Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Regional Relations

A Potential Afghan Spill-Over: How Real Are Central Asian Fears?

S Reza Kazemi 13 min

Afghanistan is bracing itself for its transition. Most foreign troops will be gone by 2014 and Afghanistan’s already controversial elections have been fixed for early April that year while peace with the armed opposition remains elusive. Afghan domestic politics aside, how is the transition in Afghanistan perceived in its northern neighbourhood, which is under-explored, compared to Pakistan, for example? Central Asian governments have recently raised increasing concerns about threats against them originating from Afghanistan. But these threats are largely exaggerated, economically and politically motivated and may not be shared by the wider Central Asian population. Moreover, although a full-blown Afghan spill-over into Central Asia is unlikely, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan remain the countries most closely linked to Afghanistan’s situation, AAN’s Said Reza Kazemi concludes in the third and (for now) final part of his Central Asian blog series.*

With the exception of Turkmenistan, the governments of the Central Asian republics that formerly were part of the Soviet Union – often grouped together as ‘the -stans’ in the West – have recently and increasingly voiced concerns and fears about the worsening situation in Afghanistan in the lead-up to and after 2014 and about a potential spill-over into that region:

– Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov has voiced his ‘serious concern’ about the threats coming from Afghanistan against his country after the drawdown of NATO troops by the end of 2014 and has warned against ‘complacency’ that everything will proceed as planned in Afghanistan. His Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, during a visit earlier this year, linked Afghanistan’s situation to ‘security inside the Russian Federation itself’. On 7 December, Karimov again expressed his concern and repeated his proposal to form a UN dialogue group consisting of Afghanistan’s neighbours plus the US, NATO and Russia for finding a solution to what he called Afghanistan’s political problem (Source: BBC Monitoring Afghanistan, 9 December 2012).

– The government in Kyrgyzstan has gone much further by dramatically referring to Afghanistan as the ‘main outside threat’ facing that country, particularly in the form of drug trafficking (Source: BBC Monitoring Afghanistan, 10 September 2012; see also here). More recently, Tokon Mamytov, chair of Kyrgyzstan’s Parliamentary Committee for Defence and Security, warned:

There might be danger of an incursion from Afghanistan into Kyrgyzstan in 2013-14… [T]he situation will get complicated in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of coalition forces. In the first place, there will be an inflow of armed groups into that country. From there they will come to us, and we will have to fight them. (Source: BBC Monitoring Afghanistan, 27 November 2012)

– Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon also has warned that Tajikistan will face ‘a new reality’ and ‘modern threats and challenges’ including terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking, weapons smuggling and illegal immigration after the western military drawdown in Afghanistan.(1)

– Maulen Ashimbaev, chair of Kazakhstan’s Parliamentary Committee of International Affairs, Defence and Security, has stated that ‘terrorist threats in Kazakhstan have come mainly from the activities of radical religious groups… [that] are ideologically supported, encouraged and often managed from outside’, including from Afghanistan (Source: BBC Afghanistan Monitoring, 10 September 2012). Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has been campaigning for Afghanistan’s participation in existing regional structures such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), has called the resolution of the Afghan conflict ‘one of the most urgent tasks’ (Source: BBC Monitoring Afghanistan, 12 September 2012).(2)

Based on its policy of ‘positive neutrality’, post-Soviet Turkmenistan has had little involvement in Afghanistan’s socio-political developments.(3)

A similar rhetoric – vaguely indicating threats – has also been growing in blocs and treaty organisations in Eurasia, including the Central Asian region. The Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO)(4) is reportedly preparing itself for post-2014 Afghanistan contingencies, trying to localise drug trafficking and fortify CSTO borders with Afghanistan and considering involvement in a peace-keeping operation in Afghanistan post-2014 (see here, here and here).(5) The CSTO, however, is not well co-ordinated, let alone cohesive and effective, in its policy and action. The bloc has also yet to clarify what role it will practically play if Afghanistan’s situation significantly deteriorates by 2014 and such a clarification is unlikely to come in the bloc’s meeting on 19 December in Moscow. The report on possible CSTO participation in keeping peace in Afghanistan was swiftly rejected by the organisation’s most influential member state and paymaster, Russia. It is also unclear if Russia is (through this organisation) merely venting its frustrations against its arch-rival NATO, which has been gaining footholds – military bases, transit routes and connections to the region’s elite – in some CSTO member countries like Kyrgyzstan.

