x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Central Asia fears a spillover of instability as Nato leaves

Central Asian countries played a vital part in the US and Nato campaign in Afghanistan. And now, Central Asia fears an American-shaped hole in Afghanistan when the war there ends.

Western troops in Afghanistan were looking for a way out, and now they have their exit. Last week, Nato signed deals with three Central Asian countries - Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan - to allow them to withdraw troops and equipment north by road via the former Soviet republics.

As relations worsen between Pakistan and the United States, which has by far the largest troop deployment in the mission, Nato is looking at an exit strategy that does not depend on Afghanistan's south-eastern neighbour. But for governments of Central Asia, the departure of US troops is cause for concern. They fear what might follow the Americans north.

Mostly unheralded, Central Asian countries have played a vital part in the US and Nato campaign in Afghanistan. Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan remains the only US base in the area and the transit point at Termiz, on the Uzbek-Afghan border, has become the most important crossing for the US as cooperation with Pakistan has cooled. Kazakhstan, as the richest of the Central Asian countries, has offered food aid to Afghanistan and helped to train its security forces.

In a sign of this increasing involvement since 2009, US aid has increased to Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan; only to Uzbekistan has the amount decreased. Billions of dollars have flowed to these countries.

When Nato departs next year, Central Asia fears an American-shaped hole in Afghanistan. There is a likelihood that instability will find its way north. Nato's mission has largely failed. Although the decade-long campaign has severely injured Al Qaeda in the region, Nato's other objectives - to protect the population, provide security and promote effective government - have not been met. Heroin still makes its way through Central Asia, bringing not only drug addiction but the attendant criminal networks. The Taliban is resurgent and expected to increase its influence once Nato leaves. Afghans who helped the Americans may face retribution; and the same may apply in neighbouring countries.

The militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has been active in Afghanistan, and its members reportedly have fought alongside the Taliban. The IMU has largely been pushed out of Uzbekistan by a government crackdown, and out of Afghanistan by US troops, but has moved to other countries. The group maintains a base in Pakistan, where it has been targeted by US drones.

The most vulnerable Central Asian country is Tajikistan, a small and fragile state with a long, porous border with Afghanistan. Two years ago, militants linked to the IMU staged a daring prison break in the capital Dushanbe. Days later, a military convoy was ambushed, killing about 40 personnel. It was reported earlier this year that an IMU leader was arrested in the country, possibly signalling a revival there.

Central Asian countries are ill-prepared to handle resurgent Islamist militants. All have problems with radical (if not necessarily militant) Islam, and most have chosen to crack down even on peaceful forms of devotion. The combination of populations unable to express their faith and heavy repression of political activities leaves few safety valves for dissent.

Religious expression in these Muslim countries has been suppressed since Soviet times. Today, that suppression looks counterproductive. Yet it is the only strategy most of these governments know (and the examples of neighbouring Pakistan and Iran cannot have filled them with confidence about political Islam). Expect this not to change. For all the talk from America, Russia and China about securing the borders of Central Asia and the economic link-ups of the "New Silk Road", the default posture of the region's governments has been repression.

The two countries best placed to tackle these challenges approach them differently: in Kyrgyzstan, increasing democracy may offer Islamists a political voice that could temper the appeal of violence. In Kazakhstan, increasing prosperity may make many reluctant to embrace anything that could affect stability. But neither can face the challenge alone, and, while the United States has pledged to support Afghanistan's development until at least 2024, realistically the Americans are looking for a way out of their longest war.

Enter China. Last week, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation - a regional bloc of China, Russia and four of the five so-called 'Stans (excluding Turkmenistan) - met to discuss strategy after the withdrawal. China and Russia are both concerned about stability and security in Central Asia, but while Moscow is more interested in limiting US influence, Beijing has economic and political concerns. China's increasingly volatile western region borders three Central Asian countries, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Moreover, China has significant economic ties with Afghanistan. Last week, the Chinese offered each SCO country - aside from Russia - a $10 billion (Dh37 billion) loan to support economic development and cooperation. At the same time, it granted Afghanistan observer status at the organisation.

In fact, China's economic strategy is a version of America's recently touted New Silk Road vision, of turning Afghanistan into a regional crossroads. But without security - which China is nervous about supplying, seeing it as interference - it is hard to see how the economic outlook can be improved.

Developing overland trade is now seen as the panacea to Afghanistan's security ills, opening borders in a region that could never keep them closed. Nato troops and lorries will be among the first exports north out of Afghanistan. The governments of Central Asia want to be certain nothing else trickles up after them.

 

falyafai@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai