India & Central Asia: Why Pak-Afghanistan Terrorist Havens Are a Common Threat
A recent UN report underscores the common concerns that India and Central Asia face with the Taliban's rise.
On the very day that the Taliban so unceremoniously seized Kabul, Uzbek analyst Yuri Sarukhanyan warned that the most dangerous aspect of the return of the Taliban to Kabul was "the Talibanisation of societies". Sarukhanyan should know. His country, which shares a 144km-long border with Afghanistan, has fought a long, protracted battle with Islamist insurgency, a product of the Afghan jihad.
Thousands of residents of Soviet entrance Asian countries served in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. Many of them shared ethnic, linguistic, and clandestinely religious affinities with Afghan communities.
Many of them, like Juma Namangini and Tohir Yuldashev, who served there, became radicalised and imported jihadist ideology back to their home countries.
Numangani, an ethnic Uzbek, took the jihad to neighbouring Uzbekistan by establishing the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and later its splinter group Islamic Jihad of Uzbekistan (IJU). Yuldashev even went on to aid the Taliban against the Americans till he was killed in Pakistan.
Spectre of Religious Radicalism Continues to Haunt CARs
Uzbekistan was not a lone case. Tajikistan, another neighbouring country sharing a 1300-km border with Afghanistan, had plunged into a long and brutal civil war with the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) at its very inception as a sovereignty state.
The IRP wanted to overthrow the secular government and establish Sharia law. Many of its founders had served in Afghanistan, had been radicalised there, had trained and launched attacks on Tajikistan from bases in Afghanistan. It was a branch of the IRP under Namangani that then established the IMU.
The jihad was also taken to Kyrgyzstan, which does not directly border Afghanistan. These groups continued to enjoy sanctuaries in Afghanistan right through the Taliban's previous reign.
The spectre of religious radicalism and potential civil strife and unrest continues to haunt these Muslim-majority but staunchly secular former Soviet republics – as it does India, which has countered both religious radicalism and religiously motivated insurgency and violence.
Taliban Haven't Done Anything to Limit Foreign Terrorists
The latest report of the UN Security Council's Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team notes that terror groups, including al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the IMU enjoy more freedom in Afghanistan than at any time in recent years. It adds grist to the mill and underscores the common concerns that India and the five Central Asian states face with the ascendancy of the Taliban.
The report said that the Taliban have not done anything to limit the activities of foreign terrorists. While the al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent has around 250-400 fighters drawn from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan, and India, the strength of the ISIL-Khorasan has almost doubled to 4,000 fighters since the Taliban came to power, as many had been freed from prison.
It is the chaos in Afghanistan that lends urgency to India’s ties with the Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Of them, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan share a common border.
Responding to a question in the Lok Sabha, Minister of State for External Affairs, V Muraleedharan, said, "The issue of Afghanistan was discussed during the summit and the situation in Afghanistan is of natural concern for neighbouring countries like India and central Asian countries. I would say that in broad terms, we share the same concerns and similar objectives.”
What Happens in Afghanistan Doesn't Remain in Afghanistan
Tajik militants belonging to the banned Jamaat Ansarullah joined ranks with the Taliban and helped them wrest border controls with Tajikistan, even while the Ashraf Ghani regime was ensconced in Kabul. Currently, they help man this border, one of the reasons why Tajikistan is the only country of the five CARS that has not engaged with the Taliban.
While political and economic expediency may have driven the other CARS to engage with the Taliban, the numerous unilateral, trilateral and multilateral military exercises that the CARS have conducted since last year, both within and outside the framework of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), underscore that their major security concerns emanate from Afghanistan because what happens in Afghanistan does not remain in Afghanistan.
And an instance of this may be seen in the recent violence and mayhem that engulfed Kazakhstan, Central Asia's largest and richest country, at the beginning of this year.
What began as protests against fuel price rise was soon infiltrated by radicals, many belonging to the banned Hizb ur Tahrir extremist group, which seeks to establish a Caliphate. Banned in the region, the group is active in Afghanistan.
The latest UN report flies in the face of those who have argued for India to disengage from Afghanistan. ISIL-KP and its India-born fighter, Abu Khalid al-Hind, was responsible for the Sikh gurdwara bombing in Kabul in March 2020, in which at least 25 people died. According to Indian investigative agencies, ISIL-KP continues to recruit from amongst Indians.
For the CARS, the ISIL constitutes an even greater threat. Almost 5,000 citizens from the region had travelled to Iraq and Syria and joined the IS there; even more were apprehended before they could travel. In a shocking case, a Lieutenant-Colonel of the special police force of Tajikistan, Gulmurod Halimov, joined the ISIL in 2015 and became its Minister of War. Russian speakers were the largest group of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. Now, with the ISIL in the region, the threats have magnified manifold.
The Role Pakistan Could Have Played
It is these common concerns emanating from Afghanistan that will be the main drivers of India’s relations with the Central Asian countries. They will play the role that Pakistan could have but chose not to.
Pakistan has aided in this chaos facilitating the Taliban’s ascendancy. Engulfed by chaos itself now, it seems to be losing the levers of power even over their surrogate Taliban.
In contrast, the Central Asian countries, many of whose political elites have been nurtured by the Soviet system while the Muslim-majority follow a moderate Islam, have been relatively stable, with high literacy levels, women’s rights, and the rule of law, with few exceptions. They serve as role models for Muslim communities everywhere, including for those in South Asia.
When the Taliban were destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas, this writer on a trip to Turkmenistan found the country taking elaborate measures to preserve the remnants of their Buddhist past. A fallout of the Taliban's capture of Afghanistan was that Uzbekistan, whose majestic madrasahs have been centres of Islamic learning through centuries, announced itself officially secular soon after.
On the other hand, as events in Kazakhstan proved, they have a zero-tolerance for any kind of extremism. Having been singed by the fires of jihadism, they have opted for a regional counter-terror strategy, and not surprisingly, it is the Uzbek capital that houses the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) of the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO).
Why Pak & Afghanistan Will Drive India-Central Asia Ties
As a member of the SCO, India, too, participates on this platform to share experience, intelligence, and forge a common response. The very timely summit meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the heads of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in January this year also paved the way for institutionalisation of the Summit mechanism, which, according to External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, was a “major outcome” of the summit.
Apart from summit meetings every two years, it makes way for regular meetings of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Culture, and Secretaries of the Security Council.
While trade and business is the main pillar, India's engagement with Central Asia will possibly be driven by Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent, Pakistan, in the near future.
(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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