It is possible that the redirection of US and NATO efforts to the north of Afghanistan is due to America’s intention to expand the zone of the “controlled conflict”, moving it to the Fergana Valley, writes Konstantin Syroyezhkin, chief researcher with the Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Research, in the analytical magazine «Mezhdunarodnye Issledovaniya», published by the Institute for Comparative Social Research Cessi-Kazakhstan, on the basis of several international conferences on Afghanistan, the organizers of which included the Alexander Knyazev Fund and the Politkontakt political technology center.
It is possible that the redirection of US and NATO efforts to the north of Afghanistan is due to America’s intention to expand the zone of the “controlled conflict”, moving it to the Fergana Valley, writes Konstantin Syroyezhkin, chief researcher with the Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Research, in the analytical magazine Mezhdunarodnye Issledovaniya, published by the Institute for Comparative Social Research Cessi-Kazakhstan, on the basis of several international conferences on Afghanistan, the organizers of which included the Alexander Knyazev Fund and the Politkontakt political technology center. Below is the expert’s article.
Afghanistan has remained a key security threat for Central Asia for many years.
These threats come both from social, economic and political problems of the country’s development and from the geopolitical game in which AfghaniAfghanistan and militants on its territory are given a specific role by its players. Threats and challenges related to the Afghan vector can be conditionally divided into three groups. Real threats and challenges, i.e. the ones systems of regional and national security are facing at present. Anticipated threats and challenges, i.e. those that can arise if the Western coalition’s strategy fails, it changes its tactics against the militants or quickly withdraws from Afghanistan. The third group is related to the issue of the SCO’s participation in settlement in Afghanistan, which has been actively debated lately.
The first group includes the following threats and challenges.
First of all, Afghanistan remains the main base of terrorists, including those related to terrorist and extremist organizations whose goal is to destabilize the situation in Central Asia, topple the existing political regimes and create the Muslim Caliphate within its borders.
Political instability in Afghanistan and the fact that a significant part of its territory is not controlled by the central government is the basis that allows using the country for training militant groups, perhaps few, but presenting a real threat to political regimes of Central Asian states. These groups include the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Akramija, Tablighi Jamaat, the Islamic Party of East Turkestan, Jamaat of Central Asian Mojaheds, etc., i.e. groups that originated in Central Asia. Since the region’s countries and Russia have no opportunity to fight these groups within Afghanistan, they can only hope that these groups’ activities outside of the country will be stopped by Afghanistan’s national security forces and ISAF troops still stationed there.
The only thing we can do is to strengthen our borders with Afghanistan and reinforce the CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Force as the only structure meant to ensure collective security in the region.
Second, Afghanistan remains the main base for production of raw opium and also the main supplier of heroin and other drugs to global markets via Central Asian states.
The main problem for us is the use of the region’s countries for transit of Afghan drugs, emergence of criminal groups related to this transit and rapid growth of the number of drug addicts in the region’s countries. It would be naïve to expect the problem to resolve itself.
First of all, according to some estimates, opium poppy yields up to 40% of Afghanistan’s GDP, and its planting involves over 3.5mn people (almost 15% of the country’s population).
Moreover, the International Committee for Drug Control estimates that aggregate opium reserves in Afghanistan and neighboring countries totaled some 12,000 metric tons at the end of 2009. This amount is enough to meet the world’s illegal demand for opiates for two and a half years.
Second, Afghanistan’s borders with Tajikistan and Pakistan are virtually transparent and do not present an obstacle for drug smuggling.
Third, in the 1990s and early 2000s, an international network of financing, production, transportation and marketing of drugs was created. Drugs from Afghanistan are delivered to Europe via several channels. It will be impossible to destroy this network overnight.
Still, the main obstacle that hinders effective counteraction to this threat is that drug trafficking most probably involves both the coalition forces and a significant part of elites in the United States, Europe, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Central Asian states. Were it not so, political will would be enough to cut off the routes supplying precursors to Afghanistan that are not produced there.
The third is the potential demise of Hamid Karzai’s government and return of the Taliban movement to power, which will inevitably result in a new wave of civil war in Afghanistan and threaten destabilization in Central Asia.
We cannot engage in a dialog with the Taliban, both due to our limited foreign political opportunities and due to the fact that the US and NATO will not allow Central Asian states and Russia to do so. The only thing we can do is to reinforce the security belt along our borders with Afghanistan collectively within the Collective Security Treaty Organization and, perhaps, the SCO.
As has already been said, the main problem is not the unlikely aggression of the Taliban against Central Asia, but the quite real surge of activities of ethnic terrorist organizations in the north of Afghanistan that have close ties with the terrorist underground in Central Asia (especially Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan) and in Russia.
Four, further escalation of the situation in Pakistan, the breakup of the ruling coalition and prospects of terrorists laying their hands on nuclear weapons.
Judging by the developments in Pakistan, this can happen in the near term. The ruling coalition has almost broken up already, and the only force that keeps Pakistan from the ultimate demise is the army.
At present, however, the position of the army and special services is being encroached upon in order to tarnish their positive image and decrease their role in society. This is done at a time when the government is weak, society is getting increasingly radicalized and the number of terrorist attacks is rising.
Finally, the inevitable and soon withdrawal of the United States and ISAF troops from Afghanistan (even if they decide to leave permanent military bases behind). This means that the only force that really contains the onset of Islamism on Central Asia is leaving the region and leaves secular political regimes one on one with the growing influence of radical Islamism.
The withdrawal of the US and the Western coalition from Afghanistan will make it necessary for the region’s states and Russia to deal with all problems related to Afghanistan on their own. The main of these problems is the potential rise of a new wave of Islamic radicalism in the entire region and resumption of Islamists’ activities in Central Asia.
