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ANALYZING RUSSIAN MILITARY ENGAGEMENT WITH CENTRAL ASIA NEAR AFGHANISTAN

Yechezkel Mehlman, Jujhar Singh, CENTCOM Team; Collins Alexander, Pètra van de Gevel, EUCOM Team

Week of Monday, July 25, 2021


Russian President Vladimir Putin at Russian 201 Military Base in Tajikistan[1]


Summary

Russian, Uzbek, and Tajik leaders like Vladimir Putin, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and Emomali Rohman likely perceive the threat posed by skirmishes between the Taliban and Afghan security forces to be high and this comes at a time when the United States (US) has begun to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) assesses with high confidence that recent border crossings into Central Asia by Afghan troops and refugees as a result of this conflict have elevated Russian and Central Asian concerns about the potential humanitarian fallout, conflict spill-over, and jihadist attacks that may diffuse into the region.[2] The CENTCOM and EUCOM Teams at CTG analyzed the most prevalent security threats and identified the most vulnerable aspects that may contribute to the rise in conflict between the Taliban, Afghan security forces, and Russia’s military drills near the Tajik-Afghan border and assess that:


  • Russia’s political engagement with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, construction of a border post on the Afghan-Tajik border, and its scheduled military drills with the countries in early August support CTG’s assessment.[3]

  • The military support is likely to signal Russia’s unwavering support for its Central Asian partners to prevent conflict spillover and serve to deter extremist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), and Jamaat Ansarullah from operating in the region.

  • An increased rate of terrorist attacks by Jihadists using Afghanistan or Central Asia as a haven for attacks on civilians and government is highly likely.

  • An increase in unrest caused by Muslim populations inspired by the Taliban’s ideology and military advances is likely.

  • A potential humanitarian crisis is highly likely to strain already fragile Central Asian economies impacted by COVID-19 and migration.

  • It is highly likely that a potential collapse of the Afghan government will result in a power vacuum that could be used by Russia for foreign policy objectives.


Alternatively, Russia may attempt to cut out Central Asian states by determining the degree of US influence in the region through compelling American troops to use Russian bases.


An Increased Rate of Terrorist Attacks in Afghanistan and Central Asia

As the conflict between the Taliban and Afghan security forces rises, partly due to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan will highly likely experience an increased rate of terrorist attacks by Jihadists. The Taliban will almost certainly capitalize on the deteriorating security situation of Afghanistan by carrying out small-arms and suicide attacks on civilians and government forces to establish its authority within the region and undermine the government. As a result, the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan will highly likely increase due to the worsening violence. As Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan have reached the borders of Central Asia and allowed the IJU and IMU to control border crossings, terrorist groups like the IJU and IMU will likely use Afghanistan as a haven for attacks on Russian, Tajik, and Uzbek civilians and government officials in the future.

The Taliban will likely try to recruit new members, by force or social incentives, in the regions where it operates to spread its ideology throughout the country, posing a grave threat to the security of Afghanistan. Because the Taliban appear to have national aspirations confined to Afghanistan, the largest threat posed by the Taliban is the determination to seize villages, take territory, and dominate the region by carrying out attacks. As US forces withdraw from the region in August, the number of Taliban-related attacks will highly likely increase. The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan can potentially lead to the re-establishment of a radical fundamentalist government in the country.[4] The Taliban will highly likely view the withdrawal of US troops as a sign of their own success and victory, potentially resulting in more attacks to regain power. As terrorist organizations will likely try to re-establish in Afghanistan, it may become harder for intelligence and security services to actively deter, detect and respond to terrorist-related activity as there are no observers present in Afghanistan. This poses a serious threat to Afghanistan’s security and stability. In addition, attacks perpetrated by the Taliban will highly likely harm the trust in Afghan security forces as the public will not feel protected, likely resulting in increasing public pressure, scrutiny, and resistance. These feelings of helplessness because of government inaction could force civilians, in search of safety, to join the militia or Taliban factions.

