Afghanistan's Northern Borders Heat Up

6 MINS READOct 23, 2015 | 09:00 GMT
Afghanistan's Northern Borders Heat Up
A soldier in Uzbekistan guards his country's border with Afghanistan.
(Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images)

Heightened militancy along Afghanistan's northern border in recent months is gaining attention, both within Central Asia and outside the region. And world powers are becoming more focused on stopping it. At a recent Commonwealth of Independent States summit on Oct. 16, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the bloc's member states could create a joint task force to patrol the border. Meanwhile, Russian officials have hinted that Moscow may return its forces to the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border. Other countries, including Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, appear to be seeking their own approaches to tackling the border threat that could involve the United States. These developments indicate that the border between Afghanistan and the Central Asian states could heat up in the coming months, both militarily and politically. However, the threat of rising militancy is only one factor among many — not the least of which is the U.S.-Russia standoff — that will determine how the conflict plays out.

The borders between Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have long been important from a security standpoint for countries inside and outside the region. Historically, they did not exist as concretely as they do now; rather, constant warfare in the region meant that frontier areas frequently changed hands. However, beginning in the 19th century, the spread of the Russian Empire into Central Asia and the British Empire into what is now Afghanistan solidified the country's modern political borders. Then, in the early 20th century, the transition from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union led to the official closure of Afghanistan's borders for the first time in history, creating significantly different political and cultural identities among the ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens in Afghanistan and within the Soviet Union.

But though the border was officially closed, ties were far from severed between the ethnic groups. Because of the geography of the area, interaction and movement between the peoples of Central Asia and Afghanistan were difficult to stop. This was exemplified by the large movement of people from Tajikistan to Afghanistan and back during the Tajik Civil War of 1992-1997 and once again with the rise of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose members frequently traveled in and out of Afghanistan during the militant group's rise in the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

But the militancy problem was soon resolved, at least temporarily, with the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. The intervention effectively destroyed much of the IMU and sent the rest of its members into the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, at which point the militant group ceased to pose an existential threat to regimes in Central Asia. In the ensuing decade, there were only a few sporadic attacks attributed to the IMU (and even those reports were questionable) within Central Asia. However, with the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and with the subsequent rise of the Islamic State throughout the Middle East and South Asia, the border between Central Asia and Afghanistan is once again a hot spot and a source of significant preoccupation for external powers.

The increased presence and activity of militant groups, especially the Taliban and the Islamic State, are of particular concern. In late September, Taliban forces took the strategic northern Afghan city of Kunduz, and there have been several shootouts and attacks on or near Afghanistan's border posts with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Security officials from Central Asia have claimed that as many as tens of thousands of Islamic State- or Taliban-affiliated militants are operating in northern Afghanistan and that their numbers and materiel are only growing. 

Russia's Stake

This is especially worrisome for Russia, which is the dominant external power in Central Asia and the leader of the Commonwealth of Independent States political grouping, which counts several Central Asian states as members. At the bloc's Oct. 16 summit in Astana, Putin announced that the group's leaders had agreed to create a joint task force to defend the bloc's borders in case of crisis. While the specifics of the task force, including how it would be composed or where it would be deployed, were not given, the announcement was clearly made with Afghanistan in mind. Discussion on the country dominated the summit. Putin's announcement also came after several Russian security officials hinted that Russia could redeploy troops to Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan, where Russian troops served as border guards until 2005. 

While this talk indicates the serious possibility that Russia's security presence in Central Asia will grow, not all countries in the region would be supportive of such an increase. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are members of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military bloc, and the latter two countries host Russian military bases. But Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan traditionally have been much more resistant to joining Russia-led alliances or integration projects. Indeed, Stratfor has received reports that the two countries have decided to shun Russia's border task force initiative and may instead pursue a bilateral agreement on joint border security related to Afghanistan. 

There are several recent developments that would seem to corroborate these reports of a bilateral agreement between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. One is the meeting between the two countries' presidents in Tashkent on Oct. 8, during which they discussed security cooperation and the countering of international terrorism. Another is Turkmenistan's public rebuttal of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's statement, which he made alongside Putin prior to the Commonwealth of Independent States summit, that there had been a growing number of security incidents along the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border. This comment was accompanied by statements by the Russian and Kazakh leaders that Central Asian countries and Russia need to work together to jointly counter the threat of Islamist extremism coming out of Afghanistan, something Turkmenistan implicitly suggested it does not agree with.

Turning to the United States

As it turns away from Russia, Turkmenistan appears to be turning toward another foreign power, the United States, to counter the threat from Afghanistan. On Oct. 15, a delegation led by Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov traveled to Washington to discuss economic and security issues. The visit followed reports that Turkmenistan had requested increased U.S. military aid, which was acknowledged by U.S. Central Command Gen. Lloyd Austin but has not been confirmed by Ashgabat. Uzbekistan also received military assistance from the United States earlier this year in the form of more than 300 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, in what was the largest transfer of U.S. military equipment to a Central Asian country ever seen; however, Uzbekistan also recently held security consultations with Russia. 

Therefore, concerns about a spillover of militant activity from Afghanistan into Central Asia appear to be becoming more politicized as larger opposing powers are drawn into the mix. In fact, concrete evidence has yet to emerge of a true rise in Islamist militant activity within Central Asia itself. And both Russia and the United States have interests in the region that go beyond the immediate security situation, though stemming the spread of militancy from Afghanistan is certainly a legitimate concern for both. Russia, for its part, is interested in remaining the dominant military and political power in Central Asia and in keeping other external players out. The United States is interested in challenging Russian primacy and influence throughout the former Soviet periphery. The Central Asian states, too, may have ulterior motives for playing up security threats, since it could give them pretense to crack down on opposition elements at home.

This is not to say that the threat of militancy spilling over from Afghanistan into Central Asia is not a real one: Militancy and instability in northern Afghanistan are certainly on the rise, and Turkmenistan allegedly deployed as much as 70 percent of its military along the Afghan border. But the fact remains that the numerous other complex and opaque strategic considerations in play will likely make the Afghan border an important locale for wider struggles in the coming months and years.

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