Who is “squeezing” the Taliban out into the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and why are they doing it?
The situation in Afghanistan today is no longer simply alarming, as we have been accustomed to saying for the last several decades. It is critical. Kyrgyz Slavic University Professor ALEXANDER KNYAZEV answered questions posed by the Russian journal Odnako’s correspondent, Bakhtiyar Akhmedkhanov. Professor Knyazev is a member of the Russian Geographical Society, Director of the Regional Branch of the Institute of CIS Countries, and a Doctor of Historical Sciences.
– Would you say that the Americans are losing control of the situation in the country—assuming that they ever had control, of course?
– You’re right . . . The Americans have never had Afghanistan under their control. However, military bases and other facilities—embassies and so forth—are controlled by the Americans and units of the ISAF (in contrast to the U.S. forces, the International Security Assistance Force operates under UN mandate). I think the American and NATO forces have suffered relatively small losses because they aren’t very active when the risk is high, that is, at great distances from their bases, when they don’t have good air support, and so forth.
That is point control; not control of the country. In Afghanistan the very concept of “situational control” must be given special attention. Someone who is a peaceful farmer or a shopkeeper by day will carry an AK-47 or lay mines at night. Then there’s the concept of the “Taliban-for-hire fighter.” Men have no real work and they need money to feed their families . . . So they lay mines or take part in an attack on a convoy and collect a fee. And in the morning they go back behind a counter or out into their fields.
– And what percentage of the country’s territory do the Taliban control now? Is it true that they have formed parallel government bodies?
– I don’t think we can talk in terms of percentages of territory. Well yes, where they are free to operate, the Taliban establish some government bodies. To be more precise, they are reviving them. Since everything is based on Sharia, on adat law, for the populace it’s simply a return to the way of life they’re used to.
Let’s take a look at just who these Taliban are by and large, shall we? I distinguish several categories, or types.
Category one: international bands made up of non-Afghans—Arabs, Pakistanis, Indonesians, Uzbeks, Uighurs, natives of the North Caucusus, and so forth. They aren’t controlled and financed by Afghans, but rather by Pakistani, Arabic or international bodies. Many come with experience acquired while fighting in the former Yugoslavia, North Caucusus, Kashmir, Iraq and African countries. This category usually has stable ties to the intelligence services of Pakistan, some Arabic countries, the United States or Great Britain.
Category two: primarily Pashtun bands, that is, they are made up of Afghans but they have ties to the same foreign and international organizations. Veterans of all of the hot spots I listed are also represented here.
Category three: bands and groups composed of Pashtuns fighting for internal Afghan reasons, but also financed from outside the country—generally through Pakistani clerical and military circles and intelligence services.
And, finally, a category four: groups and bands who are also fighting for internal Afghan reasons and who have a strong social base in the areas where they are active, but who are financed primarily by profits from illegal drug manufacture and other local sources.
This classification system is obviously very relative. There are a lot of motivations, which complicate our picture of the phenomenon known as the “Taliban.” But another thing is important. Of the four categories I described, the first two aren’t large, but the third and fourth categories have a strong societal base. Representatives of the populace itself take part in these bands; they are incorporated into the ranks of the resistance movement against the government and the foreign occupiers that support it.
As in the first half of the 1990s after the fall of the Najibullah regime, after the chaos associated with the rule of the Mujahideen, a significant part of the populace saw the Taliban as a renewed political force that offered hope for stability and fairness. Indeed, during 1994-1997 the Taliban were all but welcomed with flowers: people need real power, law and order.
Now, the main reason for the increasing resistance is the excessive use of military force by the foreign militaries; it is inconsistent with local customs and traditional norms. Disenchantment with the Hamid Karzai administration and the spread of corruption and crime create good opportunities for the Taliban to restore their credibility among the majority of the population, at least in the Pashtun regions. In essence, a civil war is taking place in Afghanistan, with foreign occupying forces acting on the side of the government.
– What do you think about the recent statement by Mullah Omar that the Central Asian republics need not fear the Taliban, who have no intention of moving into neighboring territories?
– I think that Mullah Omar, or whoever is speaking for him, can be believed in this instance. The Taliban are only powerful on their own ground.
– Can NATO military operations in northern Afghanistan prompt a Taliban move into Tajikistan? Is it true that there are up to five thousand IMU militants in the area around the Afghan city of Kunduz—as ostensibly claimed by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence? Incidentally, has Yo’ldosh’s death been confirmed?
– I seem to recall that Yo’ldosh has been buried dozens of times. We’ll see . . . But does it really matter? I don’t think this is a case where the role of personality in history is especially important. There was a split in the IMU back in 2003-2004, a kind of opposition, when the IMU militants were located in the western regions of Pakistan. Many Uzbeks and others from our region were not very clear on why they had to fight in Pakistan instead of against the hated regime in Uzbekistan. Then Tahir led some people into the Afghan Helmand region.
