Central Asia and Afghanistan: A Tumultuous History (Part 1 & 2)

Posted by Admin On Saturday, 28 September 2013 0 comments


Contrary to popular perception, Central Asia is not likely to see an immediate explosion of violence and militancy after the U.S. and NATO drawdown from Afghanistan in 2014. However, Central Asia’s internal issues and the region’s many links with Afghanistan — including a web of relationships among militant groups — will add to the volatility in the region.


Central Asia has numerous important links to Afghanistan that will open the region to significant effects after the upcoming U.S. and NATO drawdown. First and foremost, Central Asia is linked to Afghanistan geographically; Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan share borders with Afghanistan that collectively span more than 2,000 kilometers (about 1,240 miles). The Afghan border with Tajikistan, along the eastern edge of Afghanistan, makes up more than half of that distance, at 1,344 kilometers. The borders with Turkmenistan (744 kilometers) and Uzbekistan (137 kilometers) run along Afghanistan’s western edge. Most of the Tajik-Afghan border is mountainous and therefore poorly demarcated, and the topography of Afghanistan’s frontiers with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan is largely desert.
Central AsiaCentral Asia and Afghanistan also have important demographic ties. Afghanistan is an ethnically diverse country, with more than a dozen ethno-linguistic groups represented substantially in the country’s population of slightly more than 31 million. The Pashtuns are the largest such group (42 percent), with Tajiks (27 percent), Hazaras (9 percent), Uzbeks (9 percent) and Turkmen (3 percent) constituting significant cohorts as well. The Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen populations are concentrated primarily in northern Afghanistan and are largely contiguous to their ethnic brethren across the borders in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Cross-Border Cultures

Historically, Afghanistan’s borders with the Central Asian states did not exist in a modern sense; rather, they consisted of frontier areas that constantly shifted hands, given that warfare in the region was the norm. Indeed, the area comprising these states and northern Afghanistan was, at various times, part of a single state or empire. This changed with the coming of the Great Game between the Russian and British empires in the beginning of the 19th century. Russia’s imperial expansion into Central Asia coincided with the growth of the British domain over India, and the result was the establishment of a buffer zone in what is now Afghanistan. This set the borders of Afghanistan as we know them and — with the transition from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union in the early 20th century — led to a closing off of the borders between Central Asia and Afghanistan for the first time in history. The ensuing 70 years of Soviet rule in Central Asia created significantly different political and cultural identities among the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen in the Soviet Union and those within Afghanistan, given the vastly different governing structures.
Ethnicities of Central AsiaHowever, ties were far from severed. Because of the geography of the border areas, interaction and movement between the peoples of Central Asia and Afghanistan was difficult to stop. Furthermore, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 created direct interaction between the Soviet Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen and their ethnic cohorts in Afghanistan, with many of the former participating in Soviet military operations (in large part because of their ethno-linguistic ties). The Soviet Central Asians’ exposure to their more tribal and religious Afghan counterparts (with certain groups becoming increasingly radicalized as a result of the invasion and the growing presence and strength of the mujahideen) also created a lasting impression among many Central Asians.

Ethnicities of Afghanistan and PakistanThe Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the collapse of the Soviet Union only two years later created a dramatically new environment both within Central Asia and within Afghanistan. In 1991, the Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (along with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan farther north) became independent states for the first time in modern history. Despite official Soviet policy to suppress religious activity, many Central Asians were practicing Muslims and even Islamists, which explains how Islamism took root in the region shortly after the Soviet collapse. Meanwhile, Afghanistan descended into internal conflict with the withdrawal of the Soviets and the declining assistance from the United States for the mujahideen. The eventual result was the rise of an Islamist group, deriving from the Pashtuns based in southern Afghanistan, known as the Taliban.

