Vienna, October 21 – Pakistan’s massive campaign against the Taliban in its Northwest Frontier Province which adjoins Afghanistan could force some of the estimated 5,000 ethnic Uzbek militants there to return to Central Asia and cause a radical destabilization of one or more of the countries in that region, a Moscow analyst warns.
In the past, Aleksandr Shustov says, Pakistan had been extremely tentative in sending its forces into Southern Vaziristan, but now pressed by the United States, Islamabad has sent nearly 30,000 troops, supported by aviation and artillery, into the region, for what is scheduled to be a two-month campaign (www.fondsk.ru/article.php?id=2544).
If this new effort is successful, it could lead to the defeat of the estimated 10,000 Taliban forces there and significantly improve Pakistan’s control. Taliban fighters drawn from local ethnic communities would likely fade into the population or flee into Afghanistan, but those from further afield, including ethnic Uzbeks, might have to leave both areas.
Shustov cites the research of V.I. Sotnikov, another Russian analyst, who has concluded that while the Pushtun Talibans would go underground, at least some of the ethnic Uzbeks who have been fighting alongside them would return to one or another Central Asian republic and possibly launch attacks on the governments there.
As a result, Sotnikov says, “a real threat of the growth of Islamic jihad and terrorist activity along the southern borders of the Russian Federation will arise – both in Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) and in the North Caucasus (Chechnya, North Ossetia, and Daghestan).”
According to Shustov, Sotnikov’s conclusions reflect the increasing spillover of the fighting in Afghanistan on Central Asia since the spring of this year, where in Uzbekistan in particular, “the number of terrorist acts and armed clashes over recent months” has been higher than a year earlier.
Were there to be “a massive return of Uzbek militants [from Pakistan and Afghanistan] to [their] motherland,” Shustov continues, “[these so-far] isolated armed clashes could take on the character of a partisan war” that could push that most populous Central Asian country into the kind of civil war that Tajikistan experienced in the 1990s.
In his article, Shustov details a number of clashes both within Uzbekistan and on its borders with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan over recent months and strongly suggests that the arrival of new militants not only would make such clashes more serious but could create challenges beyond the capacity of the regimes in Central Asia to respond successfully.
He notes that this month “signs of military-political instability can be seen throughout Central Asia,” with numerous clashes taking place not only along the borders of the countries there but within them as well. And what makes all this especially dangerous is that tensions among the governments in the region are already high over issues like water distribution.
Given that as Shustov himself concedes, “the exact number of militants from Central Asia” in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province “is unknown” and that the success of Islamabad’s current campaign, despite its size, is far from certain, Shustov’s predictions may be overblown. But they are important for at least three reasons.
First, they highlight in ways that few recent Western commentaries do, the interrelated nature of the conflict in Afghanistan and border areas of Pakistan with the situation in the post-Soviet Central Asian countries, links that mean events on one side of the former Soviet border are now likely to have a far greater impact on the other.
Second, Shustov’s projections even if they are exaggerated suggest that Uzbekistan and other countries of this region will be seeking even greater security guarantees from the Russian Federation or the West in order to prevent the fighting to their south from threatening the stability or even survival of the governments there.
And third – and this may be the reason Shustov’s article appeared this week – his comments point to the very real conflict of interest at least in the short term between the governments of Central Asia and of the Russian Federation, on the one hand, and the United States and the NATO alliance forces in Afghanistan, on the other.