I have some doubts regarding the reliability of information about the concentration of IMU militants in the Kunduz area, especially in such numbers. It looks more like an approved leak. I’ve been in Kunduz on several occasions and spent quite a bit of time there, and I think that, if there really were such an impressive group in the area, all the boys in the local bazaar would know about it. The last time I was in the region was about half a year ago. The attitude of the local inhabitants is such that IMU militants would not feel very confident among them. In addition, the governor of Kunduz Province—Engineer Mohammad Omar—is a former Northern Alliance commander, and I doubt that he would wink at the presence of IMU people.
You know, during the second half of the 1990s (and especially before 2001) the Americans deliberately promoted the idea in international opinion and among experts that the Taliban movement had an international and even global agenda.
This gave rise to the conclusion that the Taliban intended to occupy Tajikistan and Uzbekistan right up to Bukhara and beyond—to the Volga region, to the Caucusus . . . This idea, which didn’t have any weight behind it and was perceived more on an emotional level, became very widespread. Especially in quarters that could influence political decision making—in Russia and in the Central Asian countries.
All in all, this was one of the most successful American information operations of recent years. The myth of “international terrorism” that was sold to the international community was transformed into a casus belli to justify aggression—first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq.
In reality, it was only a mythologem. The Taliban present no military threat to the countries of Central Asia or Russia. It is primarily a Pashtun movement which has an ethnic, nationalist component at its base. Religious radicalism is far from being the top motivation for the Taliban.
Therefore, the emergence of the Taliban in Tajikistan or Uzbekistan would be an intrusion into territory that is ideologically alien to them. Here, they can’t count on the support of the local inhabitants, especially considering the solidarity between the Tajiks and Uzbeks in Afghanistan and their fellow tribesmen in the former Soviet republics.
The power of the Taliban lies in the support of the population in the Pashtun regions and in their use of asymmetric warfare methods. It is a guerrilla movement that is strong on its home ground but is doomed to failure elsewhere. Incidentally, we note that before 2001 most of the Taliban’s military successes on the ground in Afghanistan itself came only as a result of direct military support by regular Pakistani forces. The military potential of the Taliban has never been comparable to the capabilities of the armed forces (with all their shortcomings) of the Central Asian countries, the less so when the possibility of Russian involvement is considered.
– Would you concede that squeezing the militants into the former Soviet republics of Central Asia may be part of some plan?
– That is a more interesting question. Higher levels of NATO and US activity in northern Afghanistan and the increased foreign military presence may strengthen the mood of protest there, and then more people, who for now are still engaged in peaceful labor, may join the fight against the occupiers and, in essence, the puppet government.
We shouldn’t forget that there are many Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan. There is a false preconception that says the Pashtuns are in the south and everybody else is in the north. There are many Pashtun enclaves in northern Afghanistan—from Herat and Badghis in the west to Badakhshan Ishkashim or Dzhurm in the east—and many Pashtuns live dispersed. They can serve as a link to the Pashtuns in the south. The well-known Afghan, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is himself a native of a northern Pashtun enclave in the Imam Sahib region, which is right on the border with Tajikistan.
So it isn’t hard to stir up and destabilize the north when you consider the discontent with the recent, highly questionable election campaign that left Karzai as President.
Yes, it could be part of a plan. Look: we have the deployment of the newly arrived American forces and the expansion of the zones of military operations into Pakistan, where the weak administration of “democratically elected” Asif Zardari replaced General Musharraf, who could more or less control the country. It won’t be today or tomorrow, but Pakistan could spin out of control.
Modern geopolitical planning allows for the creation of chaos in a geopolitical space as an instrument for controlling it. And how is Tajikistan or Kyrgystan any better than Pakistan in this sense? And all this on the border with China and in Russia’s zone of vital interests.
– And how does all of this affect Russia?
– The very situation in Afghanistan is risky—it is an uncontrollable territory, which terrorist groups may use, albeit in small numbers.
Another real danger—and a much more serious one—is the use of Afghanistan’s territory for illegal drug production. This is a very powerful factor in the corruption and criminalization of society; it undermines defense capabilities and impacts the gene pool; it is a powerful strain on the economy and in the financial sphere, both for consumer countries and for the countries through which drugs are transported.
Drug trafficking also acquires political significance. An illegal business must be protected against government interference and competitors, and that means it must be involved with politics. Politicization of drug trafficking takes place on two levels. At the first level security (freedom from prosecution) is provided for manufacture, transportation and sale. At the second level drug organizations become instruments of entire governments.
How does Afghan heroin get to Europe? Central Asia and Russia constitute the main entry route to the Baltic and Scandinavian countries. It flows through Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and Georgia, and then it goes on to the West through Ukraine. And it makes its way to Kosovo through Iran and Turkey. Interestingly, the main distribution centers for Afghan narcotics are in the same locations as American military bases. In Kosovo, for example, it is Camp Bondsteel. And in Germany it is the bases located at Bitburg, Sembach, Ramstein, Hahn, Zweibrücken and Spangdahlem. Or the US Air Force Base at Morón de la Frontera and the naval station at Rota in Spain.
And finally. Should the same artificial destabilization occur in countries bordering on Afghanistan, Russia will be forced to intervene, but by reacting after the fact. Although it would be better to be proactive. And indeed it may turn out exactly as Brzezinski described it so long ago.
Source: “Odnako,” No. 9, November 9, 2009 (in Russian).