With Islamic State purportedly increasing its activity within Afghanistan, Russia Direct interviewed experts to find out the new challenges for Russia and Central Asia emanating from Afghanistan.
Afghan security forces inspect the site of a suicide attack after clashes with Taliban fighters at the gate of an intelligence facility in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 7, 2015. Photo: AP
On July 17 in Kyrgyzstan there was an antiterrorist operation against militants who, according to Kyrgyz law enforcement agencies, were planning to attack the Russian military air base in the city of Kant. Kyrgyz intelligence asserts that the eradicated terrorists were members of Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).
Given these growing security concerns, Russia Direct asked experts about the new threats and challenges to Central Asia and Russia emerging from Afghanistan, as well as the severity of the threat to the region posed by IS.
Alexander Knyazev, expert on Central Asia and the Middle East
After the Taliban announced a jihad against ISIS, groups operating under the ISIS brand (not necessarily part of ISIS proper) have been in conflict with the Afghan Taliban. But any talk about the rising influence of IS in Afghanistan is wholly inappropriate.
The country is home to three groups totaling 700 people calling themselves ISIS. All of them are operating in the western and northwestern parts of the country on the border with Iran. One of these groups is led by a former Turkmen citizen and Soviet officer who goes by the name of Akmurad. All these groups are focused mainly on anti-Iranian, anti-Shia operations. There is no reliable information to back up claims that they are active in Central Asia. What’s more, today many radical groups, even criminal ones, use the ISIS brand as a stamp of authority.
Inside the countries of Central Asia government bodies, law enforcement agencies and intelligence services are actively exploiting the ISIS brand to reap dividends. It is easy to declare any group as extremist and belonging to the world’s most hyped brand of terrorists, in this case, ISIS. For instance, Kyrgyzstan recently routed an alleged ISIS cell planning to attack Russia’s air base in Kant. There is no information at all about the dead criminals. But the incident will be used by Kyrgyz intelligence to secure external funding, mostly from Russia, and to divert public attention from the serious socio-economic problems in the country.
Maxim Starchak, expert at the PIR Center for Policy Studies
ISIS adherents are paid 2-3 times more than members of the Taliban. This creates potential for conflict between ISIS and the Taliban as the latter strives to maintain influence in the country. The war of the faithful against the infidels, if such arises, will be the main concern in Afghanistan. Western military in Afghanistan will continue to be the target, diverting the various factions from fighting each other.
As for the Afghanistan-bordering states of Central Asia, only the armed forces of Uzbekistan can be expected to rebuff the aggressor. However, Tashkent is unlikely to go to war, even if ISIS were to attack one of its Central Asian neighbors.
The armies of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are weak and reliant on the operational readiness of Russian troops stationed inside their countries. Russian or Chinese military aid to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would not greatly improve the combat readiness of their armies, which remain numerically small, poorly trained and demoralized.
Russian military aid to these republics is just a fee for siting military bases there. If Russia is concerned about security in neighboring Central Asia, it should strengthen its bases in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Turkmenistan warrants a separate mention. The Turkmen-Afghan border was regularly shelled throughout the winter (no less frequently than the Tajik-Afghan border). Turkmenistan’s army is small, but efficient. It can handle small groups of terrorists but, like its neighbors, would struggle against a large force.
The long border with Afghanistan and lack of external support make Turkmenistan the weakest link in the chain of Central Asian security, which is why it would make strategic sense to draw Turkmenistan into bilateral security agreements with Russia.
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Sanat Kushkumbayev, deputy director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan
The intensifying rivalry between the Taliban and ISIS is largely a media myth. The Taliban and IS are projects with strong external support. The emergence of radical ISIS suggests a rebranding of extremist groups.
Moreover, since the Taliban has stated that it rejects ISIS radicalism, the two groups clearly have different objectives. The Taliban’s aim is to regain control of Afghanistan. ISIS, in contrast, is targeting the Middle East, mainly Iran. If we trace the zone of influence of ISIS militants, we see that they are mainly operating in areas settled by Shia and supporters of Iran.
