As Washington prepares to pull most of its troops out of Afghanistan next year, neighboring Central Asian states are increasingly worried about their own security and the stability of their southern borders. Of the five post-Soviet republics, Tajikistan, which currently remains the poorest country in the region, with over 38 percent of its population living below the World Bank’s poverty line, has been particularly exposed to the growing terrorist threat from across the border with Afghanistan.
In late September, the Tajik Interior Ministry reported the arrest of a group of ten radicals presumably linked to Al-Qaeda, which is believed to have provided them with special military training in secret camps located in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to Tajikistan’s security services, they had purportedly planned to stage large-scale terrorist attacks against government buildings and civilians in the country’s capital, Dushanbe, in the run-up to the presidential election that took place on November 6. Three weeks later, three members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an extremist organization banned in all five Central Asian states, were detained in the north of Tajikistan, at the heart of the Fergana Valley, a particularly unstable region densely populated by ethnic Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.
Speaking at a press conference in late October, Nikolay Bordyuzha who has served as Secretary-General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a politico-military bloc dominated by Russia, said that the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan might pose a serious challenge to Central Asia’s security. Furthermore, in Bordyuzha’s words, hundreds of Central Asians who may now be fighting government forces in Syria would sooner or later come home for the same purpose of defying local regimes and establishing on their ruins an Islamic state. While Tajikistan has long been considered as the CSTO’s weakest member most in need of military assistance to survive in an increasingly hostile regional environment, other states are growing equally dependent on outside security aid.
Gripped by chronic political instability linked to poor economic growth and endless power struggles between its northern and southern clans, Kyrgyzstan has already lived through two popular revolutions, in 2005 and 2010. As the country’s economy continues to stagnate and its political opposition is actively seeking to overthrow the government by denting its domestic credibility, arrests of Islamist radicals, especially from Hizb ut-Tahrir, have become especially frequent of late. These alarming trends notwithstanding, Kyrgyz authorities actually stuck to their word by notifying on November 14 the local U.S. Embassy about the forthcoming closure of the Manas Air Transit Center, a U.S. military facility located at the Bishkek airport. Opened as an airbase in the wake of the 2001 antiterrorist campaign in Afghanistan, Manas is now being used by American and allied forces to transport home their military personnel and some of the equipment from Afghan battlefields.
While both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are regarded more stable, their respective security contexts are far from idyllic. The two countries face power transitions in the near future, since the Uzbek and Kazakh presidents will turn respectively 76 and 74 next year. Since the 1999 and 2004 bombings orchestrated by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Tashkent has largely succeeded in driving the extremist organization out of Uzbek territory. However, if an upcoming political transition were to lead to acute struggles for influence among rival clans and, as a result, protracted domestic uncertainty, the country might see the quick return of homegrown terrorism. In Kazakhstan, a wave of terrorist attacks against the local security services, which took place between 2011 and 2012, much to the surprise of the ruling regime, suddenly shattered the myth of its peaceful rise to the pinnacle of internal stability in Central Asia.
Changing Power Balance
In this increasingly fragile security context, the balance of power among the major regional players, including Russia, China and the United States, has recently been shifting as it never did before. Despite recurrent rumors about Washington’s informal talks with some Central Asian states with a view to redeploying its troops from Kyrgyzstan to another location – Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are frequently named as potential candidates – no agreement has been reached so far on this delicate issue. While Uzbekistan eagerly agreed to host an American airbase at Karshi-Khanabad after the launch of the Afghanistan military campaign, Tashkent did not hesitate to promptly expel U.S. troops following the Andijan massacre of May 2005. On that occasion, Washington and other Western capitals harshly condemned the Uzbek government’s crackdown on hundreds of presumably unarmed demonstrators in the city of Andijan, whom Tashkent blamed for instigating violence with the support of several extremist groups.
Uzbekistan withdrew from the CSTO last June, after the adoption of a new foreign policy strategy in which the country would not be aligned with any military blocs at all, and has clearly abstained from reestablishing its previously close military cooperation with either the U.S. or NATO. As for neighboring Tajikistan, the seriousness of its months-long flirtations with Washington has recently been disproved by Dushanbe’s ratification of a military base agreement with Russia, extending the presence of Russian soldiers on Tajik soil to 2042. With the U.S. military presence in Central Asia currently set on a course of rapid withdrawal, Russia has instead intensified its bilateral military assistance to the region. After Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visits to Bishkek and Dushanbe in September-October 2012, sources close to the Kremlin confirmed Moscow’s readiness to provide as much as USD 1.3 billion worth of military aid to both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. While Kyrgyzstan is slated to receive the lion’s share of this assistance package (almost 85 percent), Moscow has also promised to provide additional military training to Tajik officers.
Now that Washington no longer views Central Asia as a priority region for its foreign policy, given its ongoing disengagement from Afghanistan, which has consumed much of Washington’s attention since the early 2000s, it remains to be seen whether Russia will be capable of assuming full responsibility for the region’s security in the post-2014 context. This task actually may be complicated by a number of factors. First among these is Russia’s ambiguous relationship with most of the local regimes, which have tended to build their post-independence domestic discourses on the rejection of the Soviet legacy and Moscow’s geopolitical domination.
Second, there is China’s continued absence from Central Asia’s security affairs. While China actively pursues interstate cooperation within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), this multilateral structure has never been close to becoming, as some earlier predicted, a local equivalent of NATO. In actuality, Beijing still prefers to reap the fruits of its growing economic ties with the region, especially in the energy field, while Russia does the dirty work of training local security forces and worrying about security and stability on the ground.
Third, relations among Central Asians themselves remain tense, thus drastically reducing the opportunity for productive security cooperation in the foreseeable future, even in the face of growing terrorist and extremist threats from the south. Ties are poisoned as much by repetitive border incidents erupting in the unstable Fergana Valley as by unsettled water disputes, beggar-thy-neighbor trade policies (for instance, in the field of natural gas trade) and sometimes personal animosities at the leadership level.
With these three factors combined, Central Asia may now be facing a dim future, much in line with the characterization Zbigniew Brzezinski offered for the region back in 1997, when he famously called it the “Eurasian Balkans.”
Georgiy Voloshin is a widely published Russia/CIS expert and consultant collaborating with the Jamestown Foundation and the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of the John Hopkins University, among others.