This is not totally new, however. The Central Asian governments have been building up fears about what they often refer to as threats spreading to their countries from Afghanistan for quite a long time. These threats, in their opinion, include terrorism, religious (ie Islamist) extremism, cross-border militant infiltration and attacks and drug trafficking that they claim originate at least partly in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan’s government has used the threat from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) (now mainly based in Pakistan; read a new analysis here) to crack down on all opposition, even if not Islamist, in its own country. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also partly justify their lack of progress in democratisation and human rights with the threat from less known extremist groups finding sanctuary and other (spiritual) support across the border, including in Afghanistan. These groups include Jund al-Khilafa, or Soldiers of Caliphate, in the case of Kazakhstan, and the even lesser known Jama’at Kyrgyzstan Jaish al-Mahdi, or Kyrgyzstan Army of the Righteous Ruler, in the case of Kyrgyzstan (for a general documentation of recent security- and terrorism-related incidents in Central Asian countries, see here). Tajikistan, which ended its devastating 1992-97 civil war with a political agreement that included fighters of the (mainly Islamist) opposition at least pro forma, sometimes cites the involvement of surviving military opposition commanders in drug trafficking and their links with Afghan actors as a threat (see our blogs on recent Tajik turmoil with Afghan implications here and here). Turkmenistan, by contrast, has denied Islamist involvement even when clashes were reported in its capital Ashgabat in September 2008 and instead blamed ‘drug gangs’ for the violence. The country keeps itself away from regional pacts and even enjoyed mutually beneficial economic relations with Taleban’s Islamic Emirate before 2002 (see here, here and here). All Central Asian governments, with a recent partial exception of Kyrgyzstan mainly because of its first contested presidential elections in October 2011, are among the worst and the most repressive globally in terms of civil and political rights and freedoms (read here).

To present themselves as being threatened by and at the same time fighting Islamist terrorists and other threats emanating from outside particularly Afghanistan has allowed the Central Asian governments to benefit economically and politically. First, all of them (even Turkmenistan) have allowed the US and NATO to use their airspace and/or territory to transport troops and non-lethal material in and out of Afghanistan and charged them significantly in return.(6) Kyrgyzstan has reportedly received the largest sum of money for letting the US and NATO use the Manas Transit Centre, located near the country’s main airport near the capital Bishkek. Reportedly, the country is paid US$ 60 million for its lease plus US$ 200-300 million for taxes and other fees annually (read here). Uzbekistan received German government payments of €67.9 million from 2005 to 2009 for use of the Termez airbase, even when it was under EU sanctions related to the 2005 Andijan massacre. (Germany had leased the base already in 2002 but earlier payments have not been publicised.) Uzbekistan, in May 2009, allowed the US and NATO to use the Navoi airport, situated between Samarkand and Bukhara, to receive non-lethal equipment for transfer to forces in Afghanistan by air, rail and ground, under South Korean mediation (read here). Earlier, as a result of criticism from Washington about the 2005 massacre in Andijan, Uzbekistan had closed the US airbase in Karshi-Khanabad. Manas, Termez and Navoi are crucial elements in what is called the Northern Distribution Network (NDN).(7) The (financial) importance of the NDN for the Central Asian governments is only going to increase further as agreements reached in June 2012 allow NATO to start using the NDN in the territories of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to return its matériel from Afghanistan to Europe via Russia (read here). NATO has refused to specify the financial details of the agreements, and, moreover, these agreements are not related to the separate deals the US has reached with these Central Asian states.

Moreover, the Central Asian governments have been benefiting politically. They have exploited the Afghanistan situation to draw the world’s attention away from their own very poor human rights records and heavy crackdowns on their opposition and to bolster their relations with major powers such as the US, NATO, EU, Russia and China, often by playing them against one another. All Central Asian states (even Turkmenistan) are currently having regular bilateral political consultations with the US, thanks to the situation in Afghanistan. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have used their co-operation with the US and NATO regarding Afghanistan as leverage to balance their relations with and extract advantages from Russia. Kazakhstan, too, has used the Afghanistan predicament, during and after its 2010 OSCE presidency, to boost its foreign relations, despite stagnating democratisation and a worsening human rights situation (eg heavy clampdown on striking miners in Zhanaozen, a town in western Kazakhstan, in December 2011). Uzbekistan, however, has received the biggest benefit so far. It has capitalised on the Afghan conflict to improve its foreign relations – particularly after the notorious 2005 Andijan massacre – and to extract increased political recognition from the US, NATO and the EU (particularly Germany).

