There is a general assumption that Afghanistan is a notorious exporter of violence and that the pullout of US and NATO troops in 2014 from the country portends trouble for the neighboring states of Central Asia. Yet this assumption rests on shaky evidence. The recent fighting in Tajikistan reminds us that disorder and violence in Central Asia are homegrown phenomena.
Experts in Russia, China, the U.S., and Europe are worried that Afghanistan’s evil twins – drug trafficking and the export of religious extremism – will bring chaos and violence to Central Asia after 2014. To address these threats policy makers agree that security assistance to Central Asian governments needs to be ramped up. Highest on the list of what needs to be done is an expansion of train-and-equip programs for border guards and local security forces. In addition, the United States is considering leaving armored personal carriers and other military equipment in the region after the pull-out from Afghanistan. Russia, meanwhile, is negotiating with Tajikistan to extend a base deal that would permanently station 6,000 Russian troops in the country.
While these policies may seem like sound strategy, the problem is that none of them address the causes of instability in Central Asia, and some may even exacerbate existing problems. The basic truth is that security threats in Central Asia develop from within, and are not imported from elsewhere.
An example: two weeks ago, as Tajik soldiers were engaged in firefights with gunmen in Khorog, the capital of the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan, I was skyping with a friend in Dushanbe. In reply to my question of what was going on he said: “It’s simple: one gang of drug traffickers is fighting with another gang of drug traffickers over their turf. Both wear official Tajik uniforms.” His explanation resonates with many inside and outside Tajikistan. Even if the Tajik government initially stressed links to Afghan militants and spoke of eight Afghan nationals with possible links to the Taliban, al Qaeda or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that had been detained, little evidence or even logical arguments could be produced to bolster these claims.
In fact there is very little to indicate that Afghanistan’s evil twins after 2014 will influence the security situation in Central Asia more than they do already. Take the export of religious extremism: the Tajik civil war in the 1990s did have a religious component, and United Tajik Opposition commanders enjoyed a safe haven in Afghanistan. But the conflict itself arose out of internal political contradictions, rather than being exported from Afghanistan. Similarly, recent flare-ups of violent religious extremism in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan developed within a local context and as a reaction to repression of religious and other fundamental civic and economic rights of Central Asian citizens by their governments.
Looking at drug trafficking, opium derivatives such as heroin are generally not smuggled into the region, but cross the border by the truckload on established roads and through official checkpoints. Few seriously contest that the biggest drug traffickers in Central Asia are government officials, or at least individuals or groups closely connected to the governments in the region.
If one considers instances of violence in Central Asia over the past two decades – including the riots in Uzgen and Osh in 1990, the Tajik civil war in the mid-1990s, the events in Andijan in 2005, the violent revolutions in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and 2010, the clashes in Osh in June 2010, the riots in western Kazakhstan in 2011 or the fighting in Tajikistan in 2010 and 2012 – Afghanistan really isn’t a factor. A multitude of local factors were behind these outbursts of violence, including the political dynamics inherent in non-democratic states, conflicts over resources and the inability of states and societies to manage conflicts.
Traditional security assistance to Central Asian governments as currently conceived in Brussels, Washington, Moscow or Beijing does little to address these problems. Given some evidence that governments in the region are more part of the problem than they are of the solution current assistance programs are counterintuitive. Even initiatives that specifically include an element aimed at professionalizing relations between uniformed officials and civilians such as western-funded police training or border management assistance programs generally fail to deliver results in these areas.
The stated aim of foreign security assistance in Central Asia is to promote stability in the region itself. The first step towards providing such assistance should be to stop assuming that Afghanistan is the biggest threat to regional stability and to acknowledge the homegrown nature of the threat.
Cornelius Graubner is a Central Asian policy expert affiliated with the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Foundations (OSF) in New York. EurasiaNet publishes under OSF’s auspices.