Taliban threat spooks Central Asia
By Farangis Najibullah
As Pakistan continues large-scale military operations against Taliban militants
in the country's northwest and the United States ratchets up its troop presence
in Afghanistan, a recent comment by Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev captured
in a nutshell the speculation these efforts are causing in Central Asia.
Speaking on June 8, Bakiev warned of the encroachment of Taliban militants.
After noting the "seriousness" of the situation in both Pakistan and
Afghanistan Bakiev asked, "If the conflict against the Taliban further deepens
in Afghanistan, then toward which direction would they escape? God save us, but
they would [move] toward Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan."
Kyrgyzstan has recently increased security measures along its frontiers with
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - through which militants
from Afghanistan would presumably have to travel - by stationing additional
troops in border areas.
But the Kyrgyz president is not alone among Central Asian leaders in pointing
to growing security threats allegedly coming from the south.
Uzbekistan has started digging trenches alongside its borders with Kyrgyzstan,
with the stated aim of preventing religious extremists from penetrating its
Uzbekistan has repeatedly claimed that any militant infiltrating into Uzbek
territory would cross its border through Tajikistan.
But while Tajikistan has vehemently rejected the possibility of the Taliban
ever seeking safe haven on its territory, a legacy of Tajiks' support for
Afghanistan's ethnic-Tajik mujahideen and a recent anti-drug operation in
eastern Tajikistan fueled public fears of a crackdown on Islamic strongmen.
Meanwhile, the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization has
discussed creating a rapid-reaction force to counter the threat of militants
entering the region from Afghanistan.
Many analysts, however, see fear mongering behind the increased talk of
security, and say the prospect of the Taliban moving into Central Asia is
minimal, if not unrealistic.
Much of the security-risk argument is based on lumping the Taliban with other
militants, including those originating in Central Asia, who are believed to
have found sanctuary in Pakistan with the Taliban, al-Qaeda and others.
Their exact number is unknown, with different sources giving vastly different
estimates ranging from the hundreds to the thousands.
IMU threat, real or imagined?
Among them are followers of a key adversary of governments in Central Asia -
the banned extremist group Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). IMU fighters
reportedly fled to Afghanistan in the 1990s and fought alongside al-Qaeda when
US-led coalition forces entered the country in 2001.
Some IMU fighters were reportedly killed in the fighting, and after the Taliban
regime was ousted, others were believed to have fled to Pakistan's tribal
areas, where the Taliban also regrouped.
Since then, the IMU has remained largely inactive, although officials in
Central Asia have from time to time linked various terrorist acts to IMU
followers or its alleged splinter groups.
Considering that the backing of the local population was a key factor in the
Taliban's survival in Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas, it is unlikely
that the predominantly ethnic-Pashtun Taliban would find sympathy among locals
in Central Asia.
In Tajikistan, specifically, both the government and public opinion were widely
supportive of Afghanistan's ethnic-Tajik mujahideen in the war against the
Taliban. Al-Qaeda's assassination of ethnic-Tajik military commander Ahmad Shah
Masoud the day before on September 9, 2001, also remains fresh on the minds of
Aleksei Malashenko, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
in Moscow, says Kyrgyzstan's Bakiev and other regional leaders exaggerate
security risks to pursue their own agendas.
"It's a complex double game played by Central Asian leaders," Malashenko said.
"Bakiev reckons that Taliban dangers could serve as a pretext to tighten the
screws inside Kyrgyzstan. When there is a threat coming from outside, people
usually consolidate around the government."
Malashenko says Bakiev could be playing both sides of the fence between Russia
and the United States. He also suggests that the Kyrgyz leader may be seeking
to use the alleged Taliban threat as an excuse to renew the US lease of an air
base used as an air bridge for operations in Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, the Kyrgyz government gave the United States six months to
leave the Manas base outside Bishkek. Bakiev made the announcement during a
trip to Moscow in February, citing financial reasons as a key factor.
During the same trip, Bakiev secured a package of Russian loans and investment
worth some US$2 billion, prompting speculation that Moscow was behind Bishkek's
decision to close down the US base.
Afterward, there were reports of Bishkek allegedly having second thoughts about
closing down Manas, and of the United States trying to renegotiate financial
terms of the lease.
Adding to speculation that discussion on the matter is not dead was the
announcement by Bakiev's office on June 11 that US President Barack Obama had
sent a personal message to Bakiev thanking Kyrgyzstan for its support of the
US-led military operation in Afghanistan.
The United States is also reportedly planning to send a high-level delegation
to Bishkek to discuss further cooperation.
Kyrgyz officials, however, have denied the reports, saying their decision on
Manas is not reversible.
However, the latest developments also follow on Bakiev’s announcement earlier
this week that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had asked him to keep Manas open.
Bakiev suggested the issue should be discussed during the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization summit that opens next week.
In highlighting the Taliban threat on June 8, Bakiev also said member states of
the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization and the Commonwealth of Independent States should discuss such
issues as well.
But Miroslav Niyazov, the former secretary of Kyrgyzstan's Security Council,
said that if there is any threat that involves extremism, it would come from
inside Kyrgyzstan itself.
Niyazov said Kyrgyzstan ranks last in "all social and economic measurements"
among the former Soviet states, and that people in the country also lack
confidence in government institutions because they don't appear to work in the
public interest. He said this generates public frustration and sympathy for
"any radical movement”.
At the same time, Niyazov insisted that threats coming from Afghanistan cannot
be underestimated. Although it is a "bit premature" to say there is a direct
danger posed to Central Asia by the Taliban, Afghanistan "still remains a
source of extremism and drug trafficking for our countries," he said.
Echoing the general public's feelings in the region, Niyazov believes that as
long as peace and stability is not restored in Afghanistan, it will always -
one way or the other - pose a threat to Central Asian stability.