More than anything else, ISIS is a powerful media structure with an extensive informational network worldwide. It has entire TV and movie studios that shoot professional videos and churn out the image of a brutal Islamist structure through media channels.
Journalists disseminate these videos, as well as unverified figures about the number of ISIS recruits. Experts are starting to take these unverified data as fact, hyperbolizing the threat. But the Taliban is also interested in maintaining and spreading its reputation far beyond Afghanistan’s borders.
What’s more, there are external players also keen to promote the myth of Taliban and ISIS omnipotence. Particularly the Central Asian republics, which, fearing the loss of foreign interest after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, are trying to present themselves as the front line in the fight against the new global evil and divert attention from more serious domestic issues. Moreover, the battle against ISIS is a source of external military, technical and financial support for the Central Asian regimes.
As the debate continues about the alleged competition between the Taliban and ISIS, Afghanistan’s old threats remain the same. The main problem is internal instability, which threatens not only neighboring countries, but also Afghanistan itself.
Abdugani Mamadazimov, chairman of the Association of Political Scientists of the Republic of Tajikistan
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), stationed in Afghanistan for 13 years, was a kind of a security buffer for the countries of Central Asia. It checked the movement of the Taliban into northern Afghanistan, towards the Amu Darya River.
Following the withdrawal of the main ISAF contingent, around 10,000 foreign troops remain on Afghan soil. Concentrated mainly around the capital Kabul, they cannot ensure the security of all provinces. This creates risks for Afghanistan and the neighboring countries of Central Asia.
In December 2014 four border guards were abducted on the Tajik side of the border with Afghanistan by an extremist group linked to drug trafficking. They have yet to be freed. The country clearly needs some kind of compensatory policy, i.e. a military organization able to take on the role of regional security buffer. Despite the varying attitudes towards it in the Central Asian republics, that organization remains the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Although the Taliban is becoming less active in Afghanistan, the infiltration of ISIS militants and other terrorists means that CSTO support is crucial to Tajikistan. Russia’s military base, the largest land-based facility in Tajikistan, is currently being upgraded. Assistance will also be provided to reequip and strengthen the Tajik national army, as announced by Sergey Lavrov at a meeting of CSTO foreign ministers.
The civil war in Tajikistan in the post-Soviet period, when troops and weapons were nationalized in the former union republics, is another reason why assistance is needed. When the war finally came to an end, in 1997, there was virtually nothing left of the Tajik army. Consequently, it is far from being the strongest in the region today. Hence, Russia’s military umbrella is vital.
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Daniyar Kosnazarov, head of Central Asian and Caspian Studies, Geopolitics and Regional Studies Division, Library of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan
The infiltration of ISIS militants into Afghanistan is an additional irritant for the government of President Ashraf Ghani, especially now when talks have begun with the Taliban. The Afghan authorities are urging everyone, including the Taliban, to resist ISIS.
But the intra-Sunni confrontation between ISIS and the Taliban could jeopardize the newly launched peace process in Afghanistan. It is possible that the Afghan authorities could give the Taliban an ultimatum: If you fail to accept the rules of the game, you risk energizing ISIS.
Who are the ISIS militants in Afghanistan? Most likely they are Afghan field commanders with a grudge against the Taliban, as well as small terrorist groups in search of quick funding and influence, and therefore sworn to ISIS. Afghans are essentially trying to fight each other once again.
The aggravation of the conflict between the Taliban and self-described ISIS militants could lead to “satellite wars,” whereby extremist groups in Afghanistan are sponsored by larger rival countries. Iran has extensive links with the Taliban, and these ties have increased of late. But I do not believe that in the context of Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where Tehran is indirectly involved, it wants to escalate another conflict right on its border with Afghanistan.
It is worth noting that China has taken a keen interest in the Afghan settlement, sending signals to official Kabul that only peace in the country can stimulate Chinese financing of various energy and infrastructure projects.
Russia is guided by the logic that a strengthening of the terrorist underground in Afghanistan poses new security risks in Central Asia, which the Kremlin is anxious to avoid. In this regard, Moscow and Beijing could potentially sponsor the fight against IS inside Afghanistan, even if it means involving the Taliban.