Afghan Withdrawal To Raise Central Asia Tensions

BMI View: The withdrawal of the vast majority of US troops from Afghanistan, scheduled to be completed in 2014, will result in an increase in intra- and inter-state tensions in Central Asia over the coming years. In addition, Russia and China will both seek to influence and exploit the resource-rich region, which is predominantly ruled by post-Soviet authoritarian regimes, whose future is more uncertain without the stabilising presence of the US military.

The end of NATO combat operations and subsequent withdrawal of the majority of US troops from Afghanistan, which is scheduled to be completed by end-2014, will throw up myriad issues in regards to not only the future of the war-ravaged state, but also the geopolitical environment for the Central Asian states. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan each have their own idiosyncratic political and economic issues to face in the coming years, but the lack of a substantial US military presence in Afghanistan will play an important role in defining not only the future of each of these states' political and economic landscapes, but also the balance of power regionally, with both Russia and China seeking to fill any vacuum.

There have been conflicting reports regarding how many US troops, by far the largest contingent of the Western forces, will remain in Afghanistan after the official withdrawal is completed in 2014, with estimates ranging from 6,000 to 25,000. Either way, US influence in the Central Asian region will be much diminished, and this will bring a number of important risks.

Lack Of US Presence To Open Pandora's Box

The most pressing issue for the states of Central Asia, especially Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which have proved fertile breeding grounds for Islamic extremist organisations, is the potential for an influx of jihadists from Afghanistan once the majority of Western troops have departed. The respective governments of these countries, with the aid of Russia, China and the US, have fought a long battle to try and eradicate these groups. However, their efforts have not proved entirely successful.

Groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) have been ousted from their homelands but are still believed to be operating in the mountains of Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan. Without the common enemy of US troops in Afghanistan against which to focus their holy war, we believe there is strong potential for them to increase fighting against their respective governments. Although we do not expect a vast influx of extremists into Central Asia, a significant number of battle-hardened militants will likely migrate back towards their homeland with the expressed desire to topple the largely secular governments and introduce their own brand of hard-line Islamic rule.

The regimes in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have, however, proven resilient over the past two decades. The same leaders, Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and Emomalii Rahmon in Tajikistan, have held power since 1990 and 1992 respectively. They have retained power not only in the face of threats from Islamic extremism but also international pressure to democratise and ensure human rights as well as internal rebellions and in the case of Tajikistan, five years of civil war. If we do see signs of an uptick in extremist activity in these two states, we would expect to see a harsh and rapid military crackdown on such actions.

Kyrgyzstan is in a different and more difficult position, however. After two successful popular uprisings in 2005 and 2010 respectively, the country remains politically and socially very unstable, a situation we do not anticipate to end any time soon. With a weak government in power and substantial tensions between the capital Bishkek in the north and Osh in the south, the country may be vulnerable to Islamic extremist groups, whether through susceptibility to terrorist activity, or being infiltrated by fundamentalists branching into the political system.

While both Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have less to worry about than the other three in regard to domestic Islamic insurgence the governments in Astana and Ashgabat will be wary of jihadist attacks on gas and oil supply routes. Hydrocarbon exports are crucial for both these economies and therefore if there is an uptick in fundamentalist activity in the region, we would expect to see an increased security presence for pipelines in both these states.

Turkmen Gas Production To Double By 2022
Central Asia - Dry Natural Gas Production, bcm

Whilst the threat of an influx of jihadists is high, there have been accusations on the part of both US and Russian aid organisations that the countries of Central Asia have been overstating the potential threats posed by Islamic fundamentalism in their countries. These organisations see the calls as an effort to secure a larger stipend of military assistance, which Western observers fear may not be used entirely for it counter-insurgency purposes, and that the poorer states such as Tajikistan are 'directly invested in Afghan failure'. We believe there is some credence to these concerns, although the US and Russia will both be keen to hinder any potential Islamic insurgency in Central Asia and therefore are likely to maintain a high level of military subsidies as well as troop deployments in Central Asia despite the potential for the misappropriation of funds.

Tensions Not Limited To Intra-State Issues

Whilst the possible return of radical Islamist militants may be the most prevalent factor to affect domestic politics following the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, we also highlight the increased risk of inter-state tensions in the coming years. Again, these tensions will largely be confined to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. However, there is the possibility that Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan will also be affected by regional instability.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, simmering tensions have remained between the states of Central Asia regarding boundary disputes. The most prevalent of these disputes is in the Fergana Valley, which straddles Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. There are a multitude of ethnic groups spread over the area, with Uzbek enclaves located in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. For a number of years there have been border clashes between troops and civilians in all three states, with the most recent unverified report stating that on April 27 2013, around 100 individuals were involved in a clash on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border.

The withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan will have a notable impact on the region due to the relationship that the US in particular has cultivated with Uzbekistan on and off since the 1990s. Uzbekistan has been used as the main supply route for NATO troops and military equipment both into and out of Afghanistan, after Pakistan shut its borders with the country following a number of US drone strikes on Pakistani targets. The Uzbek government has expressed its desire to retain some of the NATO and US military equipment that is deemed surplus to requirements or will cost too much to ship back. If the Uzbek government is able to inherit some of the substantial weapons cache its immediate neighbours to the East, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, are likely to be the most concerned. Although we do not anticipate any coordinated cross-border attacks, a more powerful Uzbek army will undoubtedly ramp up in tensions between the states even if there are not overt signs of belligerence from the government in Tashkent.

