The idea of linking Central Asia’s prosperity to the situation in Afghanistan is not new, but with the 2014 drawdown of the international forces approaching, it is gaining momentum, and is seen even in the way it’s discussed: “AfPak region” has become a “wider Central Asia,” a “greater Central Asia,” a “new Silk Road,” and most recently, the “heart of Asia.”
In fact, these “new” approaches are based on a historical link that has always existed between the countries and correct the artificial divide produced during the “great game” a century ago when the advancing spheres of influence of the Russian and British empires met in Afghanistan.
The UN (not least through its Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy in Central Asia, UNRCCA) is fostering cooperation between the Central Asian states and Afghanistan, a fact that was recently welcomed by the UN Security Council; also, the topic for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s “security day” event on March 12, 2013 was the international community’s engagement with Afghanistan and the Central Asian states. And this month, the international community’s attention will once more shift to Almaty, where the 3rd Ministerial Conference of the Istanbul Process for a secure and stable Afghanistan will take place on April 26.
But is this window of international attention only a passing phase? Is the “great gain” forecasted for other Central Asian countries also possible for Afghanistan? And what can Central Asia and Afghanistan expect from each other in the 21st century?
- The international community is unlikely to drop Afghanistan overnight, but the attention is already over the peak, and with the aggravating crisis in the Middle East, it might quickly shift to other theaters after 2014.
- Regardless of optimistic or pessimistic scenarios for the future, international and regional players must work together towards the common goal of a secure and stable Afghanistan and the region.
- Reactions after NATO shifting to the fifth and last tranche—full handover of control to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF)—planned for late spring 2013 will serve as another indicator for future developments, at least in the security sector.
- The peaceful conduction of the envisaged 2014 presidential elections will be the next big hurdle for Afghanistan, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights could share its valuable election experience.
- Over the long term, the five Central Asian states and the region as a whole (and many outside actors) would obviously have much to gain from a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.
It is crucial to understand that the Central Asian countries are not victims, but players in what is often called a “new great game” for the region. As such, they are actively engaged in the Afghan situation by warding off a potential spill over of instability and serving as major trade partners for Afghanistan.
Central Asia and Afghanistan are historically linked, and there are strong ethnic ties between the countries: 8 million Tajiks form the second largest ethnic group after the Pashtuns, and there are between 1.5 and 3 million Uzbeks and up to half a million Turkmens living in Afghanistan. These co-ethnics give the Central Asian governments leverage on the Afghan domestic situation. However, the ethnic question is something that did not play such a big role two decades ago, and this sensitive issue must not be instrumentalized. Conversely, there are many Afghans living in the neighboring Central Asian countries, and as result, business communities have been formed that have long engaged in trade (some of it illegal) between those countries and Afghanistan.
Many Central Asian policy makers are afraid that after the international withdrawal from Afghanistan, the current government will fall, and with different groups fighting for power, a new civil war could emerge. Therefore, they are equally worried about a spill over of instability, as well as a potential return of Central Asian extremist movements, which are now based in Afghanistan (such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or the Hizb al-Tahrir).
Starting in 2009, voices warned that a NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan would increase the risk for state failure in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan and Russia were seen as the first targets of victorious jihadist groups from Afghanistan. Also, Pakistan and Iran as direct neighbors are likely to be affected by instability.
It is hard to predict what will happen after the ISAF drawdown in 2014. Possible scenarios range from best case (Afghanistan emerging as unified, strengthened state) to worst case (civil war or a north-south divide of the country along ethnic fault lines). Some analysis see potential “flows northward from Afghanistan of terrorist and narcotics that will put at greater risk on a region already weakened by corruption, despotism, ethnic and water tensions,” while others do not see an imminent threat of violence spilling over from Afghanistan to Central Asia.
Aiming to counter potential threats, Central Asian states are all engaging their neighbors, but this is mostly done bilaterally, and there is little cooperation or multilateral approaches. Furthermore, the preparations of Central Asian governments against possible instability from Afghanistan often include a reinforcement of domestic control over their own populations. However, by limiting public freedoms and intensifying repression against public discontent, the governments risk provoking domestic resistance and insurgence. Concerns have also been raised over the fact that NATO is negotiating a transfer of military equipment to Central Asian security services during its withdrawal along the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). The extent of NATO shipments via the NDN will, to a certain extent, also depend on how Pakistan will position itself in the next 12 months. And some argue that while China, Russia, and US are struggling over their presence in Central Asia, the only guarantors for Central Asia’s security are the states of the region themselves.
A major focus of the international engagement by the EU, OSCE, and UN lies in border security (i.e., BOMCA, CADAP, BOMBAF and CABSI programs) and the fight against drug trafficking (Paris Pact Initiative). Borders also play a role in Central Asian concerns over a potential refugee wave from Afghanistan. But strengthening the security of borders is not enough, since radical groups often evoke in a local context, and drug trafficking is largely done by people with ties to the Central Asian law enforcement agencies.
In spite all possible threats, Afghanistan has as many opportunities to offer for the Central Asian states: the potential to attract clientele for their markets; to gain access to southern trade routes and money being spent by donors in Afghanistan; the opportunity for investments, trade, and infrastructure construction; and the opportunity to gain significance in international politics.
Therefore, all five states are already engaged in bilateral economic projects (railways, roads, pipelines or power plants), often with the support of the international donor community. Kazakhstan plays a key role in regional food security. It also has begun to implement a $50 million scholarship program for Afghan students, and will step up its efforts through the newly established Kazakhstan International Aid Agency. Turkmenistan provides scholarships to the Turkmen minority in Afghanistan; and many Afghans attend Tajik universities.
Predictably, Russia and China have ideological differences with the West over the liberalization and democratization of Central Asia. While Chinese (SCO) and Russian (CSTO) policy makers think that liberalization and democratization could lead to increased threats to security, most in the West believe that, on the contrary, democratization is crucial for security. But all sides would be equally affected by negative developments in Central Asia; therefore abolishing the “great game” thinking can only have positive implications. But this, again, is a matter of political will.
The big hope now is the Istanbul Process, which seems to have the potential to coordinate regional and international efforts and turn Afghanistan from an object into a subject. However, it would be unwise to assume that this process alone is going to solve all the outstanding issues, not least because the discussions and implementation are slow and technical—there are seven different processes on seven different confidence building measures, and a growing number of participants. Besides, there are many other factors that will determine the future of the transition and the peace process.
In the meantime, the Central Asian governments are well advised to prepare for the worst, but they should at the same time put their efforts into making the best-case scenario a self-fulfilling prophecy.
David Muckenhuber is a consultant based at the International Peace Institute’s office in Vienna.
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