An Increase in Unrest due to the Spread of Violent Islamic Militant Ideologies


The current and prospective military drills between Russian and Central Asian countries highlight their leaders’ urgent efforts in containing potential instability spreading from Afghanistan into the region. Russian leaders likely see Central Asia, and its historical sphere of influence, as a buffer to prevent radical Islamic militants from reaching their borders.[5] Fears of jihadi diffusion to the region trace back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan where the mujahideen launched cross-border attacks in Central Asia and the 1990s when the Taliban ruled the majority of Afghanistan.[6] Much like the 1990s, Russian and Central Asian leaders almost certainly fear the Taliban's control of border crossings into the region or advances in Kunduz and Herat Provinces will inspire the restive Muslim populations to challenge their government or Central Asian terrorist groups to reemerge in the region. Although the Taliban has committed to limiting their military operations to Afghanistan, the military build-up by Russian and Tajik forces along the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border serves as a contingency if the Taliban cannot prevent their jihadist ideology or other armed groups from diffusing to Central Asia and Russia.


The potential spread of Islamic militant ideologies across the Afghan border due to the Taliban’s recent territorial victories in Afghanistan poses a significant threat as it will almost certainly lead to chaos and unrest in Central Asia. Central Asian countries almost certainly do not want to be confronted with a security threat, nor with economic disruption and political instability resulting from a potential Taliban rule in the region. However, it is likely that the Taliban’s ideology has inspired other fundamentalists in Central Asia. Therefore, it is likely that the Taliban’s recent victories and their will to spread Islamic militant ideologies across Afghan borders will result in an increase in tensions and an increase in unrest in Central Asia due to clashes between Taliban fighters and regular citizens.


A Potential Humanitarian Crisis


The potential increase in terrorist-related activity by the Taliban in Afghanistan will almost certainly result in a rise of migrants. As levels of violence continue to rise, it is highly likely that a large number of civilians will leave Afghanistan and find shelter and security in neighboring countries, such as Central Asian countries. Furthermore, Tajikistan has stated that it can shelter up to 100,000 refugees coming from Afghanistan amid this crisis.[7] This will consequently result in brain drain, the departure of educated Afghans, and an opportunity for the Taliban to increase its presence by taking territory. The brain drain will likely occur as a result of a new wave of violence in Afghanistan, risking the future of the educated and experienced Afghans. This potential development will highly likely have negative consequences for the future of Afghanistan as the educated class of the civil society, such as intellectuals, journalists, lawyers, and activists, will no longer be present in Afghanistan as a result of them fleeing the country. This makes bringing about change in Afghanistan significantly more difficult. Moreover, the increase in migrants to Central Asian countries will highly likely result in a humanitarian crisis. In addition to straining already fragile Central Asian economies impacted by COVID-19, it is highly likely that many Afghan migrants would move to Europe. This trend would add further stress to government resettlement programs and European economies which are already in a bad spot due to COVID-19, as well as fuel far-right assertions surrounding Middle Eastern/Muslim migrants and terrorism.


Because Pakistan has refused to accept additional refugees, Central Asia is highly likely to become a key destination for Afghans escaping the violence between the Afghan government and the Taliban. However, the CENTCOM and EUCOM Teams assess that it is unlikely other Central Asian countries, such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, will take in refugees from Afghanistan. This is based on fears that the IJU and IMU could infiltrate refugee flows to evade authorities and begin rebuilding their base in the region. Consequently, Central Asian countries may become a target of terrorist-related activity, posing a threat to government control and territorial integrity of the region. Central Asian countries are geopolitically under the influence of Russia and it is almost certain that Russia does not want to expose its ‘’territories and populations to such a risk.’’[8] It is, therefore, likely that other Central Asian countries will not be willing to take in Afghan refugees, potentially resulting in a significant rise in Afghan displacement.


The Potential Collapse of the Government in Afghanistan


Based on recent Taliban victories, especially in northern Afghanistan, it is very likely the Afghan regime will experience instability in the short to mid-term, potentially resulting in the collapse of the government in Kabul. A collapse of the Afghan government would result in a power vacuum that will highly likely be exploited by Central Asian terrorist groups and regional players such as Russia, China, and Turkey, as well as other Central Asian countries by increasing militarization processes in northern Afghanistan. All actors will very likely try to fill the power vacuum left by the withdrawal of US troops to gain a more influential role in Afghanistan.


