Anton Rovenskyy, Master of International Relations, International Political Scientist
The official decision of the White House on the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan till September 2021 has launched some core changes in the life of this country. A brand new, post-American security circuit evolves gradually, with an ever-increasing number of provinces under the control of 'Taliban', which is set to have the leading role. The movement has progressed to the borders of Tajikistan, which raises a number of security issues for the Central Asian nations. Is there any threat for the republics of the region due to the fundamental shifts in Afghanistan is the subject of the article below.
Considering security matters, the biggest number of problems in Tajikistan may rise in two regions on the border with Afghanistan — Khalton region and Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous region. The long Tajikistan-Afghani borderline cannot be duly fortified due to the geography of the region, therefore focusing the attention of radical Islamists on the territories under the formal control of the official Kabul. The so-called Batken Conflict in 1999, when the militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan tried to invade the territory of Kyrgyzstan through Tajikistan, show that even several hundreds of paramilitary combatants can significantly destabilize the region for several months.
One should point out, there are a number of factions in the Taliban, one standing for the establishment of an Islamic emirate exclusively within the internationally recognized borders of Afghanistan, while other groups of influence support external expansion. Meanwhile, the possibility of merger between Taliban expansionists with the Islamic State is relatively high, which may skyrocket the risks for the republics of the region.
External threat for Tajikistan is related to a high level of economic and social misconduct within the nation. As for now, popular protest movements are suppressed by the autocratic regime of Emomali Rahmon, but the Islamist insurgency may become a 'black swan', which will provoke immense social protests. One should also bear in mind Islamist 'frozen' foxholes on the territory of Central Asia. In such a case, the external support, which is vital for Tajikistan, may become insufficient for the nation.
After the death of Islam Karimov in 2016 and the new leadership of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, a number of reforms was launched in Uzbekistan, aimed to liberalize public sphere and to speed up economic growth. It is worth mentioning, the modernization of the republic was remarked upon in the West, with The Economist awarding Uzbekistan as the 'Nation of the Year' in 2019.
Moreover, during the rule of Karimov the activities of the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan was successfully countered. The length of the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan is 137 km, being one of the most fortified in the world. At the first glance, the security situation in Uzbekistan is rather successful.
However, the protest potential in Uzbek society is rather high with Fergana Valley being the most problematic region. Fergana Valley is one of the most densely populated regions in Eurasia, with the high level of Islamization and unemployed youth. The 2005 unrests in Andijan, a little city in Fergana Valley, are unlikely to be repeated in the near future, however the region remains rather dangerous.
One should also notice, that several thousands of Uzbek nationals have fought among Islamist fundamentalists in the Middle East (Iraq, Syria), with most of them being from the Fergana Valley. Their military experience and contacts with the international terrorist movement possesses as an additional risk factor for Uzbekistan.
A number of coup d’etats, being very regular in Kyrgyzstan (2005, 2010, 2020), have led to the deterioration of the governmental institutions and degradation of the nation’s security circuit. The successes of the new Kyrgyz president Sadyr Zhaparov on the reconstruction of institutional effectiveness are rather modest.
Kyrgyzstan is the most liberal nation in Central Asia. During the last 15 years, a vast network of NGOs, mostly banned in the bordering countries due to their potential to spread Islamic ideology, had been established in Kyrgyzstan. Such kind of ideology becomes more popular among the Kyrgyz society due to the low effectiveness of social lifts, high levels of unemployment and widespread poverty. The tension on the line ‘North-South’ remains high in Kyrgyzstan (the North is more economically developed and ethnically homogeneous), with the Kyrgyz part of the Fergana Valley being as problematic, as the Uzbek one.
From the start of the millennium, Kyrgyzstan has become a field for competition between Russia, the US and, after a while, the PRC. The national elites have to consider intertwining interests of big powers, ineffective government and a large layer of social problems, as well as taking into account the additional threats of destabilization of the region as a whole.
The self-isolation of Turkmenistan, both informational and ‘physical’, associated also with the complete cessation of international air traffic from February 2020 till nowadays, does not allow to form an objective picture of the current Turkmenistan political agenda. However, the thesis on the high level of social discontent is hardly an exaggeration. Even if it does not convert into any form of protest, the external factor can act as a trigger for Turkmenistan.
During 2015-2016, there were regular reports of armed clashes on the border between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, with several Turkmen border guards were killed. Nobody can predict the possible outcome of clashes between Turkmen guards and Afghan Islamists, which is also a factor of uncertainty for the neighboring countries of the nation.
Meanwhile, China and India, which are implementing large energy projects in the post-Soviet republic, are interested in ensuring the stability of Turkmenistan. Although, whether they will provide any practical assistance to Turkmenistan in case the situation in the region becomes more tense, the question remains open.
Afghanistan and other Central Asian nations are important transport corridors, connecting the Asia-Pacific region with the Middle East and Europe. This factor predetermines the involvement of big powers in the region. By now, Kazakhstan feels relatively safe in this situation, being the most developed Central Asian state, as well as maintaining good relations with the majority of global and regional centers. The start of the ‘New Great Game’ in Central Asia turns out to be one of the key possible geopolitical plots and will become clear by the end of 2021.