The second group of threats and challenges is less obvious.
The first and most dangerous one of them is military and geostrategic: under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the United States and NATO have built a striking ground in Afghanistan in the past ten years, which, if necessary, allows quickly deploying a very powerful force on the southern border of the CIS.
Judging by the way the war in Afghanistan has been waged, the main goal of the United States and NATO is to create a foothold in Afghanistan and Pakistan for further penetration in the entire Central Asian region to establish its influence there and block out Russia and China. This is actually the goal of the Greater Central Asia strategy, which aims at pulling Central Asian states away from the CIS, CSTO and SCO.
Some experts warn that the main goal of the United States in the region is to shape a controllable “arch of instability” in Eurasia, which it needs to maintain its superpower status.
Second, the planned move of active warfare of the Western coalition to the north of Afghanistan and the inevitable rise in activity of the Taliban movement and other ethnic combat groups near the CIS borders that will definitely ensue.
There are two potential challenges here. First, Russia and Central Asia will be inevitably drawn in the civil war in Afghanistan; quite possibly, they will be left on their own, without support (or with very limited support) from the Western coalition.
Second, the inevitable surge in activity of terrorist groups that present a real threat to the region’s political regimes.
It cannot be ruled out that the move of the US and NATO activities to the north of Afghanistan is due to America’s intention to expand the area of the “controlled conflict”, moving it to the Fergana Valley.
Third, turning of Afghanistan and Pakistan in a single zone of instability with the prospect of escalation of the Indian-Pakistani conflict and highly probable use of nuclear weapons. In this case, a new big war will be waged near Central Asia, with all obvious negative consequences.
Use of nuclear weapons in this war will result in an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe in Central and South Asia.
Finally, in case of the ultimate defeat of the Western coalition and its quick withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban movement will turn from a terrorist organization into a national liberation movement serving for entire Central and South Asia as a model of efficient resistance to foreign forces and toppling of existing political regimes.
This is a feasible development. The Taliban already enjoys significant authority, so far only in Afghanistan and, partially, Pakistan. Its victory in a situation when the Western coalition is building up its field strength will add to its authority, and its inevitably coming to power after the ISAF leaves will provide every reason to view it as a national liberation movement.
As to threats and challenges related to the SCO’s participation in settling the situation in Afghanistan, the very idea of the SCO’s involvement in Afghanistan’s affairs is interesting and, in certain circumstances, quite plausible. But it is necessary to understand clearly what the SCO can do in Afghanistan and what it should better not, in order to preserve its positive image.
What SCO can do
First of all, it can finance social and infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. This, however, would require setting up a structure for doing this, since at present there is none.
Second, it can assist fighting drug trafficking in Afghanistan, including by creating control mechanisms along the country’s borders. It should be said that the SCO doesn’t have a possibility to take any steps against drug trafficktrafficking inside Afghanistan. The second task is actually doable, even though there are certain limitations. First of all, it is impossible to create an anti-drug safety belt along Afghanistan’s borders without involving Pakistan and Iran. But there can be no talk about comprehensive cooperation with them in this sphere until they get the status of a full SCO member.
Second, there is a difference in assessments of the level of drug threat by SCO member states. For some (Russia, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan), the problem of drug transit from Afghanistan is very relevant; others give priority to other problems. For China, at least, drug trafficking from Afghanistan doesn’t pose a serious threat at the moment.
Third, I have already written about the involvement of elites in Afghanistan’s neighboring countries in drug transit and their interest in it.
Third, creation of a favorable foreign political environment, blocking exports of drug substances and imports of precursors in Afghanistan as much as possible, drastically cutting outside financial support to the Afghan opposition and creating conditions to limit export of radical Islamist ideas.
This will not require endorsement from the Afghan government or, more importantly, from the ISAF command; the political will of the SCO member states should suffice. At the same time, the SCO’s strategy in the settlement in its economic part should seek to focus investment efforts based on a specific plan of the Afghan economy’s recovery, not on the sum of investment to be provided, which is the case today.
The main goal for the SCO should be creating a peaceful buffer area, free of drug production, along the borders of the organization’s members.
What the SCO cannot and should not do
First of all, it should not get involved in resolving Afghanistan’s military problems in any role. This would be irrational for several reasons.
First, the Afghans view any foreign military force as occupants whose presence violates the country’s sovereignty and results in serious losses among civilians.
Second, Russia has already had the sad experience of bringing troops to Afghanistan, which showed clearly how intolerant the local population is of the presence of foreign military and how impossible it is to build a modern society in Afghanistan through the use of force.
Third, the process of shaping the security component of the SCO is not over yet, and its possibilities are fairly limited. Consequently, one shouldn’t play with illusions that the SCO can replace NATO in Afghanistan.
Finally, the SCO’s involvement in Afghanistan’s affairs should first be discussed with Hamid Karzai’s government and the leaders of the US and NATO, working out a scenario for this involvement.
Second, attempting to organize negotiations within Afghanistan under the auspices of the SCO. This idea is hardly plausible. Despite a certain change in attitudes towards Russia on the part of Afghanistan’s incumbent political leadership, the Taliban for different reasons do not accept Russia and China and will not agree to a dialog with them. Only two countries – Iran and Pakistan – can act as mediators in a dialog with the Taliban, but they are not SCO members yet.
But this is not the most important reason. In present circumstances, organization of talks with Taliban leaders and, all the more so, with the so-called moderate Taliban, makes no sense. It would be unforgivably naïve to hope for a positive outcome of talks in a situation when the Taliban is stronger than the government and the international coalition.