Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors — Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan — are awaiting the withdrawal of Western troops from this country with varying degrees of alarmist and pessimistic sentiment. Most sentimentally-minded analysts believe that radical movements will definitely rise from the Pakistani border to northern Afghanistan to destabilize the situation in the Central Asian republics. Is it so? An Washington scholar from Washington, Bayram Balji, offers his answer to this question.
All countries in the region have repeatedly expressed their concern about the situation after the coalition left Afghanistan. For example, the President of Uzbekistan still 7 December 2012-th called the world community to create a contact group under the auspices of the UN to solve problems that, in his opinion, will certainly arise after the withdrawal of troops. The Kyrgyz government also stated that all threats to the security of their country came from Afghanistan, and the withdrawal of troops would inevitably lead to chaos. Tajikistan, which has a long border with Afghanistan, also often expresses its fears about what awaits it after 2014. Even Kazakhstan, which does not border Afghanistan, shares universal concerns. Only Turkmenistan, the only state in Central Asia that maintained constant relations with the Taliban until their fall in 2001, shows no particular concern.
This concern, although justified, is greatly exaggerated, and the pseudo-threat from Afghanistan is used by Central Asian governments for their own purposes.
At first glance, countries in the region have legitimate concerns. Since independence, many of the problems of these republics and security threats have been partially linked to Afghanistan. Afghanistan, the world leader in opium production, “exports” some of its narcotic products through the Central Asian republics. Radical Islamism, which Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan intend to confront, was partially fueled and supported by Afghan instability. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) took refuge in Afghanistan after it was squeezed out of Central Asia, and it still operates in the tribal zone. Even if it did not commit major terrorist attacks in Central Asia for 10 years, in theory it could be attributed to new threats to the security of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where it was active before the “exile” to Afghanistan. Kazakhstan, although it is far from Afghanistan, is concerned about the presence of the jihadist movement on its territory.
If you listen to the leaders of the Central Asian states, the withdrawal of the Western coalition forces will surely bring the Taliban movement to power or, at a minimum, ease the pressure exerted by Western forces on the jihadist Central Asian movements that have found refuge in Afghanistan. This supposedly will allow them to rise to the north of Afghanistan, from where it will be quite easy to strike at the Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik regimes. Some regional experts believe that the factor of residence of the same ethnic groups on both sides of the border should not be neglected either, as if this fact alone is on hand to jihadi terrorists.
In other words, it is believed that there is a risk of “contamination”, and the countries of the region have the right to concern. However, a careful analysis of the situation shows that these fears are greatly exaggerated. We will conduct a brief analysis of the main arguments of those who believe in the risk of “overflowing” of the jihadist threat.
Separated by boundary and mentality
The residence of representatives of the same ethnic groups on both sides of the Afghan border is not a sufficient factor for the Islamist threat. Afghan Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen, of course, are very close to their counterparts in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. However, despite the linguistic, cultural and even religious community, one should not forget about the many differences that have arisen between the same ethnic groups over many decades. They were identical before the arrival of the Russian Empire in the region, but later they developed in completely different socio-political contexts. Russian culture, and even more Soviet culture, with the fall of the Central Asian emirates and the khanates, distanced Uzbeks, Turkmen and Tajiks from each other on opposite sides of Amu-Darya.
Even after 20 years of independence, the societies of Central Asia feel completely different from the Afghan society. Both the elite and ordinary citizens of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan continue to perceive Afghanistan negatively and even hostilely. This negative perception is supported by regimes that, in the event of any public tension, scare their populations with the possible “Afghanization” of their countries.
Uzbekistan provides a convincing example of disinterest in its fellows from Afghanistan. This country, the most populated in the region, which has the most diasporas in neighboring countries, has never had a policy of rapprochement with its ethnic brothers and movements of the Uzbek diaspora. Islam Karimov has always been suspicious of the nationalist and Islamist ideas of the Uzbek diasporas of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Afghanistan. Relations between Tashkent and the Uzbek field commander from Afghanistan, Rashid Dostum, have never been brilliant. Tashkent has always approached this local government not out of love, but because of the need to defend against Afghan threats. Rashid Dostum often resides in Turkey than in Uzbekistan. As for Uzbeks from other post-Soviet countries, for example, in Kyrgyzstan, Islam Karimov is interested in them only in force majeure circumstances, as was the case during the Osh events of the summer of 2010.
All Central Asian countries adhere to the policy of state building along an ethnonational type with a delineated territory within the borders inherited from the USSR. Colleagues in other countries, especially in gloomy and barbarous Afghanistan, are of little interest for post-Soviet Central Asia. Because of this hostility and regimes, and the people of Central Asia to what comes from the south, there is little chance that the Islamist movements, if they come from Afghanistan, will have the support of the people of Central Asia.
Radical Islam fizzles out
The risk of Islamist contagion seems even less likely when analyzing policies regarding the religious situation in these countries, as well as the evolution of relations between different forms of Islam in Central Asian societies. First of all, this analysis shows that radical Islam, which appeals to violence to assert its positions, has never had support among the local population, and at the moment is backing away. So, the IMU, the most significant jihadist movement in Central Asia, did not commit major attacks from 2004. The much less influential Kazakh jihadist movement performed small acts, although it is not known for certain whether it was them who committed them. In addition, there are doubts about the very existence of such a movement. Even non-radical and non-jihadist fundamentalism, represented by the Hizbut-Tahrir party, after a period of some popularity in Central Asian countries, runs out of steam - partly because of repression, but also because the local population lost interest in this movement, which is more like a party not Islamic and Marxist-Leninist sense.
