The final withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan and Central Asia may result in an upsurge of narcotics trafficking, terrorism and other security challenges. So are the area's leading politicians working together to head this problem off at the pass? Not according to Richard Weitz.
In less than one year, almost all Western combat forces will depart Afghanistan and Central Asia. They will also leave the region's political leaders to face major transnational security problems emanating from Afghanistan on their own. Challenges such as terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and arms smuggling might also stunt the region's economic development. Yet, rather than unite to combat this mutual menace, the Eurasian states are pursuing diverging and potentially conflicting responses, leaving them even more vulnerable to the post-2014 Afghan storm.
A Precarious Military Balance
At the December 4 meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers with non-NATO ISAF Contributing Nations, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen praised the recent performance of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) who, having assumed the lead security role throughout Afghanistan this past summer, has "shown that they are up to the job". Indeed, the ANSF has generally managed to hold its own against the Taliban insurgents, losing some battles but winning others.
However, Rasmussen also highlighted a major threat to future NATO-Afghan military cooperation—the refusal of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the proposed Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States. Without this status-of-forces agreement, which provides various legal immunities and other privileges to U.S. forces, President Barack Obama has said he will not allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond the end of next year. Although the precise number of U.S. forces and their tasks remains under debate, the general intent would be to fully transition from Operation Enduring Freedom, which has focused on combat and reconstruction missions, to Operation Resolute Support, in which the remaining U.S. forces would concentrate on training and advising the ANSF military and police units as well as conduct a limited number of critical counterterrorist missions.
Reflecting NATO's "in-together out-together" approach, Rasmussen also confirmed that, if all U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, other allies would end their troop deployments and that billions of dollars or planned funding for the Afghan National Army and police might not materialize after 2014. Referring to next April's national elections, the Secretary General further noted the imperative of assuring a "timely, transparent and credible" ballot "for continued international support."
The Afghan government needs this support. The ANSF remains highly dependent on NATO-provided "enablers" such as intelligence, air power, combat medical evaluations, and logistics. Some commanders perform well, but many others need further training. The fear persists that pervasive corruption will result in commanders' pocketing their soldiers' pay, logisticians diverting money and equipment to private channels, and widespread morale problems. The renewed political activism of former warlords could result in the rise of independent militias and perhaps the splintering of the ANSF along political or ethnic lines. These sub-state actors could, like the Taliban, strive to secure support from friendly foreign governments. During the 1990s, Afghanistan's neighbors waged a proxy war in the country with their local allies.
Furthermore, the Afghan economy cannot cover the costs of the massive army and police forces that NATO has developed in recent years. Since these costs would exceed the entire budget of the Afghan government, foreign donors have committed to provide billions of dollars of essential assistance, though only for the few years that international experts hope would be needed for the Afghan economy to recover from the trauma of the departure of most of the foreign military and diplomatic presence. The plan also envisages Afghanistan transforming into a more self-sustaining economy as a result of the development of its natural resources and the construction of improved physical infrastructure that would transform the country into a major hub for regional trade flows. However, a major improvement in local security is a prerequisite for realizing these ambitious goals.
Transnational Security Threats
Even if the Taliban manages to win an outright military victory, few expect the movement to then send its forces into Central Asia or other regions. But the Taliban is unlikely to have the capacity or perhaps even the intent to prevent some non-state actors from trying to export terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and arms smuggling into neighboring states. Central Asian terrorists have been fighting alongside the Taliban for years and aspire to establish safe havens in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan from which they can wage jihad against the secular regimes in Central Asia as well as on behalf of Muslim minorities in Russia and China.
With the increased production and distribution of heroin and opium from Afghanistan in the past decade, Central Asia now serves as a nexus for a thriving narcotics trade. Drug smugglers funnel heroin and opium from Afghanistan through the "Northern Route," passing through Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to final destinations in Europe and Russia. Drug abuse and narcotics -related crime within Central Asian nations have been growing along with the rise of drug trafficking. Central Asian law enforcement agencies have increased training and resources to help combat the rising drug problem, but narcotics production and trafficking volumes continue to rise.
Drugs are not the only trafficking challenge present in Central Asia. According to the UN, "Human trafficking, nearly unknown in Central Asia during the Soviet period, is now a major problem facing the region". Transnational criminal organizations exploit the region's porous frontiers, corrupt border services, and the illegal routes and, supported by narcotics traffickers and regional militants, move illegal migrants and other exploited people across national frontiers. All the Central Asian countries have signed the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime as well as the supplemental Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children. Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of State's yearly Trafficking in Persons Report cites all five Central Asian states as failing to meet "the minimum standards for combating trafficking," despite their acknowledged efforts to address the situation.
