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Decoding the Central Asian 'spillover'

A diminished Western military presence in Afghanistan has some fearing of increased regional instability.

Last Modified: 15 Aug 2013 10:50
Joshua Kucera

Joshua Kucera is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC.
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Afghanistan policemen stand guard near the Kabul police headquarters building during a clash between Afghanistan forces and Taliban fighters in Kabul on January 21 [AFP]

As the 2014 withdrawal looms, a new buzzword has taken hold in the Central Asian capitals to the north: "spillover". The theory is that with a diminished Western military presence, Afghanistan's security forces will be unable to keep the country from descending into anarchy or a Taliban takeover - neither of which Central Asian governments want at their doorstep.

Central Asia's leaders repeatedly voice this fear. And on the face of it, the concern seems justified. Borders in the region are porous, especially the 800-mile long Afghanistan-Tajikistan border, which is almost entirely unguarded. And during the 1990s, before the Western presence in Afghanistan, a variety of Islamist groups successfully carried out a number of attacks in Central Asia.

And yet, the fear of post-2014 "spillover" is based on little evidence. The most prominent terror group in Central Asia, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, is now based in the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands and seems to have moved on entirely from its namesake. Scholars who study the group say that while it has kept the name, it now expresses no interest in Central Asia. And even when Central Asian Islamists were at their most active, they never posed a serious threat to the governments of the region. Nearly a century of Soviet-driven modernisation made the vast majority of Central Asians into secular citizens with little taste for Taliban-style conservatism.

Two or three years ago, the main question between Tajikistan and US representatives was economic questions, human rights, democracy, and stability. But now, the main topic is military cooperation, transit.

Muhiddin Kabiri, Tajikistan's leading opposition figure

Additionally, there will likely be little from Afghanistan to spill over: while the details are still being worked out, the US and NATO will still maintain a substantial presence in Afghanistan after 2014, at least enough to keep a lid on any serious instability. And even during their heyday, the Taliban were concentrated in southern Afghanistan and had little to do with their northern neighbours.

Yet, the narrative of "spillover" survives because it serves every powerful constituency involved in Central Asia. For Central Asia's dictatorial governments, it both attracts aid from foreign partners and allows them to tar any opposition in their countries, including legitimate political dissent, as dangerous and destabilising.

Scholar Sebastien Peyrouse notes how "Central Asian governments... secure outside support by emphasising the risk of terrorism and presenting themselves as victims, weakened by 'spillover' from Afghanistan. This diverts attention from their own responsibility for the drug trade and legitimises the repression of local Islamist movements by fusing notions of political opposition, Islamist extremism, and the drug trade." For the Kremlin, "spillover" provides a justification for re-establishing influence in their former Soviet satellites. And for the US State Department and military officials dealing with Central Asia it provides a pretext for maintaining involvement in the region in the face of US government budget crunch.

Most notably, the US has substantially increased military and other security assistance to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over the last several years, despite the fact security forces there are corrupt and used more commonly against political opponents than against real threats. And it's used the spillover narrative to justify the aid. In the case of Uzbekistan, for example, cooperation with the US has "raised their profile with international terrorist organisations, who may want to target Uzbekistan in retribution. So, it is very much in our interest to help Uzbekistan defend itself against such attacks," said Robert Blake , the State Department's top diplomat for Central Asia.

As it leaves Afghanistan, the US has promised to leave some of its military equipment behind in Central Asia to help these governments protect themselves. And recently, CENTCOM revealed that it is planning to increase intelligence sharing with its partners in its area of responsibility, including in Central Asia. This, despite the fact that as regional military expert Roger McDermott pointed out in a recent piece in Jane's Intelligence Review , Central Asian intelligence services "primarily look after the interests of the ruling regime... spying on the domestic political opposition, or on the activities of groups or individuals promoting human rights".

CENTCOM, however, cites spillover as a justification for its military engagement in the region. Lloyd Austin, CENTCOM's new commander, said in his confirmation hearing earlier this year that "there are several violent extremist organizations (VEOs), to include Al Qaeda and other Afghanistan - or Pakistan-based groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that have expressed interest or intent to operate from and within Central Asia."

As Moscow doesn't even pretend to have qualms about arming dictatorships, the Kremlin's policy is even more cycnical. Through its new post-Soviet security alliance the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia has promised more than $1bn in military assistance to Kyrgyzstan and $200m to Tajikistan. The CSTO also has taken on missions in Central Asia like monitoring the Internet and preventing anti-government demonstrations. And it's justified its moves by invoking the specter of spillover.

"The forthcoming withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force will only make the situation worse: radical regional and nationalists will intensify their activities in [CSTO] member states," said Nikolai Bordyuzha , the CSTO's secretary-general and formerly a top KGB official in Russia. "The Afghan factor is still responsible for a wide range of [security] threats in the Eurasian region. This country is where drug trafficking routes originate, from its territory armed groups and illegal migrants cross into neighbouring states and fundamentalist ideology is being exported."

The United States rarely talks about its military ties to Central Asia, preferring instead to promote its "New Silk Road Initiative" as its overarching strategy for Central Asia post-2014. And the talking points for that programme try a little rhetorical jiu-jitsu, emphasising "positive spillover" from regional trade. But whatever the merits of the strategy (and there aren't many ), it's clear the officials who tout it aren't actually dedicated to the idea: US officials emphasise that they don't intend to fund the initiative, just provide coordination. (Though, as the example of the bridge shows, lack of funding may be a virtue.)

Meanwhile, security assistance has steadily grown , both in real terms and as a proportion of total US aid to Central Asia: from around 5 percent throughout the 1990s to more than 30 percent every year since 2007. The true motivation behind this funding is at least as much a desire to buy access for transit routes as it is a genuine response to the "spillover" threat. But the latter provides public cover for a policy that would otherwise be hard to sell.

Central Asian leaders hardly need help oppressing their populations, but arming them doesn't improve the situation. A Tajikistan military operation last summer using US-trained-and-equipped special forces in the city of Khorog was a debacle in which soldiers shot indiscriminately at civilians. One international official in Dushanbe said Tajikistan felt "emboldened" by US military aid to carry out the operation. And a human rights lawyer in Khorog, Manuchehr Kholiqnazarov, complained that "If the US gives money to our army and law enforcement agencies, they need to control where these funds go.... The Americans should ask why their money is being used to attack civilians instead of attacking terrorists and drug traffickers."

More generally, the American focus on security has shown the region's leaders that their priority is Afghanistan and security, and as long as Central Asia cooperates on that, anything else can be swept under the rug. Muhiddin Kabiri, Tajikistan's leading opposition figure, told me last year: "Two or three years ago, the main question between Tajikistan and US representatives was economic questions, human rights, democracy, and stability. But now, the main topic is military cooperation, transit. And human rights, democracy, free elections, these kinds of problems, maybe they will touch these questions, but only last, only for protocol. So our leaders are very lucky that the United States is not raising these sensitive questions."

The unfortunate irony of all this is that it is allegedly in the service of an effort to bring democracy and responsible government to Afghanistan. That goal still seems a long way off, but the true legacy of the war may be emboldened dictatorships in the countries next door.

Joshua Kucera is a regular contributor to EurasiaNet, Jane's, Slate, and The Wilson Quarterly; his articles also have appeared in The Atlantic, ForeignPolicy.com, The International Herald Tribune, Al Jazeera English, The Diplomat, and U.S. News and World Report. He blogs on Eurasian defense and security at The Bug Pit.

Follow him on Twitter at @joshuakucera

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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