If the Afghan government collapses, Central Asian terror groups such as the IMU, IJU, and Jamaat Ansarullah will likely try to establish their authority in Afghanistan to gain more territory and influence. Russia will highly likely try to exploit the power vacuum from a government fallout by establishing a major military presence in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to prevent the instability in Afghanistan from spilling over to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. The military drills between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia allow an increased number of Russian military forces in Central Asia to detect and fill this power vacuum. China will likely try to capitalize on the power vacuum as it sees Afghanistan as an economic opportunity for Chinese investment and a source of minerals.[9] Turkey likely sees the power vacuum as an opportunity to increase its influence internationally and will, therefore, try to establish its authority in Afghanistan by funding infrastructure projects and providing security for the Afghan government.


Russian Opportunity for Foreign Policy Objectives


Russia is likely using instability in Afghanistan to work toward wider foreign policy goals. Though the Kremlin has criticized US efforts in Afghanistan, it continues to advocate for the “extended Troika” approach of Russia, China, Pakistan, and the US.[10] The inclusion of more regional powers to broker peace in Afghanistan may lead to more success in brokering peace and limit US efforts to expand its influence in the region. The situation in Afghanistan also presents Russia with an opportunity to undermine US global standing. While Pakistan and China declined to host US forces for missions in Afghanistan, Russia offered the use of their bases in Central Asia to the US.[11] The result is two-fold. First, Moscow is attempting to foster some US dependency on its regional standing. As a result, the US is unable to effectively use military force in Afghanistan without Russian help. Second, Moscow has much more leverage over US action, limiting US President Joe Biden’s administration’s ability to act without Russian approval.


Furthermore, Moscow is playing a more prominent international role as the guarantor of security and stability, undermining the traditional US role as the leader of security. In addition to scheduled military drills with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Russia recently hosted Taliban officials who pledged to honor Central Asian borders, fight other Islamic extremist groups, and ban drug production within Afghanistan.[12] Moscow’s dual diplomatic and military approach to the Taliban resembles that of the traditional US role of the guarantor of security. Moscow appears to be undermining US foreign policy by doing a better job of protecting Central Asia from spillover from Afghanistan.


Alternative Assessment


However, the Kremlin may be taking advantage of the opportunity to secure its traditional sphere of influence in Central Asia. Earlier this week, Moscow warned of extremist fighters flooding into Afghanistan, further stoking fears of terrorism regionally and globally.[13] Additionally, Russian defense commitments to “bolster Central Asian allies with weapons, equipment and training amid a ‘deteriorating’ situation in neighboring Afghanistan” may be cited as a reason for the further expansion of the Russian regional military.[14] Through joint drills and promises of equipment to its Central Asian neighbors, Moscow is likely attempting to further establish itself as the regional protector. This trend is supported by Russia forbidding that Central Asia hosts US troops for missions in Afghanistan and economic worries about China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an audacious plan to invest in dozens of countries with a potential underlying intention to increase political power. Simultaneously, the historic Russian idea of security is highly dependent on maintaining a buffer between conflict and Russia itself. This territorial buffer acts as an early warning system for Moscow to address threats in Central Asia before they reach Russia. Thus, Moscow could potentially seek to help Central Asia to prevent terrorism from rising within Russia.


These military drills are likely to be a way for Russia to secure its traditional sphere of influence over Central Asia. The drills demonstrate Russia’s commitment to exclude Central Asian governments from controlling foreign forces in Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia may consider using the capabilities of the US to be in control of regional security and may try to create a regional monopoly. The Central Asian military drills by Russia are, therefore, not to protect Central Asia from the Taliban’s influence and advances but rather could be to keep the region firmly in its power by reducing the authority and legitimacy of Central Asian governments.[15] By forcing the small contingent of US forces to use Russian bases, Russia has cut out Central Asian states from controlling who uses Uzbek and Tajik territory to monitor the situation in Afghanistan. The decision becomes Russia’s prerogative and further entrenches it into Central Asia’s affairs.