There is, however, at the same time, a clear-cut contradiction between how the Central Asian governments have been dramatising and instrumentalising the developments in Afghanistan to further their vested interests and public perceptions about Afghanistan’s situation. Most Central Asian people neither generally know about nor are particularly interested in or concerned about Afghanistan.(8) Central Asian societies are generally apolitical largely due to the authoritarian nature of the governments in the region. People are more concerned about making ends meet rather than with what is going on in Afghanistan. And whatever they know about Afghanistan is still largely limited to the 1979-89 Soviet-Afghan war as associations of Central Asian veterans of the war continue to maintain the public memory in addition to memorials and museums in various cities. ‘Afghanistan even today is perceived through the lenses of this war, as being a faraway and tough place, rather than our nearest neighbour’, Malika Tukmadieva, who is from Kazakhstan and has done research on Afghanistan-Kazakhstan interactions, told AAN.

This author talked to several people from all five Central Asian republics when in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek earlier this year and wrote online to others in September/October 2012. Although it is not claimed that the information fully represents Central Asian public perceptions on Afghanistan and Afghans, it throws some light on them. Here are some of the responses:

– ‘Ordinary people [in Uzbekistan] do not know and do not care about Afghanistan. Our regime does not let them think about politics at all’, said Shahnoza Djabbarova from Uzbekistan;

– ‘Turkmenistan has the least concern about the situation in Afghanistan as there [have been] good relations supported by the [Turkmenistan] government over years with Afghanistan, both with Taleban and present government… and bad news from Afghanistan [is] accepted with sorrow, not fear’, said Oleg Guchgeldiyev from Turkmenistan;

– ‘People in Tajikistan are more concerned about survival on a daily basis. Few people express concern or any interest for that matter in politics be that the politics of our country or of Afghanistan… and [they] are not mostly aware of what is going on across the border’, stated Nilufar Shukrikhudoeva from Tajikistan;

– ‘People in Kyrgyzstan know very little about Afghanistan, but Kyrgyz people will see Afghanistan closer if they see Kyrgyz people living there’, commented Aida Aidarova from Kyrgyzstan;

– ‘From the point of view of ordinary Kazakh people, we are not too concerned about Afghanistan’s developing situation. People are too worried about their financial stability and the future president of the country instead’, said Dinara Zhaksylyk from Kazakhstan.

If we desist from focusing on public lack of interest and information as well as on governmental exaggerations and fear-mongering and look at the problems realistically, Afghanistan is, in practice, not a seriously important issue for the Central Asian governments. They have more immediate and more significant intra-regional and bilateral conflicts to worry about and address (read here and here). Kazakhstan – the region’s strongest economic power – and Uzbekistan – the region’s strongest military power – have been vying for Central Asian regional leadership. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have mined their borders over long-standing conflicts about sharing crucial water resources and bilateral and multilateral trade and transit such as Tajikistan-bound gas supplies. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are competing for regional influence and have also had conflicts over water-sharing. Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan relations have soured, among other things, over ethnic violence and discrimination, particularly during and after the June 2010 catastrophic conflict between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh and Jalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan. Furthermore, Kazakhstan’s eyes are increasingly directed northwards to Russia and westwards to Europe and America rather than to its southern Central Asian neighbours, let alone Afghanistan. These effectively put Afghanistan at the periphery of governmental concerns in Central Asia rather than make it the target of threats and real attention in this region.

A spill-over of the Afghan conflict or aspects of it like the drug trade into Central Asia is realistic, but it need not be as threatening and disastrous as the region’s governmental officials depict it. It also may differ for particular Central Asian countries. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – of Afghanistan’s three direct Central Asian neighbours (with the third being Turkmenistan) – are likely to continue to be most affected.

