating fighters from across the region to include Arabs, Uighurs and local Pushtoons.
Despite being one of the most lethal and professional forces in the region it will be difficult for the IMU and its sister organization Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) to stage a strong comeback in CA due to multiple reasons. Foremost, the fact that overtime the constitution of IMU has become less Central Asian, has somewhat altered the outlook of the organization attendant with its interaction with trans-national organizations like Al-Qaeda it has acquired a more global focus beyond CA. The iron fist with which dissent is quelled in the region has constrained its ability to recruit members constricting its presence in terms of numbers. Even the restricted numbers at its disposal are loosely structured with limited centralized organization and authority. The death of both its charismatic leaders Namangani and Yuldashev has further weakened its appeal.
The initial appropriation of radical interpretations of Islam has also died down in the region as various governments pursued a two-pronged strategy of clamping down on dissent while also adopting a moderate religious character incorporating relevant symbolism and allowing monitored religious freedom. There is also inherent reception to the moderate Turkish model with most countries enlisting the expertise of Diyanet, an official Turkish body overseeing relations among Islamic institutions, the state and society. The region’s only faith-based political party Islamic Renaissance Party too seeks ideological juxtaposition to Turkey’s Justice and Development party (AKP). Hitherto influence of the non-jihadist fundamentalist organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir has also waned while the South Asian Tablighi Jamaat never really made inroads. In fact despite shared ethnicities with its southern neighbors, CA has never made any efforts at cultivating these ties. Having a more European outlook, CA society refrains from inculcating lesser ‘evolved’ influences from the south, negating assertions of shared ethnicities being instrumental in importing both extremist dogma and manpower.
The region has also witnessed tapered Jihadi attacks since early 2000’s with dissent being articulated through socio-political narratives such as during the Andijan Crisis of 2005 or the recent Kyrgyz disturbances of 2010. In fact the ratcheted row of the spillover helps serve key foreign policy pursuits in the region. The Uzbek intrusion into southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010 was premised on seeking out extremist operatives functional in the area. Russia utilizes the cover to extend its military interests in the region under its umbrella organization ‘Collective Security Treaty Organization’ (CSTO) by building and upgrading military bases especially in the countries bordering Afghanistan – proximity to both Iran (Gulf region) and warm waters of South Asia. It also enables the region to attract “Major Power” attention and assistance. The Nato supply routes (Northern Distribution Network – NDN) enabled it to accrue huge remunerations from the various bases dotting the region. They were finally closed down after host countries were able to derive comparable deals with competing powers e.g. Manas base in Kyrgyzstan accounting for 3% of its GDP closed down in June 2014 after a lucrative deal with Russia promising military aid, infrastructure assistance and membership of its ambitious customs union – Eurasia Economic Union (EEU). CA is also a pivotal part of the Chinese ‘One Road- One belt’ vision, devised as much by the latter’s goal of settling its restive Xinjiang province neighboring both Afghanistan and CA. It also serves as the central cornerstone of US envisaged “New silk Road” and its indirect presence in the region. Moreover the ‘spillover’ bogey also enables the region to deflect attention from its oppressive domestic violations.
Despite these reservations there is no denying the credible threat faced by CA especially in the backdrop of the effective Zarb-e-Azb operation by the Pakistan Army pushing militants out of its tribal Area’s into Afghanistan. Of late there has been increased militant activity in the north western Afghan border regions (Badakhshan, Kunduz, Faryab), with heavy artillery exchanges with Turkmen border guards. The looming ISIL threat adds another layer to the conflict tapestry with it seeking to make Afghanistan (its larger Khorasan province) a springboard for enterprises into CA. Much of the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan is in fact a tuft war between ISIL and the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
The (Afghan) cross-border drug trafficking too augers destabilization through its sophisticated networks of official complicity breeding corruption and policy paralysis that infiltrates all aspects of governance and society. To plug these loopholes and more CA will have to start off with internal reform especially extending socio-political freedoms and improving the quality of governance and accountability – only then will an extremist foothold be denied in the region.
(The writer is Assistant Professor, Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), New Delhi-NCR)