Key Security Challenges in Central Asia

KarinThe withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan scheduled for 2014 is one of the key issues in discussions of security challenges in Central Asia.

There are fears, shared by governments, think tanks and the expert community in the United States, Europe and Central Asia, that the withdrawal of military forces will weaken control within Afghanistan and could lead to a new round of civil conflict. The most pessimistic forecasts even envisage radical forces coming to power or an increase in the number of terrorist acts in the region and the world.

Generally, we are already seeing an increase in the number of attacks on coalition forces and cases of terrorist attacks. Only in January 2014, 16 terrorist attacks occurred in Kabul, which led to 150 deaths. This is why it is not surprising that the main topics discussed among experts and politicians are the potential negative effects of the withdrawal of coalition troops. And the main question is: will the withdrawal cause a new outbreak of violence in Afghanistan and would this wave spread to other countries in the region or not?

With regard to Kazakhstan, these concerns are growing amid a burst of terrorist activity in 2011-2012, when extremist groups tried to organise acts in the cities of Atyrau, Aktobe and Taraz. This is especially relevant as intelligence links those actions to various terrorist organisations based in Afghanistan.

The fact that most experts link the worsening of the security situation in Central Asia and the rise of terrorist activity with the situation in Afghanistan is based on events in Kyrgyzstan in 1999-2000, called the “Batken events.”

At that time, several groups of militants who were moving around the Tajik-Afghan border or had military bases in northern Afghanistan tried to expand and invaded the territories of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

After the beginning of an anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan, the militants of the Islamic Movement of Turkestan, also known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union. were forced to move their bases to the southern regions in the area of the Afghan-Pakistan border. It is anticipated that after the withdrawal of coalition forces, these groups might try again to advance their activity in northern Afghanistan and attempt to penetrate into other Central Asian countries. For this reason, today, expert discussion revolves around the different possible ways the situation in the region could develop.

This probably explains the growth of military spending of the countries of Central Asia geographically closest to Afghanistan.

Military spending of Central Asian countries in 2010-2011 (million USD)

Country

2010

% of GDP in 2010

2011

% of GDP in 2011

Kazakhstan

1066

0.9

1297

0.9

Kyrgyzstan

96

1.7

111

2.09

Tajikistan

84

1.5

105

1.68

Turkmenistan

261

1.5

336

1.5

Uzbekistan

1422

3.5

1568

3.2

 

It is undeniable that the withdrawal of coalition forces could weaken the regional security system and complicate the situation in the region. This is already happening, as U.S. and coalition forces today are not active in Afghanistan, but rather like they are in a state of siege in their bases, and it would probably be an exaggeration to claim that they control the situation in the country. According to Afghan official bodies, 90 percent of operations are planned and implemented by the Afghan military, who have been given most of the authority.

It should be pointed out that, after all, the main factor in ensuring security in Central Asia is not the presence or absence of coalition forces in Afghanistan, but the internal situation in the region.

Now we see two sets of problems, which have the nature of a firm trend.

First is the deterioration in certain relations among countries in the region.

Conflicts and tensions among countries of the region have grown. Under these conditions, we cannot speak of any effective joint action and counteraction to certain threats, including terrorism.

A lack of clear delimitation of state borders and the presence of a large number of disputed territories is a major factor of instability in intraregional relations. The total length of the border between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan is 1,378 kilometres. After two decades of negotiations, the parties were able to coordinate their positions on 58 sites or 315 km of the border. There is also contention about the Kyrgyz-Tajik and Uzbek-Tajik borders. For example, there are over 80 unspecified sites on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border (the main one being the Vorukh Tajik enclave in Kyrgyzstan), and two-thirds of the 1,500 km Uzbek-Tajik border is not demarcated.

It is a vicious circle when the regional situation is already fraught with problems of drug trafficking and the threat of terrorism and requires strengthening border controls, but the countries of the region still cannot agree on their boundaries.

The situation is escalated by the fact that the Central Asian region is beginning to unravel geopolitically, if you will. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are being increasingly drawn into the orbit of the political and military influence of Russia. Uzbekistan is developing military cooperation with the U.S.. According to experts, the expansion of military cooperation of Central Asian countries with different geopolitical centres makes them even more intractable on intraregional issues, as each party counts upon the help of its own “Big Brother.”

Second is the growth of political infighting in the countries of the region, complicating the nature and dynamics of internal processes in the countries of the region.

The deterioration of intraregional relations in Central Asia also occurs amid the exacerbation of the crisis in the domestic political situation in the countries of the region and the growth of the struggle for power among counter elites, especially in light of upcoming election processes in the region.

That is why today, the most relevant and key issue for all five countries in the region is to ensure the continuity and stability of the current political regimes as well as preserve their charted political and development courses.

This question is quite relevant and potentially destabilising, as there are no legal frameworks and mechanisms established in Central Asian countries for the transfer of power and most importantly, the preservation of the political course. The constitutions of Central Asian states provide only legal mechanisms for the replacement of the president in case of force majeure. The Kyrgyz and Turkmen experience of changing regimes has clearly demonstrated that the absence of clear and workable mechanisms for the continuity and transfer of power under the conditions of intra-elite conflicts as well as social and economic instability could lead to plots and revolutions.

It is assumed that the escalation of any struggle for power within the countries of the region would distract governments from countering other threats and ensuring regional security as well as distract security services and law enforcement bodies from their direct duties. Doubtless, this would weaken control and reduce opportunities for countering such threats as illegal migration, drug trafficking and terrorism.

There are several institutions of regional security in the region, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). However, there are no regional cooperation programmes in the field of security among the countries of the region. How can we speak about jointly countering threats at a time when countries argue over water boundaries or conducting economic warfare?

In other words, today many security challenges have less to do with the situation in Afghanistan than with the situation in the region itself. At the very least, these factors could escalate the development of negative processes. Therefore, countries of the region should focus on the issue of developing regional security cooperation and building a dialogue among them.

The author is a candidate of political sciences.

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