Future Implications


CTG assesses that locally, small towns and cities in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan may become more militarized as Russian and national troops try to protect them, filter refugee flows, and forward-deploy to participate in military drills. More civilian-military interactions may result in heightened tensions if Russian troops remain in the region indefinitely. In the event the Taliban, Central Asian militants, or Afghan militias intentionally or inadvertently cross into Tajikistan, they are likely to be detected and repelled quickly due to heightened military readiness from military drills. Central Asian militants are likely to integrate into the population to avoid detection by Collective Security Treaty Organization’s (CSTO) troops. They may wait to attack either after military drills have concluded or during them because the troop presence provides ample targets of opportunity.


Strategically, Russian and Central Asian military activity is highly likely to continue along the Afghan border with military drills so long as the security situation in Afghanistan remains unpredictable. Although the likelihood is unclear, Central Asian troops may create a buffer zone in Afghanistan if Central Asian militants pose an imminent threat to the region, similar to Turkey’s zone in Syria. Other actions remain unknown because Central Asia is trying to balance interaction with Afghan and Taliban diplomats so their national interests are considered in any political outcome in Afghanistan.


The vacuum that will be left will likely pose a significant military and political challenge for countries surrounding Afghanistan. It is likely that an immediate internal struggle between the Taliban and the government in Kabul will take place, which could have a spill-over effect, resulting in regional and global terrorist activity. Therefore, it is likely that intelligence agencies may be willing to work together on an international level when most of the Western security forces are no longer present in Afghanistan and it may become harder to detect terrorist groups and their activities.


The CENTCOM and EUCOM Teams at the CTG will continue to monitor and analyze the conflict between Taliban and Afghan forces and the military drills near the Afghan border through CTG’s Worldwide Analysis of Terrorism, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.). CTG continuously tracks all violent events to provide current, fact-based analysis. Furthermore, teams will continue to monitor the regional actors and their tactics to gain more influence and authority within the region. The teams will continue to report violent situations and encounters across Afghanistan and Central Asia that have the potential to create further social, political, and economical instability that can be taken advantage of by the Taliban, other terrorist groups, and regional players.


Sources:

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Vladimir Putin in 201 military base 04” by Пресс-служба Президента России licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

[2] More than 300 Afghans flee into Tajikistan as Taliban advances, Al Jazeera, July 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/14/more-than-300-afghans-flee-into-tajikistan-as-taliban-advances

[3] Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan To Hold Military Maneuvers Near Afghan Border In August, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 2021, https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/russia-tajikistan-uzbekistan-military-afghanistan/31366505.html

[4] The US withdrawal from Afghanistan Portends a Vacuum and Uncertain Future, The Institute for National Security Studies, July 2021, https://www.inss.org.il/publication/us-withdrawal-afghanistan/

[5] Coll, S. “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001’’, The Penguin Press, 2004

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tajikistan Says It's Ready To Shelter Up To 100,000 Refugees From Afghanistan, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 2021, https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-afghanistan-refugees-taliban/31373625.html

[8] A US-Russia Deal on Afghanistan?, Project Syndicate, July 2021, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/biden-putin-us-russia-deal-on-afghanistan-by-djoomart-otorbaev-2021-07

[9] Asian powers plot to fill US vacuum in Afghanistan, Nikkei Asia, July 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Asian-powers-plot-to-fill-US-vacuum-in-Afghanistan

[10] What Russia, China, Iran Want in Afghanistan When U.S. Troops Leave, Newsweek, July 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/what-russia-china-iran-want-afghanistan-when-us-troops-leave-1612385

[11] A US-Russia Deal on Afghanistan? Project Syndicate, July 2021, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/biden-putin-us-russia-deal-on-afghanistan-by-djoomart-otorbaev-2021-07

[12] Ibid.

[13] Russia warns on influx of Isis fighters to Afghanistan, The Independent, July 2021, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/russia-isis-afghanistan-syria-libya-b1892079.html

[14] Russia to Boost Tajikistan Army Amid Afghanistan 'Deterioration', Moscow Times, July 2021, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/07/28/russia-to-boost-tajikistan-army-amid-afghanistan-deterioration-a74636

[15] Russia to Hold Military Drills Near Afghan Border in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, The Diplomat, July 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/07/russia-to-hold-military-drills-near-afghan-border-in-tajikistan-uzbekistan/

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