Radical and fundamentalist Islam is retreating for many reasons. Some of these are directly related to governments and their way of managing a religious phenomenon. Even though this seems paradoxical, the repressions of the Central Asian regimes did not contribute much to the retreat of Islamism, but, on the contrary, sometimes fed it. The repressions had a double effect: they reduced Islamism, but in some cases contributed to the radicalization of moderate Muslims who fell under repression.
Another fact should also be taken into account in the evolution of Islamism in Central Asia - this is to some extent the Islamization of the Central Asian regimes themselves, who in the fight against Islamism would not want to look like enemies of Islam in the eyes of their Muslim population.
A vivid example of such “Islamization of the regime” to weaken radical Islamism is shown by Uzbekistan, the most Muslim country in Central Asia, due to its stories and the number of Muslims. At the beginning of 90, President Islam Karimov expelled the nationalist opposition from the country, but appropriated most of their nationalist ideas. He applied the same policy in relation to Islamism. Not that Islam Karimov became an Islamist, but his control of the religious factor makes him a Muslim leader who inspires the revival of Islam under the auspices of the state.
The state restores important Islamic places of worship and even opens educational Islamic institutions like the Islamic University or small madrasas. This religious policy makes him a president respected by traditional Uzbek Islam, in particular, Sufism. It provides him with the support of the majority of the Muslim population of Uzbekistan, where being an Uzbek means being Muslim, but Muslim in understanding ancestors, that is, practicing moderate Sunni Islam, apolitical and respectful to the legacy of brotherhoods.
Such voluntary Islamization of the country in order to resist radical Islamism was to some extent applied in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which in their own manners rather successfully promote the new national Islam, where ethnic features are widely present.
This religious policy did not prevent the Central Asian regimes from simultaneously repressing everything that could be similar to radical Islamism. Despite excesses, it contributed to the progress of moderate Islam, which adequately meets the needs of the religion of a large part of the population.
Recent studies of Central Asian jihadist movements, in particular, the IMU, show that they are not interested in their country of origin. This group is still a scary story for Tashkent because of its initial goal to overthrow the regime of Islam Karimov and establish an Islamic caliphate. But for several years now his discourse and his activities have become more international in nature. In other words, after working closely with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which cost the lives of both its leaders (Namangani was killed in 2001, and Yuldashev in 2009), the Uzbek IMU seems to be moving away from its original goals It is absorbed to some extent by its owners, from whom it borrowed purpose and strategy. In addition, the IMU now has more non-Uzbek militants and even non-Central Asian ones, as people from the Caucasus, Turkey and even Muslims from Europe join its ranks.
Finally, all the jihadists from Central Asia are now stationed on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in FATA (federally controlled tribal territories), far from the border that separates Afghanistan from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Why do we need horror stories?
Why are the regimes of the post-Soviet countries of Central Asia so exaggerate the Islamist threat? This happens for many reasons and with a certain political calculation. And these reasons can be divided into two categories. All countries in the region, more or less affected by the Afghan problem, use alarmist statements about various threats, including Islamist ones, primarily with the aim of enhancing their role in the regional and international arenas. The US military bases in Bishkek and Khanabad were solid sources of foreign exchange for Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. But it is not only about economic and financial interests. From the neighborhood with Afghanistan, the countries of Central Asia were able to extract political and strategic benefits.
It is thanks to the Afghan threat that all countries in the region are interested in world superpowers - the United States, Europe, and, of course, China and Russia. Thanks to the war in Afghanistan, the countries of the region were able to hold regular political consultations with the United States and the EU countries. But the end of the war in Afghanistan, which generates fear and uncertainty in the countries of the region, allows them to break out of regional isolation and begin a dialogue with world powers. The countries of Central Asia continue to use the Afghan factor, including risks and security threats, to build their capacity to trade with world powers and strengthen their sovereignty in the international arena.
In domestic policy, the so-called Islamist threat is exaggerated by local regimes with a well-defined goal. It allows them to maintain pressure on all Muslims up to repression against those who do not want to live in accordance with the form of Islam, which is imposed by the state.
Generally speaking, the Islamist pseudo-threat allows all countries in the region to postpone the necessary reforms indefinitely. The phased withdrawal of ISAF troops from Afghanistan is the most discussed political event in Central Asia. And the extremely active media coverage of this event, launched by local regimes, in fact, is intended to hide other, really important issues of social and political life.
But the problems are much more important and serious than the mythical “Afghan threat”, there are: this is the inheritance of power, and comprehensive corruption, and ethnic nationalism. Of the five countries, at least two - Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan - will soon have to solve the problem of the transfer of power to their leaders. But this question remains taboo, that in a political clan system, competitive, but non-transparent, can lead to the most severe violence. On the other hand, corruption and nepotism have reached such an extent that the population can no longer bear them. Finally, ethnic nationalism, used by all countries to build a new national state in isolation from the Soviet era, brings the beginnings of violence more brutal than religious extremism, which in Central Asia is not as acute as in other Muslim countries.
* This publication is an abbreviated version of an article written for the French Scientific Center for International Studies CERI.