April 20, 2016

The Prospects for Stability in Afghanistan and Greater Central Asia

Analyzing recent political and security developments, Ivan Safranchuk, associate professor at the Department of Global Political Processes of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, said that the future of Afghanistan remains uncertain amid increased insecurity in the country’s north and an eroding security situation in three key provinces that serve as bridges to its north. He hypothesized that a poor security situation for northern Afghanistan could have deleterious effects on Central Asian security as a whole, since a weak north will imperil the borders Afghanistan shares with its Central Asian neighbors. The discussion of “The Prospects for Stability in Afghanistan and Greater Central Asia” was hosted by the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies.

Safranchuk sees the tri-province area of Samangan, Baghlan, and Sari Pul as one great unsecured gateway to Afghanistan’s fragile north. Taliban fighters and other radical elements can use these provinces as transit points, and increased instability in these provinces increases the likelihood that even greater numbers of radicals will continue flowing northward. A major point of concern is that once they consolidate their rural holdings in southern provinces like Helmand, Taliban fighters will relocate northward and continue to threaten cities like Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif. Afghanistan’s porous eastern border with Pakistan also means that radicals can migrate across Pashtun territory and then transit northward. Either way, Safranchuk says, the Afghan government will face immense challenges in securing its north should it fail to stabilize these three key provinces.

The border with Turkmenistan also presents a particularly vexing challenge, according to Safranchuk. In denial about problems along its border, the Turkmen government refuses to admit that radical elements have clashed with its border guards on numerous occasions, even briefly penetrating the Turkmen border. This denial, and the subsequent inability to truly secure its border, is a weak link in Central Asian border defense against Taliban expansion. Should militants be able to seriously penetrate the Turkmen border, they could in theory reach the lucrative and poorly protected gas fields of the reclusive nation’s east, which could also serve as a springboard for attacks on the Uzbek border or deeper into Turkmenistan should the authorities fail to dislodge them.

The situation in Turkmenistan is sharply contrasted by that of Uzbekistan. Leveraging its draconian security system, Uzbekistan has created a robust border protection force that has so far thwarted any militant aspirations. Likewise, Tajikistan has also made good faith efforts to shore up its border defenses, but its grinding poverty, rugged terrain, and endemic corruption make lapses in border security all but inevitable. In contrast to Turkmenistan, however, Tajik authorities have admitted to deficiencies in their defenses and are working proactively with Russian and American security managers to build their defense capacity. One of Safranchuk’s chief fears is that political inaction in the region could lead to broader instability should elements of the Taliban or like-minded groups make inroads in Tajikistan or Turkmenistan.

Given the political challenges that have plagued Afghanistan since its contentious 2014 presidential election, the country faces immense challenges in projecting authority and maintaining its security, and these challenges pose grave dilemmas for nearby states. While Safranchuk does not think it likely that the Taliban or other radical elements will capture and hold any provincial capitals in the near term, he says more and more of the Afghan countryside and border regions are likely to fall under militant control unless the Afghan government can ameliorate its political gridlock and improve military and security performance.