Majlis Podcast: Who will Help Defend Central Asia from Insecurity in Afghanistan?

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Military officers take part in a command-staff exercise by a joint Russian-Tajik force at Kharbmaidon, next to the border with Afghanistan, in March. (REF/RL)

Afghanistan, May 29, 2017: These are certainly tense times for security officials in Central Asia.

Barely halfway through this spring, the violence in northern Afghanistan, in provinces just across the border from Central Asia, has already reached levels not seen since the late 1990s.

The April 21 attack on a military base in Balkh Province, just across the border from Uzbekistan, left more than 130 Afghan soldiers dead, and the Taliban has besieged Kunduz city, the capital of Kunduz Province, which borders Tajikistan, for the third time in less than two years.
There are also the battles in the Zebak district of Badakhshan Province, which also borders Tajikistan. The Ghormach district in Faryab Province, adjacent to Turkmenistan, has been solidly under militant control for weeks and in other areas of Faryab, and Jowzjan Province to the east, control of villages passes back-and-forth between government forces and militants.

Officials in the Central Asian capitals north of the Afghan border are surely weighing their options at the moment, including who they might call upon for aid if some element of instability currently present inside Afghanistan makes its way over the northern border.

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That was the topic of the latest Majlis, or panel discussion, RFE/RL arranged that looked at parties the Central Asians could be expected to call upon should some problem from Afghanistan destabilize their own governments.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From the RFE/RL studio, Dr. Stephan Blank, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, joined the discussion. From Britain, our old friend Dr. David Lewis, senior lecturer in politics at Exeter University, took part.

Blank noted, “Everybody in Central Asian establishments is always concerned that whatever happens in Afghanistan will not be confined to Afghanistan.”

That has generally been the view of Central Asian governments for the last 25 years.

The most immediate fear in Central Asia, as the panel made clear, is not the Taliban. The Taliban has never been able to exert control over all of Afghanistan, even in the late 1990s, so the group has never been in a position to consider expansion beyond Afghanistan’s borders.

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Even now, when the Taliban is resurgent, the militants are a very long way off from conquering Afghanistan.

Lewis said, “Even if the Taliban itself has not been particularly interested in spreading into Central Asia, it’s acted as an umbrella, sort of like a protector for groups, which may well have security designs on Central Asia.”

Lewis said for Central Asian governments “the bigger problem [in Afghanistan] is…this array of other groups that may be in conflict with the Taliban or at least have different goals from the Taliban, particularly various offshoots of groups that somehow are linked to forms of Islamic State [militant group].”

Citizens of Central Asia are present in many of the militant groups currently active in northern Afghanistan.

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Fighting along or near the Tajik border has been in the news a lot recently. Tajikistan is unique among the three Central Asian states that border Afghanistan (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan being the other two). Tajikistan has clear agreements for receiving outside military help to defend the country.

Tajikistan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), along with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia.

As the security situation in northern Afghanistan has deteriorated over the last three years, the CSTO has offered numerous pledges of rapid military support to the Tajik government if problems from Afghanistan spill across the border.

But Blank said, “There are real question marks about the actual readiness of the CSTO as a military alliance.”

He pointed out, “Formally speaking there’s the Collective Security Treaty Organization, in practice that really means the Russian Army.”

And Blank added that Russia is “already involved in three wars, in the North Caucasus, Ukraine, and Syria, the economy is very constrained, military spending has had to be cut, and the last thing they need is a fourth protracted war.”

Blank suggested that was one of the reasons Moscow had entered into talks with the Taliban because “Russia has decided that ISIS is the greater threat,” and the most likely to destabilize the situation in Central Asia.

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Russia has the 201st Division stationed in Tajikistan. Russia commands the CSTO base at Kant, Kyrgyzstan, also.

But Lewis explained, “Tajikistan’s been very cautious about its military relationship with Russia,” and “there’s a lot of sensitivity in the region about Russian involvement in Central Asia, and that’s certainly the case for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.”

Uzbekistan is no longer a CSTO member. The first time Uzbekistan withdrew from the CSTO was in 1999, shortly after Tashkent invoked the CSTO mutual-defense treaty when the Taliban arrived at the Uzbek border (Uzbekistan rejoined the CSTO in 2006 but pulled out in 2012). At that time Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said he would not send even one soldier to defend Central Asia.

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Uzbekistan is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), along with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia, and China, but Blank said, “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization cannot be relied on, it has never…developed the capability to function as a hard security organization.”

Lewis suggested there was another option that would probably be particularly unpalatable to the Kremlin. “I think from a Russian perspective, the kind of nightmare scenario is that if Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan come under pressure they turn not to Russia for help but to other countries, maybe even to the West,” Lewis said.

There is another issue here and that is the definition of an internal versus external security threat.

It was noted in the Majlis that when inter-ethnic violence erupted in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, the CSTO did not intervene, deeming that an internal problem.

But Lewis said, “It seems to me the real problem is if you get some internal dissention or state collapse in Central Asia.” And Blank noted that in Tajikistan’s case, “I’m not altogether certain the Tajik government is strong enough to fight off an internal challenge.”

Should Central Asian militants currently located in northern Afghanistan be able cross into Central Asia and wage a terrorist campaign how would the CSTO, SCO, or others view that situation? (REF/RL)