Central Asia’s growing concerns over Afghanistan

Central Asia’s growing concerns over Afghanistan

Salman Rafi Sheikh,
Tashkent Conference: The primary motivation for Uzbekistan to host the ‘Tashkent Conference’ in Tashkent was to devise a regional strategy to tackle the rising threat of jihadist militancy.

While the US used the recently held ‘Tashkent Conference’ on Afghanistan to reiterate its support for direct talks between the (US backed)Afghan regime and the Taliban, an offer that the Taliban have already rejected, for the Central Asian States (CAS), however, the primary interest isn’t in seeing who talks to who in Afghanistan but that something credible happens on the ground so that the path for a de facto alliance between the CAS based militant movements and the Islamic State, known as IS-K (Islamic State in Khorasan) in Afghanistan, can be effectively blocked.

This was the primary motivation for Uzbekistan to host the ‘Tashkent Conference’ in Tashkent to devise a regional strategy to tackle the rising threat of jihadist militancy.

In a significant way, this conference — and the fact that countries like the US, China and Russia were present along with delegations of the EU and the UNO–signifies how the talk in town about the Taliban has changed over the years.

The overwhelming emphasis on engaging in direct talks with the Taliban notwithstanding, the fact that the CAS, as also Russia and China, intend to co-opt the Afghan Taliban to tackle IS-K and other Islamist movement such as Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which isn’t allied with the Taliban but is aiming to overthrow the ‘un-Islamic’ government and replace it with ‘Shairah law’,makingit a natural ally of the IS-K, shows how the these states have already started to view the Taliban insurgency as a political rather than a religious one.

Although the Taliban, too, profess an apparently similar objectives, a closer look at their recent demands shows that the nature of their fight and demands is more political than religious; hence, the high possibility of a tactical understanding, short of a strategic alliance, between the CAS, Russia and China and the Taliban, who are in themselves weary of the increasing presence of IS-K in their country.

An important reason why the Taliban and IMU wouldn’t find in each other potential allies is that the Taliban, unlike the 1990s, have made it clear that they don’t have any foreign agenda. Therefore, for movements like IMU, the Taliban wouldn’t be a potential ally. The IS-K, on the other hand, which does want to spread in the region and establish its own ‘Caliphate’,becomes a natural ally, giving the CAS a big reason to worry and pave the way for a regional consensus on co-opting the Taliban.

This co-option would serve two major purposes: first, it will partly isolate movements like IMU. Secondly, a consensus on co-opting the Taliban would help resolve the now 17 years long conflict in Afghanistan; hence, other regional states’ support for such initiatives.

But within these initiatives is also implicit the new regional configuration taking place. Many in the West seem to believe that it is actually Moscow which is pulling the strings of initiatives like ‘Tashkent Conference’, and is thus increasing its own direct and in-direct involvement in Afghanistan as a means to squeeze the space for the US and NATO to manoeuvre against Russia from Afghanistan and manipulate things to its disadvantage.

There is no gainsaying that both China and Russia want the US out of Afghanistan. Equally, there is little to prove that, given the increasing involvement of these states in the conflict, the Trump administration’s new Afghan strategy is succeeding in changing Afghanistan’s fundamental ground realities and its internal balance of power between the Taliban and Kabul or between the Taliban and NATO forces.  On the contrary, things are worsening.

Interestingly enough, it isn’t just CAS, Russia and China alone who have been warning about the increasing infiltration of ISIS in Afghanistan. Even the primary US ally, the Kabul regime, has also started to voice concerns over the jihadistpenetration.

“There has been a growth in the number of the foreign fighters in the country,” Afghan National Security Adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar was reported to have said during his recent visit to Washington, adding further that they “were talking about hundreds of them coming from the Middle East through Pakistan, and other regional groups.”

Therefore, while the same official believes that IS-K and IMU are joining hands, the question remains as to how to isolate them.

For countries like Russia, China, Pakistan and CAS, the only way of doing this is through a political settlement with the Taliban, who, according to some reports, have ‘assured’ Russia and CAS that they wouldn’t allow movements like IMU to use the Afghan soil to carry out their operations in Uzbekistan and beyond.

But even Russia and China don’t want to see an all-Taliban dominated Afghanistan; for, if they go for a full restoration of Taliban regime, they would potentially be strengthening and placing a non-state actor on the state and thus leaving the potential for conflict in Afghanistan alive, un-doing the efforts to prevent this very scenario.

Therefore, what they want is a negotiated settlement of the US and Kabul with the Taliban so that the mushrooming of jihadi groups in Afghanistan can be stopped and so that Afghanistan does not become another Syria.

What these developments, concerns and interests of Afghanistan and almost all non-Afghan actors show is that a basic framework of co-operation does exist, without which no conference like the one held in Tashkent could be held, which needs to be build upon to prevent Afghanistan from falling into the abyss of religious terrorism as well as from preventing it from becoming—yet again—a hot-bed of conflict and tussle between Russia and the US.

This will not augur well for Afghanistan as also for its immediate neighbours, including the CAS.