A senior Kremlin official has warned that the Islamist group ISIS is gathering its forces in northern Afghanistan in preparation for an attack against Central Asia and Russia, and that a wide array of military measures are required to prevent that. But in spite of the alarmist rhetoric, he suggested that the Russian military would not be heavily involved in Central Asia's fight against ISIS.
The official, Zamir Kabulov, is Russian President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan, and he gave a long interview to Interfax on the occasion of the end of the Western combat mission in Afghanistan. The ginning up of the ISIS threat isn't new for Russian officials, but Kabulov's interview is noteworthy for its unusual amount of detail. (Whether or not that detail corresponds to reality is another matter.)
According to Russia's information, Kabulov said, a "small group -- maybe a bit more than a hundred fighters" -- was redeployed from ISIS's main base in Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan. But they supplement local fighters loyal to ISIS, he says:
A "spillover" into Central Asia is inevitable, especially considering that all the foundations are there. They have created two beachheads in Afghanistan: one on the border of Tajikistan, and the other of Turkmenistan. There they have concentrated fairly large forces. Let's say on the Tajikistan beachhead there are 4-5,000 fighters concentrated. And on the beachhead opposite Turkmenistan, 2,500 fighters. They have deployed camps for two-month preparation courses for fighters. We know of three such camps, and there may be more. They are training 50 fighters in every course, so if you take at least three camps that we know about, that's 150 fighters every two months. What's interesting is that they are mostly natives of Central Asia.
He adds that "our allies in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan know about this, they confirm that they have the same information, and they are taking measures."
In-depth analyses have looked at the allegations of ISIS activity in Afghanistan and found them much more hype than reality. While ISIS is an attractive global brand with which many Islamists want to be associated, at a formal organizational level the Afghan Taliban and ISIS have serious political and ideological differences, wrote analyst Borhan Osman in a piece for Afghanistan Analysts Network in November. (He did not, to be fair, address the claims of Central Asia-focused training camps.)
However, Russia will not send its troops to Afghanistan, nor return its border guards to the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, Kabulov said. "We're not burning with desire to send our border guards back," he said. Nor will the Collective Security Treaty Organization's new Rapid Reaction Force get involved, except in the case of a cross-border invasion, he said. Instead, Russia will continue its programs of training and equipping local forces, particularly in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, he said.
And he also suggested that Russia would strengthen its defenses around its southern borders:
When the threat becomes apparent enough, we'll need to take precautionary measures, especially on the Russia-Kazakhstan border, and to strengthen our position on the Caspian. Just like narcotics are shipped on the Caspian Sea, going to Dagestan and onward, fighters can appear via the same route. So we need to adopt additional measures in the Caucasus, too, including to not allow the infiltration of fighters from Georgia, after all there have already been such cases.
I want to paraphrase Yuliy Mikhailovich Vorontov, who was then the ambassador in Kabul. On the eve of the collapse of the USSR there was a lot of hesitation in Moscow about whether we need to fight the mujaheddin if we're leaving anyway. He then used a good phrase: "It's better to fight the mujaheddin at Jalalabad, than at Ashgabat." So I would rephrase it: "It's better to fight the Islamists on the Amu Darya, than on the Volga."
There are lots of interesting elements to that passage: for one, the dubious conflation of Russia's various southern security/geopolitical concerns (e.g. Georgia, Dagestan, the Caspian) with ISIS. And also the reference to the Volga, which may sound like he thinks the Tatar/Bashkir regions of Russia could be potential future hotbeds of Islamist terror.
And Kabulov said that all of this could start to manifest itself within the next few months: "Various rumors are reaching us, that among the fighters on the Afghan side there are active conversations that they will show themselves in the spring," he said. "Let's see, spring will show." Stay tuned.