Central Asia is no stranger to Islamist militancy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the region experienced significant political upheaval as five new countries emerged that had no previous history of independent statehood within their Soviet-made borders. The countries also experienced major economic dislocations and an explosion of nationalist and religious sentiment that had been suppressed during the Soviet era.
One of the consequences of this upheaval was the emergence of Islamist groups, such as the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which participated in the country's civil war from 1992 to 1997. The group was part of a diverse coalition fighting the country's post-Communist government and eventually joined the post-war political process and laid down its arms. A more dangerous group was the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which originated in eastern Uzbekistan but sought to create an Islamic caliphate in the Fergana Valley. The Uzbek group was particularly active in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it launched attacks in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan from its base in the remote mountains of eastern Tajikistan.
Both the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan had links abroad, particularly to Afghanistan, which shares a 2,000-kilometer (about 1,240-mile) border with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The border's porosity and ethnic links spanning the frontier facilitated significant cross-border activity in the first 10 years after the Soviet collapse. The sizable Tajik population in northern Afghanistan provided refuge and a transit point for the Tajik militant group in its domestic struggle. Members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan traveled across Tajikistan's poorly guarded border with Afghanistan and aligned with the leadership of the Taliban and al Qaeda, consolidating their efforts to overthrow Central Asian governments under a broader jihadist movement.
However, the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing U.S. invasion of Afghanistan had a profound impact on Central Asia. With Central Asian countries providing logistical assistance for U.S. and NATO military personnel, the West assisted these countries in tackling their own militancy problems. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan's leadership was either killed or driven into the Afghanistan-Pakistan tribal areas. By 2001, the group no longer posed an existential threat to the regimes of Central Asia. There were still attacks attributed to the Uzbek group, such as bombings in Tashkent in 2004 and attacks against Tajik security forces in eastern Tajikistan in 2010. But no direct connection between these attacks and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan was fully established, and the attacks could have been linked to domestic power struggles. Indeed, in recent years Central Asian governments have often used the threat of the Uzbek group or other Islamist groups, such as Hizb al-Tahrir, to justify security crackdowns, but the actual threat these groups pose has been minimal.
Afghanistan and the Islamic State
Despite the relative lull in Islamist violence in Central Asia during the past decade, concerns are mounting again that the region is in danger of a new wave of attacks or even a full-scale insurgency. Driving these concerns are two principal factors: the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 and the emergence of the Islamic State as a major insurgent force.
The U.S. drawdown of its military presence in Afghanistan from 140,000 soldiers at the peak of operations to 14,000 in 2015 has raised fears that the Taliban could re-emerge to take over the country and provide havens to militants seeking to attack Central Asia. Security officials in the region recently noted a "gathering of armed individuals" from groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the northern regions of Afghanistan, particularly Badakhshan and Pyanj. There have also been recent attacks near the border area, with four Tajik border guards kidnapped by Taliban fighters in late December, as well as clashes between the Taliban and Turkmen border guards in March 2014.
As a result, Central Asian states have taken measures to mitigate the risk of militancy spilling across their borders. In early January, Tajikistan announced the deployment of a new military base in the Kulob region, close to the Afghan border. Uzbek officials also announced "technical improvements" to their border posts for better communication and logistics near the Afghan border. Russia, the most influential player in Central Asia with military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, has also warned of the security threat from Afghanistan, strengthening military ties within the region, particularly through the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Meanwhile, the rise of the Islamic State has been a source of concern because the group has drawn fighters from Central Asia into the Syria-Iraq theater. There have been reports of hundreds or even thousands of fighters from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan fighting in Syria and Iraq, many alongside the Islamic State. These reports have raised fears that these fighters could return home and pose a militant threat in Central Asia.
Central Asian fighters have demonstrated the ability to leave their home countries and fight elsewhere, indicating a probable capability of returning to their home turf. However, gathering supplies and weapons, evading capture and staging successful attacks are all easier to accomplish in war zones and security vacuums than in more functional states such as the Central Asian countries. In the past 10 years, these countries have built robust security forces that have minimized the Islamist militant threat, as indicated by the lack of successful attacks. Still, an increase in attacks is not impossible or even unlikely, but it is not an easy or safe process for militants to return to Central Asia from the Syria-Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan war zones.
The growing presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan has also raised concerns. Russian President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan has warned of a group of Islamic State fighters in the country's north who allegedly are training thousands of fighters close to the border with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Putin has called for coordinated action to address the Islamic State threat to the region. Though there have been indications that the Islamic State or its sympathizers are present in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, these groups would not be able to gain the support to replace the Taliban in any significant way. In fact, they could create more competition and discord among the groups in the area. As for the risk to Central Asia, attacks could occur during the next year but are not likely to rise to a level that threatens the governments' hold on power.
Other factors diminish Central Asia's risk of a large wave of Islamist militant attacks from Afghanistan or other areas. First, the peak of militant activity in the region, from 1999 to 2001, occurred when the Taliban's power was at its apex in Afghanistan. The Taliban are not likely to return to such an uncontested position in the short to medium term, if ever. Second, the Central Asian countries have had more than 20 years to recover from the Soviet collapse and build up their own political and security institutions to withstand a rise in militancy. Finally, many outside powers — including Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and the West — are all interested in stemming the flow of militancy into Central Asia and making sure the region does not have to face a threat from militants in Afghanistan alone. Still, even though groups that previously threatened Central Asia are defunct, another entity could emerge to fill that role, just as the Islamic State emerged even as al Qaeda weakened.
Homegrown Challenges to Stability
Other problems in Central Asia could lead to instability or be exacerbated by the situation in Afghanistan. Internal power struggles are possible in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which are both dealing with the looming question of who will succeed their long-serving leaders. Tajikistan has issues with restive rebels in the east, and Kyrgyzstan's internal divisions spawned two revolutions and major interethnic violence in the past few years. Each of these countries has domestic opposition elements that could seek to widen existing political divisions and might not exclude the use of militancy to achieve their goals.
Moreover, Russia's economic crisis has affected the entire region, resulting in currency depreciation, rising inflation and shortages of key goods such as food and gasoline. Also, countries such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan could see thousands of migrant workers return, lacking economic prospects in Russia as a result of the crisis. Their return could compound the social and economic difficulties in their home countries. Most of these workers are males between the ages of 18 and 35 — a demographic that tends to be the most active in times of economic and political upheaval and could be more susceptible to militancy or exploitation by radical elements within the country or abroad.
It is Central Asia's internal conditions coupled with the expansion of active Islamist militancy in the surrounding region that could lead to an increase in militancy. Any new militant activity would be building off of longstanding social, ethnic, economic and religious differences and could be spurred or inspired by both the activities abroad. Though a full-scale insurgency in Central Asia such as those seen in the Syria-Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan theaters is unlikely, the region will face challenges to its stability in the coming years.