Security and Militancy Links

Beginning in 1994 and starting from their stronghold in Kandahar, the Taliban were able to spread their influence and control over much of Afghanistan. It took the movement only months to take control of most southern provinces from various Pashtun warlords, and they quickly made progress in capturing regional centers in the west and east of the country like Herat and Jalalabad. In 1996, the Taliban were able to wrest control of Kabul from the central government led by President Burhanuddin Rabbani and Defense Minister Ahmed Shah Massoud, both ethnic Tajiks. Then, in the late 1990s, the Taliban went after the last bastion of resistance in northern Afghanistan, coming into conflict with the concentration of relatively moderate Tajiks and Uzbeks, as well as the Shiite Hazaras, who all opposed the Taliban’s brand of Sunni Islamism and aims for territorial control.
The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan coincided with a number of significant developments in Central Asia. The post-Soviet regimes in the region had no experience of ruling their territories directly. Moreover, Central Asia faced immense economic and political challenges as Russia withdrew subsidies and the Soviet military-industrial complex with which the Central Asians were so integrated collapsed. Tajikistan descended into civil war almost immediately, when groups from the Kulyabi and Khujand regions known as the Popular Front were pitted against an array of opposition elements including Islamists, democrats and the Pamiri clan from the east collectively known as the United Tajik Opposition. Outside groups got involved in the civil war, supporting the different sides along political and ideological lines. Russia and Uzbekistan supported the secular and neo-communist Popular Front, while many Tajiks in Afghanistan supported the United Tajik Opposition, particularly the Islamist elements of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan.
One of the groups that joined in the fighting alongside the United Tajik Opposition and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan would eventually become known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, led by Juma Namangani and Tahir Yuldashev. Namangani — a seasoned military commander who had previously served in the Soviet army — and Yuldashev were Uzbeks from the Fergana region of the country, traditionally home to some of the most pious Muslims within Uzbekistan and Central Asia. Yuldashev and Namangani led a protest against the new Uzbek President Islam Karimov in the republic’s early days of independence, calling for Karimov to establish Sharia in Uzbekistan. When Karimov refused, the two leaders led several attacks, including bombings, armed assaults and kidnappings, against government and security targets in Uzbekistan. The two then fled into Tajikistan to escape Uzbek forces and join the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan against the Uzbek-supported Popular Front. While the Popular Front — led by current Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon — eventually won the civil war and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan was incorporated into the government in a power-sharing deal, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan continued operations against the Uzbek regime from its base in the remote and mountainous Tavildara Valley in eastern Tajikistan.
From 1999 to 2001, the Uzbek militant movement conducted a series of attacks in Uzbekistan and in Uzbek enclaves in southern Kyrgyzstan in the Fergana Valley. During this time, the Tajik government periodically pressured Namangani to leave Tajikistan and seek refuge in Afghanistan. It was at this point that Namangani linked up with Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban, and with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, to which Mullah Omar had given sanctuary in Afghanistan. The Taliban gave refuge to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in exchange for the Uzbek group’s participation in Taliban offensives against the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras in northern Afghanistan.
At that point, elements in northern Afghanistan led by Rabbani, Massoud, Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum and Hazara leader Abdul Karim Khalili had created an anti-Taliban front known as the Northern Alliance. This created an amalgam of groups vying for power in northern Afghanistan but traveling and operating across borders. On one side was the Northern Alliance, supported by Uzbekistan, Russia and Iran, and on the other was the Taliban with support from al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The result was violence, lawlessness and a web of militancy and transnational linkages that made the borders between Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries wide open from a logistical and operational standpoint, harking back to the chaos of the pre-Soviet era.
Editor’s NoteThis is the first installment of a two-part series on the relationship between Central Asia and Afghanistan and the expected effects of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan on Central Asian security.
The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan reversed the Taliban’s takeover in many parts of the country. The resulting geographic shift in support for militant groups led to a degradation of Central Asian militants’ capabilities. However, the resurgence of the Taliban after the U.S. drawdown in 2014 could increase volatility in the region. The links between Central Asia and Afghanistan — particularly northern Afghanistan — can be expected to intensify in the coming years. This will have important political and security implications for the region and beyond.


The Taliban’s series of successes ended when the United States invaded Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks by al Qaeda. The U.S. invasion, facilitated by the support of the Northern Alliance and aided by Russia, was able to displace the Taliban and drive the movement from all major cities and towns within a few short months. The operation began in Mazar-i-Sharif in the north (Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum’s stronghold) and proceeded onto other parts of northern Afghanistan while taking on Kabul and the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar shortly thereafter.
The invasion included U.S. security support to the Central Asian states that, with help from Moscow, made their territory available for logistical and support bases for U.S. and subsequently NATO operations into Afghanistan. This allowed the Central Asian governments and security forces in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to destroy many militant cells from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other groups, such as Hizb al-Tahrir, the remainder of which sought refuge south of the border.

