Russia's assessment of the prospects for a smooth transition in Afghanistan are dim -- and getting worse, the country's ambassador to Tajikistan said. Russian ambassadors from the Central Asian states and Afghanistan met in Tashkent and Igor Lyakin-Frolov, Moscow's envoy to Dushanbe, took the occasion to give an interview to Russian newspaper Kommersant.
Lyakin-Frolov's view was grim: "If a few months ago the prevailing view was that the situation in Afghanistan was more or less normal and a direct threat to Tajikistan wasn't seen, now the prognosis is becoming more and more pessimistic," he said.
The "threat" from Afghanistan has been the driver (or, perhaps, the pretext) for Russia's recent push to build up its security presence in Central Asia. It's been boosting the presence and capability of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, including building up a joint CSTO air force and using the CSTO to provide technical assistance to Tajikistan's border forces. And Lyakin-Frolov's comments are some of Russia's most explicitly pessimistic.
His "most favorable" scenario of how things may turn out is not actually very favorable: "The most favorable scenario supposes that the current government will barely hold on in Kabul and in the majority of provincial centers with the support of the U.S. and NATO contingents. There are also less favorable scenarios which suppose that a full-scale civil war can start, which would threaten the integrity of the Afghan government and likewise, the security of the countries of Central Asia... and, correspondingly, the security of Russia. So we need to prepare."
U.S. troops patrol the Torkham Gate on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. (photo: Spc. Hillary Rustine, Combined Joint Task Force 1)
While the U.S. has suspended its military transportation across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, that does not have any effect on traffic through Central Asia, a Pentagon spokesperson has told The Bug Pit.
In a protest against U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, supporters of Pakistani politician Imran Khan have imposed a sort of vigilante blockade of U.S. and NATO cargo across the border to Afghanistan. "Protesters have taken the law into their own hands deciding who can pass and go on to Afghanistan, and who can't," the BBC reported. "They have been harassing truck drivers and turning back vehicles carrying Nato provisions."
As a result, the U.S. has "voluntarily halted US shipments of retrograde cargo" through Pakistan, the Pentagon announced. In the past, that has meant a big boost for Central Asia: when Pakistan closed the border in 2011, it took close to two years to fully restore traffic. In the meantime, the U.S. was paying an extra $100 million a month to ship its goods via the longer, more difficult Northern Distribution Network.
But that's not happening this time (at least yet), Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright told The Bug Pit. He said that the small amount of traffic via the NDN has not been affected by this latest move:
U.S. forces drop supplies for base in Bala Marghab, Afghanistan. Coming soon to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan? (photo: Sgt. Seth Barham, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division Public Affairs)
In the wake of the U.S.'s announcement that it is moving its air base in Kyrgyzstan to Romania, the conspiracy theories continue to be propagated -- even in relatively respectable Russian analytical and official circles. A couple of weeks ago, The Bug Pit looked at one popular conspiracy theory: that the U.S. wasn't in fact leaving Manas, but was involved in an elaborate deception to cover up its aims of setting up a state-of-the-art intelligence-gathering operation in Kyrgyzstan.
But that's not the only theory being mooted as the "real" explanation for what the U.S. is doing (moving operations to Romania, if you're naive enough to believe the Pentagon). A piece in the Russian Ministry of Defense newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, entitled "The Pentagon Intends to Stay," suggests that the withdrawal from Manas is merely a tactical retreat, and that the U.S.'s strategy in Central Asia is "to leave, in order to stay." According to this analysis, the small training centers that the U.S. has set up in Tajikistan and had planned to set up in Kyrgyzstan, as well as the military supply routes of the Northern Distribution Network, represent a foothold that the U.S. can use to maintain influence with a smaller footprint.
But that piece is relatively measured. Other analyses get more specific, and a lot more conspiratorial. One theory is that the U.S. is moving to Aktau, on Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea shore. This theory is promulgated by a number of people, including analyst Nikolay Bobkin, writing for the Russian think tank Strategic Culture Foundation.
As a result of a U.S. attack that killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban, there are renewed threats in Pakistan to shut down the border with Afghanistan to U.S. and NATO forces. This, of course, would have a direct impact on Central Asia, by forcing the U.S. military to again shift its supply routes back to the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia and Russia. And this just as American military officials have managed to get away from the more expensive, difficult northern route and back to Pakistan.
The political party that rules the province that borders Afghanistan "passed a resolution that threatened to block the supply lines through the region in response to a C.I.A. missile strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, on Friday," the New York Times reported. It set a deadline of November 20 for the U.S. to stop drone attacks, after which they promised to shut the border. The resolution, the Times says, "was a means of building pressure on the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to end American drone strikes, while buying time to avoid a tricky confrontation with Mr. Sharif’s administration, which does not favor blocking NATO lines."
And also, crucially, the Pakistani military appears to favor the strike and to oppose closing the border. From an analysis of the political fallout by Ariq Rafiq in Foreign Policy:
Two panels this month, one in Washington and the other in Istanbul, illustrate the broad gap in thinking on Central Asia between foreign policy leaders in Washington and mid-level practitioners more closely linked to the region.
"The US must take initiative to create a long-term strategy for the region. It should bring the New Silk Road to the region, because if we do not, others [Russia, China] will fill the void," Adib Farhadi, a visiting Afghan scholar at the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute (CACI) at Johns Hopkins University, said, summarizing the sentiments of his fellow panelists in Washington.
Just a few days earlier in Istanbul, however, one panelist derided Washington's New Silk Road concept – unveiled by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in mid-2011 – to widespread agreement: "The New Silk Road was a strategy, then an initiative, now I guess it is a vision. It should be called an illusion and ignored. It was created by outsiders without reference to what is going on in the region."