A spill-over of Islamist terrorism from Afghanistan seems unlikely, however, at least for the time being. The leadership of the IMU, regarded as the most serious militant threat against the region, has been largely dismantled. Although a 2011 AAN report identified some IMU presence in Afghanistan’s Balkh, Faryab and Kunduz provinces bordering Central Asia, the bulk of the IMU fighters are based in Pakistan’s Waziristan, far away from any shared Afghanistan-Central Asia frontier. It is unclear, therefore, if the movement can re-group to organise and carry out attacks in Central Asian territory, apart from causing localised instability and violence on Afghan soil.(9) And even if so, terrorist and extremist threats facing Central Asia (and particularly Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) are more home-grown than what would originate from Afghanistan, as, for example, Christian Bleuer argues (read, for example, here), although others like Ahmed Rashid have, both in the past and recently, talked about larger regional networks of militants.

If there is any actual spill-over of the Afghan conflict into Central Asia, it is more likely to continue to be drug trafficking. Afghanistan is by far the largest global producer of poppy and hashish and increasingly of derivates produced from them. As the recent fighting in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) has shown, there are cross-border networks functioning and corrupt government officials both in Afghanistan and Central Asia can hugely benefit from their trafficking (for a UN report on drug trafficking from Afghanistan through Central Asia and onwards, see here).

In a reverse way, Uzbekistan has engaged to influence Afghanistan’s socio-political developments more seriously than any other Central Asian government. It has supported the Uzbek commander-turned-politician Abdul Rashid Dostum and his party Jombesh-e Melli-ye Islami-ye Afghanistan (Afghanistan’s National Islamic Movement) (for latest developments in the party, read a recent AAN paper). Tajikistan and Uzbekistan also have large numbers of co-ethnics inside Afghanistan, but Afghan Tajiks and Uzbeks are very different from their ethnic kin in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, mainly because of Central Asia’s Sovietisation, despite speaking almost similar languages (see, for example, here).(10)

It also needs to be recalled that conflicts in Afghanistan and Tajikistan have had mutual spill-over effects. During the 1992-97 Tajik civil war, parts of the Tajik opposition fled to Afghanistan, were supported by Afghan mujahedin and used Afghanistan as a safe haven and base to carry out attacks in Tajikistan. During the conflict between the Northern Alliance and the Taleban, Tajikistan had provided, among other things, an airbase to the Northern Alliance in Kulyab in southern Tajikistan for them to use to mobilise and organise the resistance against the Taleban’s advance towards northern Afghanistan (read, for example, here). In addition, the civil war in Tajikistan drove tens of thousands of people out of Tajikistan to the northern Afghan provinces of Balkh, Kunduz and Takhar (read here).

Judging by recent contemporary precedents, an American Central Asia researcher, who requested not to be named, wrote to AAN that ‘the previous experience in the mid- to late 1990s of having a civil war in northern Afghanistan and a Taleban government controlling much of the north was not particularly traumatic’.

Whatever the speculations about the Afghan conflict going northwards may be, Central Asia plus Afghanistan is one of the world’s least integrated regions. To subsume the five former Central Asian Soviet republics under one term – ‘the -stans’ – reflects an un-informed and superficial look at this region. Considering the growing number of bilateral and intra-regional conflicts and competing attempts to achieve regional leadership, this perception is everything but justified.

Most recently, human suffering in the disastrous June 2010 ethnic conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan was perhaps noted by governments and people in the rest of Central Asia and in Afghanistan but they hardly cared about it. The same happened when violence broke out in Tajikistan’s Badakhshan province just a couple of months ago. Both incidents only received transient media coverage and were soon forgotten in Afghanistan, as in many parts of Central Asia. The same may happen if things go wrong in Afghanistan towards and after 2014.

(*) Read the two earlier blogs here and here.

(1) ‘Tajik perceptions about the ISAF drawdown towards 2014’, OSCE Office in Tajikistan (hard copy available with the author). See also here.

(2) Kazakhstan, with its poor democratisation and human rights records, controversially held the presidency of the OSCE in 2010 (read here).

(3) The major possible bridge between both countries is the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas project. But due to insecurity in the region, it still remains on paper mainly. Turkmenistan has been providing humanitarian assistance such as cheap electricity and healthcare assistance in areas in Afghanistan’s north and north-west that are mostly inhabited by ethnic Turkmens.

