The longest war in the U.S. history - Afghan war has already cost about half a trillion dollars, and took the lives of about 2000 American soldiers. Over the past years, U.S. public opinion has been increasingly turning against the war. Withdrawal of the U.S. troops from the country started in June 2011 when President Obama called back 10,000 troops from Afghanistan. 23,000 will have been removed by mid-2012, and all American and international coalition troops will leave Afghanistan by 2014.
Central Asian countries seem worried
Even though there are two more years to go until the complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, signs of serious concerns about the possible implications of it for Central Asia (CA) are already visible in the region. In January this year, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov stated that “the announced withdrawal of American and ISAF forces from Afghanistan by 2014 can increase the threat of spillover of terrorist and extremist activity, tension and confrontation in this vast region and lead to the emergence here of a permanent source of instability.”
In the end of the May, in Chicago summit of NATO, CA countries expressed their concerns about the possible consequences of the pullout of troops. Two weeks later, at the meeting of the CSTO in Beijing, the dominant issue for CA countries was again Afghanistan. Moreover, during the Russian President Putin’s visit to CA countries, the Afghan issue was raised by CA leaders as the one of the most worrisome problems of the region.
The remaining concern in CA about the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is that the Afghan army will be incapable to fight the Taliban after the Americans and NATO leave. As many fear, with the momentum gained after withdrawal, the Taliban will defeat the Karzai government and establish a jihadist regime as it was until the U.S. invasion in 2001, or at least will destabilize the country for a long term making it safe haven for terrorism and extremism. Therefore, Afghanistan, already unstable, is likely to become more so, and negative implications of destabilization will course through CA to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kirgizstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. The most important possible implications of the withdrawal for CA include rise of terrorism and extremism throughout the region, spill over of the conflict to CA and flow of refugees.
Possible negative implications of the withdrawal of troops for Central Asia
We have recently been witnessing the rise of extremism and terrorism in CA which can be further triggered by the ISAF withdrawal and re-destabilization of Afghanistan. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan already have strong extremist cores. In Uzbekistan Islamic Movement is considered the most dangerous opposition groups to Islam Karimov. In Tajikistan, the country experienced brutal civil war from 1992 till 1997 between Emomali Rahmon regime and pro-Islamist opposition (supported from Afghanistan), the presence of armed Islamic opposition is still felt in certain parts of the country, particularly in Rasht valley which is the main passage route for the Afghan opium into Tajikistan. In 2011, Kazakhstan experienced its first ever suicide bombing attack which claimed to be organized by the group of the ethnic Kazakh mujahedeen based in Afghanistan. All these facts clearly show that the countries have very solid reasons to worry about the possibility of the rise of the terrorist and extremist threat during post-withdrawal period, bearing in my that after defeating the “enemy” most of the extremist forces of the region engaged in fighting foreign troops in Afghanistan will return back to launch “sacred wars” in their own countries.
Moreover, Afghanistan’s various tribal and ethnic groups’ strong bonds with CA threaten to spread the conflict to the region, as well as, cause refugee flows to the CA countries in the case of a new civil war and prolonged destabilization of Afghanistan. According to CIA Fact Book, 8 million out of 30 million population of Afghanistan are ethnic Tajiks, the country has about 3 million ethnic Uzbek and 1.2 million ethnic Turkmen inhabitants. Tajiks led by Ahmad Shah Massoud and Rabbani, and Uzbeks led by Rashid Dustum played active role in the previous civil war in Afghanistan from 1992-96, particularly, as the driving forces of the Northern Alliance (United Front) against Taliban. In a renewed civil war, these ethnic groups will likely reactivate as the conflict parties and given that many of them spill over into neighboring Central Asia, CA countries could find themselves dragged in to the new Afghan conflict against their will. Besides, taking into account shared ethnic identity, CA will be among the most immediate refugee destination from Afghanistan which promises to be a serious burden to carry for CA countries’ already weak economy and fragile stability.
Now, when the U.S. and international coalition is about to leave Afghanistan, all CA countries appear to be pessimistic about the future of Afghanistan, believe that the Karzai government cannot remain in power, do not believe in the notion of “moderate” Taliban, and prepare for the worst case scenario — a return to civil war or extremist Taliban domination. Thus, instead of looking for any new foreign power or coalition to protect them, the best option for CA countries is to join their efforts together to collectively tackle and overcome the possible consequences of the “post-2014 Afghanistan” for the region.
However, they have no record of working together collectively; they lack any regional forum to discuss the common post-2014 strategy. Central Asian countries are divided by many barriers that in addition to rivalry between them, involve a complex of economic interests that span from energy to water to free trade to infrastructure. So, with approaching removal of the U.S. and international coalition troops, it is time for the Central Asian states to put aside their local disputes and establish their own regional coalition that will, among other things, deal with would-be challenges from Afghanistan.
Azad Garibov, foreign policy analyst at the Centre for Strategic Research under the Azerbaijani President