The Atlantic Council and CACI jointly hosted the Washington panel, entitled "The New Silk Road Project: A New Strategy for Afghanistan and Central-South Asia," on October 9. The previous week, the US Congress-chartered Hollings Center for International Dialogue gathered 30 policy experts and development practitioners from Central Asia, Afghanistan, Turkey and the West for a dialogue on "Central Asia's Regional Challenges." The Hollings Center event on October 3-5 was held under the Chatham House Rule, thus participants’ names have been withheld.
Most talk of security in Central Asia these days revolves around what will happen in Afghanistan after 2014. The widespread expectation is that after U.S. and NATO combat forces withdraw from the country, leaving behind some smaller training/advising force, security will deteriorate in Afghanistan, with unpredictable -- but probably not good -- results for Central Asia. But most scenarios assume some sort of U.S./Western presence in Afghanistan post-2014, minimizing the potential for chaos in that country. But what if the U.S. pulls out altogether? After all, few expected that the U.S. would entirely pull out of Iraq, but after political negotiations broke down over the status of U.S. forces, that's what happened there. Couldn't the same thing happen in Afghanistan? And what would that mean for Central Asia?
That scenario is looking increasingly likely. The New York Times has reported that negotiations between the U.S. and Afghanistan governments are close to breaking down, and time is running out:
The United States and Afghanistan have reached an impasse in their talks over the role that American forces will play here beyond next year, officials from both countries say, raising the distinct possibility of a total withdrawal — an outcome that the Pentagon’s top military commanders dismissed just months ago.
American officials say they are preparing to suspend negotiations absent a breakthrough in the coming weeks, and a senior administration official said talk of resuming them with President Hamid Karzai’s successor, who will be chosen in elections set for next April, is, “frankly, not very likely.”
Georgian soldiers disembark at the Manas Transit Center, in Kyrgyzstan, after a charter flight from Tbilisi. They will spend about two days at the airbase before deploying to Afghanistan on a US Air Force jet. With over 1,500 soldiers on the ground, Georgia is the largest non-NATO contributor to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.
Presidents of CSTO member states (except Kazakhstan, which sent its prime minister) at the CSTO summit in Sochi. (photo: CSTO)
The Collective Security Treaty Organization held its annual summit in Sochi, Russia, on Monday and the hottest topic (other than Syria) was how to strengthen the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border. The group, in the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin, resolved to "provide additional collective assistance to Tajikistan to reinforce its national border with Afghanistan." The aid will include "constructing new buildings of frontier posts, restoring warning and signaling systems and providing border troops with means of air patrol and surveillance as well as radar," said Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon, speaking at the event.
According to the official CSTO statement, "On the basis of a request from Tajikistan the member states of the CSTO will, according to their abilities, within three months render military-technical assistance to the border forces of the State Committee for National Security of the Republic of Tajikistan." Interestingly, the aid package appears not to include Russian troops, which no doubt the Russian side was pushing for. Russia has been pushing the CSTO as its primary tool for preventing the spread of instability from Afghanistan after U.S. and NATO forces leave the country starting next year. Said Putin:
We discussed the situation in Afghanistan in light of the international coalition’s troop withdrawal planned for 2014. Unfortunately, there is reason to expect a considerable rise in Afghan drug trafficking activity and in terrorist groups’ activeness.
Extremists are already attempting to spread their activity into neighbouring countries, including the Central Asian countries that are CSTO members.
The potential for radical Islamist militants to appear in Central Asia after the U.S./NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan is perhaps the biggest fear in the region. But real information about militants' intentions vis-a-vis Central Asia is scarce, allowing speculation, and often fear-mongering, to fill the vacuum. So a new project by the website Registan to investigate the strategy of the biggest such group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, is very much overdue. As the site's managing editor, Noah Tucker, put it in the first post on the topic:
It seems sometimes that in all the chatter about the supposedly imminent threat of an IMU invasion of Central Asia the only people not talking about it are the IMU themselves. In contrast, earlier this year the movement splintered for at least the second time to create a special unit in cooperation with the Tehrik-e Taliban’s (TTP) Adnan Rashid to focus on prison-break operations inside Pakistan. In the latest interview Hikmatiy claims, “our jihad is part of the completion of the Hind G’azasi [the (Holy) Conquest of Greater India] that our Prophet foretold and that was longed for by his honored companions [sahoba].” The reference to this particular obscure hadith, popular mostly with the Pakistani jihadi groups, is a sign of just how deeply the IMU has been pulled into the Af/Pak political labyrinth....
Presidents of SCO member states meet in Bishkek. (photo: Kremlin)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization held its annual summit in Bishkek on Friday, and even by the standards of this opaque organization, the results are unclear. Heads of state of the six SCO members – Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan – attended, as did those of observer states Afghanistan, Iran, and Mongolia, and delegations from India and Pakistan. (It's not clear who Turkey -- which formally became a "dialogue partner" with some fanfare earlier at last year's summit -- sent to Bishkek, suggesting it was a low-level official and that the organization is not a big priority for Ankara.) Much of the discussion seemed to be about issues outside of the SCO's mandate (as far as that has been defined so far) -- obviously Syria was a large topic, as was Iran's nuclear program. RFE/RL did the thankless job of liveblogging the event, recommended for those wanting to catch up on the small bits of news that the summit offered up.
The SCO, being ostensibly a security organization, and one whose members are all pretty close to Afghanistan, would seem to have a lot of work to do as next year's U.S./NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan looms. And while the issue was of course discussed, it remains entirely unclear what the SCO could actually do in Afghanistan. Inaction has been a flaw of the organization since its inception, wrote Alexey Malashenko in a piece for the Carnegie Moscow Center.