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Afghanistan - Average Monthly US 'Boots On The Ground', thousands

It is not only Uzbekistan's smaller neighbours to the east that are likely to be concerned about a more powerful Uzbek military, but also their larger neighbour to the north, Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan has long been the most influential of all the Central Asian states, in regard to inter-state issues, diplomatic relations with Russia and presence on the world stage. However, Uzbekistan has often seen itself as the key player in Central Asia, and an increase in its military might will go some way to emboldening this stance. This will concern the Kazakh government in Astana, and could lead to the regime taking a more hard-line approach in trade and diplomatic discussions with its southern neighbour in an effort to demonstrate that it is still the dominant regional power.

In contrast with the other countries of Central Asia, which we believe will experience an uptick in inter-state tensions over the coming years, Turkmenistan will remain the most stable due to its policy of 'positive neutrality' in the region and the restrictive nature of its regime. Turkmenistan does have a long border with Afghanistan, spanning 744km. However the provinces of Afghanistan that occupy this border (Herat, Badghis, Faryab and Jawzjan) tend to have little Taliban or insurgent activity. Therefore, they have been seen to be a 'lesser priority' in the ISAF mission, with troops from Italy, Spain, Norway, and Sweden occupying the provinces during the course of the conflict.

Herat province, however, is one of the primary smuggling hubs of Afghan opium production, and although most of this smuggling takes place across the border into Iran, without a Western deterrent the opportunity for drug smugglers to start moving their product to Russia and Europe through the Turkmen border may be too good to resist. This would not only require urgent action from the Turkmen regime but may also lead to Russia playing a more involved role in the country to stem any potential tide of opium towards its borders.

Great Power Game To Shape Regional Landscape

The roles played by larger regional and global powers in Central Asia will not be limited to concerns about Islamist militants, but by a desire to maintain or enhance their influence in the resource-rich and geographically important region. The two states that will play the primary roles will be Russia and China, which have both attempted to boost their presence in the region over the past few years.

US withdrawal from Afghanistan will leave Russia as the most dominant regional power in the short-to-medium term, although the US will still retain key military bases in a number of Central Asian states. We also note that China will become increasingly involved in Central Asia as it attempts to secure oil and gas supplies that will be crucial for its future economic development. A number of regional security organisations have been established over the past two decades, not only to enhance Central Asian stability, but also to provide a method for its most powerful members to gain influence in the region.

The Russian controlled Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) is the oldest of these groups, having evolved from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) joint armed forces established in 1992, and officially enshrined as the CSTO in 2002. It comprises Russia and three Central Asian states barring Uzbekistan (which withdrew in 2012) and Turkmenistan. The CSTO has sought to maintain Russian hegemony of the region through large military deployments in each of the member states, although, since the withdrawal of Uzbekistan in June 2012 the alliance has seen its credibility damaged considerably.

The primary threat to Russian dominance in the region comes not from the US, but from China. The country already has strong trade links with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where it has financed large infrastructure projects to improve water provision in exchange for the countries' plentiful natural gas and oil supplies. Water security is a key risk over the medium-to-long term for all Central Asian states, notably the arid and downstream states of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and any infrastructure provided will be gratefully received.

China also has its own challenger to the CSTO, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which was set up in 2002 and evolved from the Shanghai Five, which was established in 1996. The key strength of the SCO is that it has both China and Russia as members, giving it a more powerful military and economic hand to play in the region than the CSTO, which is seen by critics as an imperialist ploy by Moscow to ensure Russian domination of Central Asia. However, the SCO's biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. With Russia as a fully fledged member state, China does not have the same sort of dominance in the organisation's policy direction as Russia does with the CSTO. Although the SCO is not yet comparable to its Western equivalent, NATO, in terms of influence or military capability, we believe that the organisation will become an increasingly important regional and global player in the coming years as Western forces reduce their presence in Afghanistan.

A Future Eastern NATO?
Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

With the ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan approaching fast, both China and Russia will be seeking to improve their trade and diplomatic links with countries in the region, as well as attempting to ensure regional stability. The Chinese government's primary political concern in the region is the Uyghur people's call for Xinjiang province of China to become independent. Kyrgyzstan shares a long border with Xinjiang province and has a large Uyghur diaspora, and therefore we see greater Chinese pressure on the Kyrgyz government to suppress any increase in separatist tendencies in the coming years.

Despite the historic links and military presence that Russia maintains with Central Asia, it is China which stands to benefit the most in the coming years. The governments and populations of Central Asia will be, by-and-large, more inclined to side with the vast resource revenues offered by China, rather than Russia, the old imperial master with an economy on an uncertain footing. For the countries of Central Asia, this will not mean an end to intra or inter-state conflicts, but it will ensure a healthy revenue stream for those fortunate enough to control large resource deposits.

The Western withdrawal from Afghanistan will undoubtedly shift the power paradigm in Central Asian politics not only at an inter-state level but also at a geopolitical level. There is the possibility that the states with established Islamist movements on Afghanistan's border experience an increase in militant activity, however, we view the primary threat to regional stability being an increase in tensions between the individual states of Central Asia, as well as the power struggle between China and Russia over the area's vast resource wealth.


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