Central Asia also suffers from major vulnerabilities that these transnational threats could worsen. While the region has made impressive strides in establishing political institutions following independence from the Soviet Union, there is room for continued improvement, especially regarding corruption and civil and religious freedom. Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index does not rank the Central Asian countries favorably. Out of 174 countries, Kazakhstan ranks 133; Kyrgyzstan, 157; Tajikistan, 161; Turkmenistan, 172; and Uzbekistan ranks last, at 174. And while religious freedom is guaranteed by national constitutions, other laws restrict practice in ways that may prove counterproductive. Tajikistan forbids girls and women from wearing the hijab at educational institutions in an effort to preserve the secular school system; Uzbekistan prohibits religious evangelization; and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan require all religious groups to register with the government.
By themselves, even Central Asia's most powerful states lack strong tools to counter the various threats emanating from across the region. This issue was a major agenda item at the 2012 summit between President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, the most populous Central Asian country, and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, its wealthiest. The two presidents expressed alarm at Afghanistan's deteriorating security situation and reaffirmed their commitment to contribute to the country's reconstruction.
Yet, Astana and Tashkent have largely pursued diverging responses to the crisis. Karimov has for years supported UN-led reconciliation and reconstruction initiatives and been a strong backer of NATO intervention in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan has permitted the United States and other alliance members to establish military bases on its territory and has been encouraging the U.S. military to retain a presence in Central Asia beyond 2014. Uzbekistani leaders have also engaged with former allies in the Northern Alliance, whose coalition of non-Pashtun warlords offered the main resistance to the Taliban, and fortify Uzbekistan's narrow border with Afghanistan.
By contrast, while providing logistical assistance to NATO forces in Afghanistan through the same Northern Distribution Network (NDN) as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan has relied more on bilateral and multilateral economic assistance, as well as regional diplomatic initiatives such as the Istanbul Process. Kazakhistani officials have also called for greater cooperation among Central Asian governments to address regional problems. They have welcomed precisely those Russian-led economic and security initiatives that the Uzbekistan government has resisted.
Diverging Regional Responses
While Russia still exercises military primacy in Central Asia, it is also threatened by the movement of religious radicals into the North Caucasus and other Russian regions having a large concentration of Muslims. Another threat highlighted by Russian officials is the massive flow of Afghan-based heroin into Russia. While most Afghan narcotics are sent on to Europe, Russian government calculations are that the drugs that flow through this Northern Route result in 30,000 Russian deaths each year.
Following years of trying to induce NATO to more aggressively suppress the Afghan narcotics industry, the sharp drawdown in the Western troops in Afghanistan and neighboring countries – while not wholly unwelcome in Moscow – has induced Russia to reinforce its own regional security presence. During the past few years, Moscow has been establishing new bases in Central Asia and providing the local militaries with subsidized training and equipment. Russia has also been leading the drive to strengthen the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and all the Central Asian states except neutral Turkmenistan.
Russian officials have also discussed increasing Moscow's economic presence in Afghanistan through efforts to reconstruct or re-launch projects that were started during the Soviet military occupation. Nonetheless, China has assumed the lead foreign role in the Afghan economy for now. During the past few years, major Chinese firms have won major contracts to develop Afghanistan's minerals and other natural resources. Even so, local security threats and other problems have constrained the development of many projects, despite the wish of Western as well as Afghan officials for greater Chinese investment.
Although China has strongly backed the development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which counts all the Central Asian countries (except for Turkmenistan) as full members, the Organization has an even less developed defense capacity than the CSTO. The SCO granted Afghanistan "observer" status in 2012, but thus far their joint activities have focused upon the development of counter-narcotics projects.
Unlike fellow SCO-head Russia, which has supported the NDN, China has eschewed formal defense assistance to the ANSF or ISAF. This is partly due to a desire to not antagonize Muslim militants. It may also reflect Beijing's strategic calculation that China might be able to work out a deal with the Taliban, in which the insurgents would avoid attacking Chinese workers or Chinese-owned assets in Afghanistan, or support terrorists in Xinjiang or elsewhere, in return for hefty Chinese rental, tax, and export payments and tacit Chinese acceptance of a Taliban-led government in Kabul.
This article appeared at ISN Security Watch and is reprinted with permission.