The threat of Afghan “spillover” in Central Asia

As the U.S. and NATO forces prepare to leave Afghanistan starting next year, a new buzzword has appeared in Central Asian capitals: “spillover.” This is the theory that, when coalition troops withdraw, the Afghanistan authorities won’t be able to maintain order, resulting in either civil war or the return of an Islamist government in Afghanistan. This could lead to various dangerous elements spilling over the border from Afghanistan into the ex-Soviet Central Asian states, including guns, drugs and radical Islamists. 

Borders in the region are porous, especially the 800-mile long Afghanistan-Tajikistan border, which is almost entirely unguarded. And during the 1990s, before the Western presence in Afghanistan, a variety of Islamist groups successfully carried out a number of attacks in Central Asia. And Central Asia’s leaders have repeatedly voiced the fear of spillover. For example, Kyrgyzstan’s new National Security Concept, quoted in regional military expert Roger McDermott’s recent report (PDF), formally cites the Western withdrawal as a threat:

A serious threat to security throughout the region is posed by the complex military-political situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where terrorism and religious extremism have concentrated their main ideological and combatant forces and the special training camps of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the Jihad Group or Islamic Jihad Union and others. In the contemporary context, especially following the 2014 US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, this will create real conditions for emissaries and militants of these organizations to move in and fuel terrorist and extremist manifestations in Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan.

Other Central Asian states, in particular Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, also have frequently spoken of the threat of “spillover” (though as McDermott notes in his report (PDF), each country in the region has a unique perspective toward Afghanistan, and in particular Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan do not formally cite it as a threat).

And there are indications that instability in Afghanistan has been spreading to the north, toward the borders of the ex-Soviet Central Asian states, previously the most peaceful part of the country. A November 2012 report from the Afghanistan Analysts Network noted that the Taliban had increased their presence in the Faryab province, bordering Turkmenistan. The same source noted that insurgent activity was up in the Badakhshan province, bordering Tajikistan. And this month, police in Balkh province, on the border with Uzbekistan, said that due to attempts to mine the road leading to the bridge to Uzbekistan, they have stepped up security efforts in the border town of Hairaton.

But there also are a number of reasons to be skeptical of the “spillover” threat. The most prominent terror group in Central Asia, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, is now based in the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands and seems to have moved on entirely from its namesake. Scholars who study the group say that while it has kept the name, it now expresses no interest in Central Asia. And even when Central Asian Islamists were at their most active, they never posed a serious threat to the governments of the region. Nearly a century of Soviet-driven modernization made the vast majority of Central Asians into secular citizens with little taste for Taliban-style conservatism. And the governments of Central Asia today are far more capable of maintaining order than they were in the chaotic 1990s.

It also should be kept in mind that voicing the threat of “spillover” serves the interests of the dictatorial governments of the region, which use the threat to both justify internal crackdowns and to convince foreign powers to hand out aid. “Central Asian governments … secure outside support by emphasizing the risk of terrorism and presenting themselves as victims, weakened by ‘spillover’ from Afghanistan,” notes scholar Sebastien Peyrouse. “This diverts attention from their own responsibility for the drug trade and legitimizes the repression of local Islamist movements by fusing notions of political opposition, Islamist extremism, and the drug trade.”

Does that mean that there will be no negative spillover from Afghanistan? It is obviously impossible to predict what will happen after 2014. But policymakers and analysts looking at Central Asia, when confronted with the notion of “spillover,” should apply some healthy skepticism.

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