The war in Afghanistan — more than a decade and a half and counting — is a primary security problem for the countries of Central Asia. Leaders of the region fear the spread of instability from the war zone north. Afghanistan hosts terrorist groups that were initially formed in Central Asia and are affiliated with the Taliban, which itself has grand ambitions to form a caliphate in Afghanistan.
An analysis of combat actions in Afghanistan shows that jihadists from Central Asia have been encouraged by the Taliban’s military successes. The militants of Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, which consists of mainly ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, conducted a series of successful attacks in the first months of 2017.
In March 2017, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari’s website published a few videos in the Uzbek language. One video shows armed Uzbek jihadists in the mountains of Afghanistan driving trucks and motorcycles. Then a militant named Mujahid Idris fires on an Afghan police office. Every time a shell hits the building, the jihadist says that “target is hit.” The militants start intense fire from a large-caliber machine gun, then a militant named Mujahid Sayfurrohman appears with his face covered, wearing a knit cap and carrying a gun in his hands. He says, “We are conducting an attack under the leadership of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and in this battle the Taliban mujahideen stand beside us. We are asking Allah to continue the Islamic Jihad. New lands, new victories are awaiting us. If it’s God’s will, we’ll achieve our goal.”
In another video, militants in northern Afghanistan blow up Afghan military vehicles while an unseen speaker says, in Uzbek, “the mujahideen of Imam al-Bukhari under the flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan heroically wage a sacred war against kafirs in the provinces of Faryab, Jowzjan.”
Katibat al-Imam Bukhari’s website has published about 10 other videos alleging to depict successful attacks by the group under the command of the Taliban against the armed forces of Afghanistan.
This may prove that extremist groups from Central Asia are operating under the auspices of the Taliban in Afghanistan — contrary to what the Taliban claims. In June 2016, the Taliban issued a statement directed to the Central Asian republics, which are increasingly nervous about militant activity along their southern borders. In the statement, the Taliban leaders pledged that they would not conduct combat actions against the Central Asian countries. The Taliban said its relations with neighboring countries were guided by the principle: “Do not harm nor accept harm.”
The statement went on to say, “Hence in accordance with the stated policy, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan wishes to assure the Central Asian countries and all its neighbors that – contrary to the enemy propaganda – the Islamic Emirate does not seek to interfere in the internal affairs of others nor will it allow anyone to use the land under the control of Islamic Emirate against anyone else; rather we seek to live alongside others in an atmosphere of mutual understanding.”
The recent videos, however, tell a different story: a group of predominantly Central Asian militants operating under the guidance and in the name of the Taliban.
Putin’s “Hybrid Diplomacy” in Afghanistan
The situation is further complicated by geopolitics in the region, particularly Russia’s new approach. In the last five years, the Russian authorities have held secret negotiations with the Taliban. In mid-November 2016, Zamir Kabulov, special envoy of the Russian president to Afghanistan, told the Turkish Anadolu news agency that Moscow “has channels of communications with the Taliban” whose interests “coincide” with the Russian ones. He also noted that “the Taliban are mainly a national liberation movement,” linking that to the fact that they fight against the Americans who are “invading their country and threatening their cultural and religious traditions.”
The statement by Putin’s envoy elicited a sharply negative reaction from the government of Afghanistan. European diplomats called Moscow’s strategy “Putin’s hybrid diplomacy,” a phrase that applied also in eastern Ukraine, the Crimea, and Syria.
Russia’s game in Afghanistan differs vastly from U.S. policy in the country and hardly fits into the logic of global leaders who are fighting al-Qaeda. In August 2015, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader, pledged allegiance to the late leader of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, and this oath has not lost its force. Al-Qaeda continues to coordinate the activities of affiliated Islamist groups including Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad, the Turkestan Islamic Party, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari and the Islamic Jihad Union, which are fighting in Syria under the command of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
The example of the Katibat al-Imam Bukhari videos shows how these terrorist groups from Central Asia are fighting today under the flag of the Taliban in Afghanistan against government troops. Despite the Russian authorities’ statement that the Taliban’s ties with foreign terrorist organizations have been broken, the Taliban are stealthily continuing to coordinate their actions with al-Qaeda.
Russia’s strategy vis-a-vis the Taliban is beneficial to Moscow for several reasons.
First, Moscow’s “hybrid diplomacy” is less about Russian recognition of the political force of the Taliban and more about emphasizing Russia’s influence and interests, particularly to the United States. But Russia does not have the financial capacity to invest in the economy of Afghanistan. The use of “hybrid diplomacy” is far cheaper than economic involvement and less troublesome than dealing with Afghanistan’s overarching societal and governance problems. Moreover, Moscow has bitter memories of its military adventures in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.
Second, “hybrid diplomacy” with the Taliban strengthens the Russian position in Central Asia, where the confidence of local political elite in Moscow has wavered in light of Russian actions in the east of Ukraine and in Syria. Russia wants to use its relations with the Taliban to expand its political and military influence in the Central Asian region. The two Russian bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were opened under the pretext of protecting the southern borders of the CIS from terrorists based in Afghanistan, including the Taliban.
Russian relations directly with the Taliban make this task easier and even Central Asian leaders may be amenable. In February 2017, the governor of the Afghan province of Kunduz, Umar Sufi, accused Tajikistan of cooperating with the Taliban. According to him, the Taliban send all the tanks and heavy equipment either damaged or captured during military actions to Tajikistan, where they are being repaired by specialists from Russia. After repairs, heavy military equipment is sent back to Afghanistan to the Taliban across the Panj River, he said.
In order to increase its geopolitical influence, Russia has started its own game with the Taliban, which could have serious consequences for the stability of Central Asia in the future. At a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Moscow on March 28, 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed direct talks with the Taliban and the Afghan government. Russia, by way of its “hybrid diplomacy” with the Taliban, may lead to the Taliban regaining political stature on the global stage. Nevertheless, the Taliban’s jihadist views have not changed. The Taliban has one goal: to establish an Islamic caliphate in Afghanistan. If the Taliban is successful in establishing such a caliphate, Afghanistan could again become the epicenter of global jihad — which should worry the leaders of Central Asia.
Uran Botobekov has a PhD in political science and is an expert on political Islam.