In 2006, Afghanistan’s Turkmen Cultural Society, which brings together parts of Afghanistan’s Turkmen community, joined World Turkmen Humanitarian Association. The Association is connected to and supported and led by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan (see here and here).

(4) CSTO is a Russian-led regional security organisation involving Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan withdrew from CSTO in July 2012, ‘triggering speculations that it wants closer ties with the US’ (read here), but CSTO’s Russian chief Nikolay Bordyuzha stated in late November 2012 that Uzbekistan will re-join the alliance as Afghanistan’s security situation further deteriorates. Tajikistan presently constitutes the direct border between this organisation and Afghanistan.

(5) UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA) is another regional forum that has been discussing threats directed against Central Asia from Afghanistan. In a February 2012 meeting attended by the author in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek, Armands Pupols, a political affairs officer at UNRCCA, who, inter alia, monitors Afghanistan’s situation and its repercussions for Central Asia, said, ‘Central Asian states are adopting a cautious approach in their relationships with the current Afghan government as future political development scenarios are yet unclear in that country.’

Moreover, the Chinese-led Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) also appears to be activating its role in Afghanistan. How SCO will, however, define and play its role in Afghanistan might be further clarified in the aftermath of China’s recent leadership reshuffle. Recent developments – both in June 2012 – include Afghanistan gaining SCO observer status and Afghanistan and China signing a Joint Declaration on Establishing a Strategic and Co-operative Partnership (read here). China is currently Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investment partner with its considerable investment in the country’s natural resources such as copper in the Ainak copper mine in Logar province to the south of Kabul and oil in the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan (read previous AAN blogs on issues related to the Ainak copper mine here and here).

(6) Kazakhstan even stated in May 2011 that it would send troops to ISAF headquarters in Afghanistan but retracted after two bombing incidents killed at least three people and injured two others in the country (read here) and after it reportedly received a warning from the Taleban. The Kazakhstani officials, however, rejected reports that these two developments were inter-related.

(7) In addition to the Central Asian states, the NDN also involves Russia and countries in the South Caucasus and the Baltic region (for more information, see here and here). Howver, distribution is limited to non-lethal items since Russia is fundamentally opposed to letting NATO use its territory and what it claims as its ‘near abroad’ to transport ‘explosive or dangerous cargo’ (read here). The NDN’s role in US and NATO drawdown has steadily increased because the two southern supply routes leading to Afghanistan through Pakistan (Karachi-Quetta-Chaman and Karachi-Peshawar-Torkham) have become increasingly volatile and were practically closed for approximately seven months from November 2011 to July 2012 (read here).

(8) Stereotypical perceptions, however, abound both in Central Asia about Afghanistan and in Afghanistan about Central Asia. The Central Asian stereotypes have, by and large, reduced Afghans to ‘criminals’, ‘drug traffickers’, ‘the backward’ and, recently in Tajikistan, ‘pleasure-seekers’ (see here and here). Typical Afghans, by contrast, generally perceive Central Asia as a ‘free’, ‘rich’ and ‘advanced’ area, while the region is, in practice, ruled by authoritarian governments and presidents for life (with a possible recent exception of Kyrgyzstan) with notorious disregard for human rights, is generally poverty-stricken (excluding Kazakhstan) and is one of the world’s most internally divided regions characterised by conflicts over ‘water-sharing, border delineation, trade and transit, and other issues’ (eg, ethnic discrimination and ill-treatment) (for more information, read here). These perceptions may not be changing, at least not in the near future. Afghanistan-Central Asia governmental and public interactions continue to be limited. As far as trade (and its role in expanding governmental and people-to-people relationships) is concerned, Afghanistan-Central Asia trade is insignificant compared to Afghanistan’s trade, for instance, with Iran and Pakistan and it continues to be hindered by the ‘unfamiliarity of Afghan traders with Central Asian and Russian products’ and ‘product labelling language’, among other things (see here), despite recent initiatives to boost trade and co-operation between Afghanistan (and South Asia) and Central Asia (see, for examples, here and here).

(9) For example, an IMU member, who was allegedly implicated in 26 October 2012 suicide bombing that killed over 40 people in Faryab’s provincial centre Maimana, was reportedly killed by Afghan and international military forces in Almar district of this province on 30 November 2012 (see here).

(10) This is also largely true for ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmens living in their titular Central Asian countries and in Afghanistan.


Central Asia International Transition