The following is a guest post from Galymzhan Kirbassov, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at SUNY Binghamton.
With most eyes on Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it is easy to miss the fact that Central Asia is also facing an increasingly complex security situation.
First, the impressive victories and territorial gains of the Islamic State against Iraqi and Syrian governments have made the group even more attractive to foreign fighters from Central Asia. According to several reports, more than a thousand Central Asian citizens have joined and even have been establishing ethnic sub-groups within the Islamic State; there are also newly released propaganda videos about Kazakh child soldiers within the Islamic State. The head of the KNB, Kazakhstan’s intelligence agency, recently reported (English here) that 300 Kazakhstani citizens joined the Islamic State, half of whom were women. Analysts predict that these fighters will pose significant security threats to Central Asian nations upon their repatriation.
Second, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will benefit insurgent and terrorist groups currently operating in the Waziristan region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Terrorist groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, whose ultimate goal is to be operational in Central Asia again, are likely to relocate to the north and reestablish bases closer to the region. These armed groups often operate across borders and fund their activities through transnational drug trafficking. The fact that the opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan in 2014 was at a record high according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, despite the U.S. spending $7.6 billion on counter-narcotics, indicates that insurgency and terrorism is likely to thrive in the near future.
To counter these threats, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian governments have been reevaluating their national counter-terrorism strategies. Counter-terrorism cooperation under the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has its limits because not all the Central Asian governments are members of the organizations. Also these strategies have been mainly established to counter terrorism within the member states, not the ones stemming from other regions.
Studies suggest that an integrated long-term strategy is an effective way to combat geographically dispersed and decentralized international terrorism. This comprehensive strategy has two parts: integration across actors and integration across policies.
For Kazakhstan, mobilizing all relevant actors is key to successfully combating terrorist groups that operate in one region but recruit from numerous regions and profit from cross-border illicit trade. Actors in this strategy include international organizations such as the UN, regional organizations, governments of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, sub-national authorities, leaders of local communities and tribes and civil society. These governments, as mentioned above, have participated in various multilateral counter-terrorism initiatives. However, what has been missing from those initiatives was the stronger inclusion of the local communities and religious leaders who are on the ground, possess local knowledge, and are closer to the recruitment and trafficking networks.
Integrating counter-terrorism strategy to political, economic and social development policies is another part of the comprehensive approach. The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s recent statement reflects this point very well and is supported by a number of academic researches on insurgency and civil war. To him, the biggest threat to terrorism is not a strong military but the politics of inclusion, education, respect for human rights, the rule of law, and job opportunities.
There are two major international instruments through which regional governments can address the threats to Central Asia.
One is the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (Strategy), and in particular, the Joint Plan of Action of Central Asian States. The Strategy was unanimously adopted by the UN member states in 2006 and is a unique tool that, for the first time, enabled all states to agree on a common strategy to combat terrorism. The Joint Plan outlines how the Strategy will be implemented in the Central Asian region. One of the major problems in implementation, however, has been the slow pace of the states in the region. As the report of the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation indicates, the Strategy has been actively discussed at the UN Headquarters in New York, Geneva and Vienna. But coordination across actors and policies at the national and regional levels has not been as successful. So far, there have been several expert meetings on the implementation of the Joint Plan in Central Asia, but coordination across actors and policies has been limited.
The other is the Istanbul Process, which is an agenda for regional cooperation in security and development. Although Kazakhstan participates in various confidence-building measures within the Istanbul Process, formally it is not a member of the counter-terrorism section. Additionally, as has been discussed in a conference on regional integration, trade between small and medium-sized enterprises in Central Asian countries is negligible. Small business owners are simply unaware of the existing trade opportunities with companies in neighboring countries. Connecting the private sector actors in countries within the Istanbul Process and promoting business opportunities could potentially reduce drug trafficking by providing alternative sources of income.
Kazakhstan, the second largest country in Central Asia, is competing with Thailand to secure a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) non-permanent seat for 2017-2018. Taking a lead in combating terrorist threats to Central Asian nations could bolster Kazakhstan’s candidacy for the prestigious two-year seat. A comprehensive strategy that enables integration across actors and policies might be one way to reduce the spillover effects of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the growing advancements of the Islamic State.