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Why are Central Asian countries so spooked by the turmoil in Afghanistan?

Indian troops participating in counterterrorism drills with Russia in the Indra-2021 exercises (Pic courtesy defencedirecteducation.com)

About 250 Indian troops are currently participating in counterterrorism drills with Russia in the Indra-2021 exercises in Russia’s Volgograd Region from August 1. Since Monday  troops from Russia and Uzbekistan also began joint military drills near the Afghan border in the backdrop of a worsening security situation in Afghanistan that could spill over into Central Asia. At the same time, approximately 200 Uzbek soldiers have arrived in Tajikistan and will be participating in a  Russian-Uzbek-Tajik trilateral military exercise near the Afghan border.  According to Russia's Central Military District the troops will practice busting a hypothetical illegal armed group that illegally crossed the border.

A little earlier, on July 22, Tajikistan held its largest military readiness drill in its post-independence history. Around 100,000 servicemen and 130,000 reserve troops were mobilized to take part in an exercise dubbed Border-2021, as President Emomali Rahmon fretted about troubles to the south.

All of this points to a significant disquiet within Russia and its Central Asian partners – primarily Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with whom, together with Turkmenistan, Afghanistan shares one of its longest borders – 2800 kms in total. Thus, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have major stakes in Afghanistan's security and stability, as they have earlier been singed by the chaos inside Afghanistan.

There are four major factors that drive security concerns vis-a-vis Afghanistan in both Russia and in the Central Asian Republics (CARS).

Also Read: Indian and Russian troops prepare for joint counterterror operations during Indra-2 exercise

The first is religious radicalisation. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan saw thousands of residents from Central Asia, many of whom shared ethnic and linguistic affinities with Afghan groups, posted in Afghanistan. Many of them like Juma Namangini, who served there  became radicalised, and then imported jihadist ideology back to their countries..

Tajikistan, sharing a 1300 kms border with Afghanistan, is  particularly vulnerable to any spillover of the unrest in Afghanistan. At its very inception as a sovereign state, the country was plunged into  a long brutal and protracted civil war with the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) which wanted to overthrow the secular government and establish Sharia law. Many of its founders had served in Afghanistan, had been radicalized there; were trained, equipped, and launched attacks on Tajikistan from Afghanistan. When peace was finally brokered and the IRP became increasingly irrelevant, one of its  branches, under Numangani, an ethnic Uzbek, took  Jihad to neighbouring Uzbekistan by establishing the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and it's splinter group Islamic Jihad of Uzbekistan (IJU).

The political elites of the CARS, nurtured by the Soviet system remain staunchly secular. While allowing a moderate Islam to prevail, they have kept their countries relatively stable, with high literacy levels, women's rights, and the rule of law with few exceptions. The last thing they would wish for is religious radicalization which implies a change of the entire political system.

Inextricably linked to religious radicalism is the second threat: that of terrorism.

Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan  have all battled terrorism emanating from radical Islam.  Like the Tajik radicals, the IMU, after their expulsion from Uzbek and Tajik territory found refuge in Afghanistan, where it joined first the Taliban, and later the Islamic State (IS). Numerous other radical groups like the Hizb-ur -Tahrir and Jamaat Ansarullah have battled Tajik, Uzbek and Kyrgyz governments and have moved to Afghanistan.

Also Read: In a warning to Taliban, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan activate military drills near Afghan Border

That is why after Kabul fell to the Taliban in 1996 Tajikistan, together with Russia, Iran and later India also began supporting the predominantly Tajik Northern Alliance under Ahmed Shah Massoud. Tajikistan became the bridgehead for supplies to the Alliance based in Badakshan province.

That is also why Uzbekistan was one of the first countries in the region to support the US war in Afghanistan, extending bases to the Americans. It also opted for a regional counter-terror strategy and houses the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) of the Shanghai Cooperation Council in Tashkent.

The Islamic State remains a potent threat for the CARS with almost 5000 citizens from there flocking to Syria and Iraq to join the IS there, and an even greater number being unsuccessful. A startling example is that of Colonel Gubattled with lmurod Halimov, the head of Tajikistan’s paramilitary police who in 2015 joined the IS and became its Minister of War. Russian speakers were the largest group of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.

There is concern that after their routing in Syria and Iraq ,the IS have regrouped in Afghanistan and may use it as a base to target the CARS. Citizens from CARS have been involved in terror incidents in Turkey, US, Sweden, Russia.

The numerous recent reports of Tajik militants belonging to the banned Jamaat Ansarullah fighting with the Taliban and stationed at the Afghan-Tajik border whose control the Taliban have wrested from Afghan security forces must have come as a rude shock.

The third danger emanating from Afghanistan is the drug trade. The "northern route" for drug trafficking runs from Afghanistan to neighbouring CARS and into the Russian Federation  – now the largest market. Under the previous Taliban rule, drug inflow into the CARS had significantly increased. While it decreased in  2008-2012, the northern route has seen a resurgence post 2012, a UN report noted.

Finally, turmoil in Afghanistan threatens Tajikistan and Uzbekistan with uncontrolled refugee flows which, especially under the current circumstances prevalent in the region because of the pandemic, threatens the CARS with migrants, instability, rise in poverty, unemployment, import of radical ideology, and crimes. There has already been cases of people fleeing into Tajikistan from Afghanistan after the Taliban took over Badakshan and the border crossings with Tajikistan.

All of this makes it imperative for the CARS, especially the frontline states of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan to shore up their defences. Tajikistan, which also houses Russia's largest foreign base has activated the Collective Security Treaty Organization with Russia.

For Russia too, which faces all of the above threats, having battled a brutal Islamist insurgency in its  Chechnya region, embroiled in direct conflict with the IS in Syria, and having faced multiple terror attacks on its soil, the defence of its Central Asian neighbours, it's first line of defence is imperative.

The bottom line is: having engaged with the Taliban, Russia and the CARS are not impervious to the potential dangers that a violent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan poses for them as for the region. Realpolitik necessitated the engagement, but the Taliban remains banned in all these countries.

(Aditi Bhaduri is a columnist specialising in Eurasian geopolitics. Views expressed are personal)