Amid ongoing negotiations between the United States and the Afghan Taliban, the period between late September and November was marked by increasing violence in Afghanistan, which resulted in hundreds of casualties among the Afghan military and police as well as civilians (Stanradar.com, October 5). On September 27, the Taliban launched a massive offensive in more than ten provinces (Southasiamonitor.org, September 28). Badakhshan was especially targeted. The province is a strategically important part of Afghanistan, sharing a 450-kilometer border with Pakistan, 90-kilometer border with China, and an 800-kilometer border with Tajikistan. Among others, the police chief of Kohistan district in Badakhshan, Abdul Zahir, was killed (Tolonews.com, September 30).
Critical Cases in Badakhshan and Fergana
According to the commander of the second battalion of 217 Pamir Army Corps, Lotufullah Alizai, local militants in Badakhshan are mixing with fighters coming into the region, including from abroad, who represent a conglomeration of various group affiliations. Badakshani governor Zakaria Sawda also stated that, “They [extremists] want to reinforce their third base in Badakhshan” (Tolonews.com, April 21). Like Alizai and Sawda, Abdullah Naji Nazari, who is a member of the Badakhshan Provincial Council, asserted that the main long-term goal of the militants is “to get access to Tajikistan and China” (Thefrontierpost.com, October 17).
These observations from Badakshani officials indicate the prospect of further destabilization in northern Afghanistan, including also Takhar, Baghlan, Kunduz, and Panjshir provinces. Moreover, both Afghan and Tajik experts have claimed that militants are assembling in northern Afghanistan, and specifically Taloqan and Fayzabad. In that area, they are reportedly planning to join forces with Tajik fighters and strengthen control over drug flows and smuggling routes, which are key sources of local income (Stanradar.com, April 23). At the same time, all of these developments are compounded by the impending withdrawal of the German and British contingents from northern Afghanistan after 19 years in the area and potentially U.S. forces from elsewhere in Afghanistan (Deutsche Welle, September 11).
Badakshan’s destabilization will have a critical impact. Northern Afghanistan and adjacent areas of Tajikistan are experiencing three overlapping processes simultaneously: proliferating radicalization; the continuation of terrorist and other militant threats; and the linking of local corrupt authorities with militants. As noted by a Russian expert on Central Asia, Alexander Kniazev, “international terrorist groups started to control large parts of Afghan Badakhshan long before the brand of [Islamic State] was created [….] Being primarily involved in criminal activities, such as racketeering and smuggling, they are in the majority of cases tightly connected to local authorities.” Further, Kniazev noted, “many of them [militants] are ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks […] who are a great resource for increasing the number of militants” in Afghanistan (Ng.ru, April 22).
Militancy in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan
Indeed, ethnic Tajiks’ participation in militancy will pose a threat comparable to, or greater than, that of Afghan militants to Central Asia. For example, during the attack on Tajikistan’s Ishkobod border post in November 2019, which is between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the key combatants were Tajikistani citizens, not Afghans. Initially, however, Dushanbe denied this and blamed the Afghan branch of Islamic State, known as Khorasan Province, which, as it would later turn out, was not involved (Central.Asia-news.com, November 6, 2019). Tajik authorities were unable to explain the details of the attack to the public and ultimately presented conflicting versions that both local and foreign experts considered to be unconvincing. In effect, the local authorities tried to present an “ordinary criminal” attack on the border post as an attack by Islamists to de-emphasize activities of local criminal circles and blame foreigners (Eadaily.com, December 25, 2019).
Meanwhile, Uzbek experts have also claimed that the growing destabilization of northern Afghanistan and adjacent parts of Tajikistan and the concentration of militants from multiple countries in that area might exacerbate the security situation in the Fergana Valley (Crss.uz, July 24). The valley is known for its multi-ethnic composition and rich history and is located at the crossroads of eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kyrgyzstan, and northern Tajikistan, but it has been among the more unstable parts of Central Asia (Ria.ru, June 3, 2019). Concern about increasing radicalization in Fergana Valley has also been tacitly acknowledged by the former Vice President of Afghanistan from 2014–2020 and Marshal in the Afghan National Army, Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is an ethnic Uzbek. He has claimed that Central Asian militants are not only determined to conduct criminal activities in Afghanistan, but are also determined to spread instability into the countries of Central Asia (Rus.ozodi.org,October 15).
Two trendlines are worth highlighting. First, in the near-term future, northern Afghanistan will remain susceptible to militants from multiple countries as well as the Taliban and Islamic State and potentially al-Qaeda. Therefore, northern Afghanistan will be perceived as a region capable of contributing to the destabilization of Central Asia, including Fergana Valley.
However, the second trendline is that there is every reason to believe some Central Asian and Afghan political leaders will exploit growing security concerns as a means to consolidate their own power and use the specter of radicalization and extremism to reach out to foreign governments in search of economic support. Such messages are already coming from Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, for example, who is “seeking to maintain his reputation as the sole guarantor of the Tajik national security” and become the regional “bulwark” against international terrorism (Stanradar.com, August 2).
The same may also apply to Afghan, including Badakhshani, officials who are reluctant to see a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which could empower their adversary—the Afghan Taliban. Indeed, since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, concerns emerged about the rise of militancy in Central Asia. However, neither threats emanating from Afghanistan nor the numerous Central Asian foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq with Islamic State and al-Qaeda-aligned groups have come close to destabilizing any of the Central Asian countries.