Last week in his State of the Union speech U.S. President Barack Obama declared that by the end of 2014 "our war in Afghanistan will be over." Aside from finally bring the soldiers home the end of this phase of the war in Afghanistan could have some long term consequences, including a slow but steady decrease in Western security interests, an increase in drug traffic and terrorism in Central Asia. Will the West wash its hands of any involvement in Central Asia, something that will please Russia, the Peoples Republic of China and the drug dealers and the terrorists alike?
At the moment at least, US (and Western) policy is based on an assumption that the 350,000-strong Afghan National Army (with US assistance and advisers), will be able to hold off or at least manage the Taliban. After 2014, unless there is a political deal, the Taliban will stay in the field with varying degrees of control in most of the Pashtun areas and perhaps beyond them. How far have we come since the heady days of 2001, when the suggestion that a battered Taliban would still be active in the field thirteen years after the invasion, would have been treated with disbelief.
As the Soviet Union faded into history in the 1990s, Taliban were in control of much of Afghanistan, their success (and the support of Pakistan) encouraged other extremists in Central Asia. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who had fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan was responsible for bomb attacks in Uzbekistan and kidnappings in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. After the invasion in 2001, splinter groups like the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Uzbekistan and targeted the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Tashkent (in 2004).
At present both the IJU and IMU have sought safe refuge in those parts of Pakistan which could politely be described as being effectively ungoverned. Once NATO leaves Afghanistan their fight may yet be carried back to Central Asia, no doubt fuelled with the support and encouragement of Pakistan’s military and intelligence community. Power, politics, water and Islamic inspired insurgency are just some of potential problems that may feed Central Asia’s future insecurities.
Power and water are connected by plans to construct dams in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan which while boosting their economies also may threaten to reduce water for agriculture (cotton) in neighbouring Uzbekistan. There is already talk of ‘water wars’, the flash point may be the lush (and relatively green) Ferghana Valley (which divided between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) with its complex mix of ethnic groups, it’s badly drawn borders (which date back to Stalin’s time) and fresh oppression, and a recruiting ground for Islamic jihadists. Back in 2005, Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of protesters in Andijon (in Uzbekistan).
Ethnic tensions have been simmering for years, several hundred Uzbeks and a smaller number of Kyrgyz died in bloody ethnic clashes in Osh (in Kyrgyzstan) and in nearby areas. To make things worse a historical cesspool of corruption in Central Asia (dating back to Soviet times) has worked to undermine most people’s belief in effective or fair governance. Transparency International’s corruption perception index of 174 states, lists Kazakhstan at 133rd, Kyrgyzstan at 154th, Tajikistan at 157th, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are 170th. Afghanistan incidentally comes in at 174th; the UK comes in at 17th and Ireland at 25th.
Unfortunately for Central Asia, as the West’s interest in Afghanistan (and the rest of Central Asia) wanes as the Afghan war winds down, the region remains between ambitious reborn great powers in the shape of Russia and China. While some in the West may occasionally speak out against any moves by Russia to manipulate the CIS customs union to "re-Sovietize" Eurasia, soon there will be no Western boots (virtual or otherwise) on the ground let alone and desire to offer an alternative.
Kazakhstan, while resisting political union, is a member of the Russian dominated customs union. Neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with one-third to one-half of their economies being dependent on migrant-labour based remittance payments from Russia may not have the luxury of playing for time. As NATO influence wanes and it pulls out of its bases in the region, Russia may increase the pressure by offering protection by expanding its military foothold in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan which already reluctantly host Russian military bases.
For Central Asia, any choices may be stark ones, Russia to the north, Islamic fundamentalism to the south or the People’s Republic of China to the East. Already the PRC looms large in Central Asian economies, with opportunities for trade and inward investment. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan now ship energy long distances to the PRC, something that hope may help reduce the effectiveness of Russia’s effective control of export pipeline routes to the West.
The PRC already uses the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to boost its Central Asian interests, for now admittedly these are mainly economic and energy related. While the PRC does not at least publicly challenge Russia's geopolitical role, as China's economic and political influence increases the Central Asian states freedom of action may be further reduced.
As NATO troop reductions in Afghanistan proceed, so NATO's need for logistical support via the northern distribution network in Central Asia will further diminish. The Central Asian governments, who are increasingly concerned that a NATO pullback (let alone a pullout) will leave the region more exposed to subversion and increased Russian and Chinese influence. Ironically the Central Asian States want continued Western support to hold off the IMU and IJU, to counter narcotics smuggling, and to help them keep Russian and Chinese power at arm’s length.
The brief 12 year period when the West’s had relative freedom of action in Central Asia is closing. Back in 2001, Russia effectively gave the USA and its coalition partners the go ahead to use bases in the region to support operations in Afghanistan. Now a more confident Russia is actively working to remove any NATO presence and influence from the region and is opposed to any Western involvement in dealing with the ongoing narcotics and terrorism problems.
In many ways the West failed to either effectively or consistently deal with the emergence of the newly independent Central Asian states and more widely failed to deal effectively with the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the independent successor states. Western aid was relatively scare, and not tied into a respect for human rights and civil liberties. The often authoritarian governments have quite happily used security tools against their domestic protesters, something that has quite often fed political unrest and fundamentalism.
As NATO prepares to leave Afghanistan (and the region) what legacy if any will it leave behind? There should be some areas for security cooperation, information exchange and border security with the Central Asian states. There should be a more robust sharing of intelligence about terrorism, narcotics, and criminal threats. This could add to the solid, low-key work by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union that has already been undertaken.
After 2014, it is quite possible that Central Asia will go back to being the focal point of yet another new Great Game, this time the battleground where outsiders seek to impose their influence may well only have two players, Russia and the PRC. Central Asian governments may well need assistance to securing themselves against external dangers, but the reality is that historic autocratic rule, weak governance and grim human rights records are as big a contributors to political instability as the threat of home grown or foreign Islamic insurgencies.