Shifts in Militant Support and Activity

But the U.S. invasion did not eliminate the Taliban or the elements of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or al Qaeda that they supported. Rather, it drove them into remote parts of the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands or Pakistan proper. Pakistan provided the Taliban conducive conditions in which to seek refuge; not only did the mountainous terrain afford protection against conventional military threats, but Pakistan’s own large Pashtun community and the political support of elements of the Pakistani government and Inter-Services Intelligence allowed the Taliban to regroup and establish an insurgency (which also had the unintended effect of eventually spawning a Pakistani Taliban insurgency). The transnational militant groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and al Qaeda were not afforded the same cultural or political support and were thus degraded over time, though by no means eliminated completely.
Uzbek militants based in Central Asia and Afghanistan during the Taliban regime were not the only Uzbeks who had moved into Pakistan’s tribal badlands. Many Uzbeks had come during the decade between the Soviet withdrawal and the collapse of the Taliban regime and had married into Pakistani Pashtun tribes. Many were part of the Haqqani network that later joined the Taliban when the militant group reached the northeastern parts of Afghanistan during its conquests. Also, they were not all part of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, as many were with al Qaeda and many were with the Baitullah Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan.
The result was an insurgency by the Taliban against NATO military forces and the U.S.-supported regime of Hamid Karzai within Afghanistan, but a substantial degradation in the capabilities of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and al Qaeda as they lost their former territorial sanctuary. The frequency of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan attacks in Uzbekistan and the Fergana Valley peaked in 2001, and Central Asia’s security environment over the next decade was much calmer compared to the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan was not able to accomplish its goal of overthrowing Uzbek President Islam Karimov and establishing an emirate in Uzbekistan.
However, the region was not entirely quiet. Bombings attributed to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan occurred in Tashkent in 2004, and security forces put down an uprising in Andijan in Uzbekistan’s Fergana region in 2005 that was blamed on Islamist militants. However, these developments likely had more to do with a potential political power struggle within Uzbekistan that Karimov sought to quash, using militancy as an excuse. Tajikistan also saw a resumption of attacks in 2010 when a military convoy was sabotaged by what the government said were Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan militants in the eastern part of the country. This, too, was likely the work of internal political divisions in the country, with remnant rebel elements from the civil war pushing back against Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon’s venture into their territory rather than harboring a transnational militant agenda.
In recent years, the governments of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have all claimed to have captured Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan militants planning attacks in security sweeps, though little evidence has been given of their affiliation and plans of attack. While remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan could remain in Central Asia, the group’s situation is complicated. The movement as it was known prior to the U.S. invasion no longer exists; its former leadership was chased out of Central Asia and killed off (Juma Namangani was killed in a 2001 airstrike, and Tahir Yuldashev reportedly was killed in 2009). Leadership then went into new hands, and the group splintered into numerous militant factions with differing nationalities, ideologies, strategies and tactics. Some of these militants have fought in Pakistan alongside the Taliban, others have fought alongside al Qaeda and still others have been incorporated into the tribal milieu of the Afghan-Pakistani border area.
So, although the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan label has given Central Asian regimes a convenient reason to crack down on internal dissent, the term is often used as an oversimplified classification. In reality, Uzbeks and other Central Asians make up a fluid landscape of militancy based on location, connections and ideology. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan itself has not posed anything but a limited tactical threat to the region since 2001.

The U.S. Withdrawal and Beyond

However, the U.S. plan to draw down its forces in Afghanistan in 2014 could once again create a new dynamic — both in terms of politics and the security situation — between Afghanistan and Central Asia. The withdrawal of the U.S. and allied forces will likely lead to a re-emergence of the Taliban as a leading force within Afghanistan’s political and security arenas. The extent to which the Taliban is able to coexist with the current regime led by Hamid Karzai (who is not eligible to run in the 2014 presidential elections) and other elements remains to be seen, but there is likely to be a political and security struggle to fill the vacuum accompanying the U.S. drawdown. The negotiations among the Taliban, Karzai’s camp and the United States will be key in determining the country’s future political and security landscape.
The Central Asian countries have expressed concern over the fate of post-U.S. Afghanistan and the potential for the Taliban to re-emerge as a strong, if not pre-eminent, force within the country. Although the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has not posed a significant threat within Central Asia for the last decade, the group is reported to have continued operations and attacks within Afghanistan. Indeed, the movement reportedly has increased its activity in northern Afghanistan, with militants reportedly being killed in important northern cities like Kunduz and Taloqan and active in border provinces like Faryab, Balkh and Badakhshan, among others. This worries Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, whose governments are already facing internal issues and cross-border disputes with each other.
Still, a large and immediate wave of Islamist militant attacks from Afghanistan into Central Asia after the U.S. drawdown is unlikely for several reasons. First, the peak of militant activity in 1999-2001 came when the Taliban were at their apex of power in Afghanistan; the Taliban are unlikely to return to such an uncontested position in the short to medium term, if ever. Second, the northern parts of Afghanistan were the last to fall to the Taliban as the group built its position across the country over a five-year period, and northern Afghanistan will continue to be seen as the buffer between the Taliban and Central Asia and thus will attract political and financial support from the Central Asian countries and Russia. Third, the Central Asian countries have now had more than 20 years to build up their political and security institutions to withstand a rise in militant elements. Finally, many regional powers — including Russia, Iran, Turkey, China and the West (with a residual security presence in Afghanistan likely on the part of the United States) — are all interested in stemming the flow of militancy and narcotics into Central Asia and making sure the region does not have to confront Afghanistan on its own. Moreover, the Taliban have, at least rhetorically, sought to eschew their transnational linkages and reassure neighboring countries they will not host groups that are hostile to them if and when they return to power.
But Central Asia faces its own internal problems that could lead to instability or be further exacerbated by the situation in Afghanistan in the coming years. 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 ongoing issues with restive rebels in the east that could reignite tensions during or after the country’s presidential election this NovemberKyrgyzstan also has internal divisions that have spawned two revolutions and major inter-ethnic violence over the past few years. All of these situations can be exploited by radical elements.
Furthermore, the borders in the region – both between the Central Asian countries and between Central Asia and Afghanistan – will continue to see movements of people, goods, narcotics or militants. What happens in Afghanistan has long affected events in Central Asia and vice versa, and the upcoming political transformation of Afghanistan in 2014 will not be an exception.


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