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Astana 2017: Kazakhstan’s City on a Hill

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Kazakhstan, a country with immense oil wealth but relatively little global influence, has recently been trying to convert its wealth into influence. The successful bid to hold an exposition in Astana this summer is so far the crowning achievement of this international push to engage with countries directly outside of the post-Soviet space. The preparation for Astana 2017 is decades in the making and has literally been built from the ground up.

Twenty years ago Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital and second largest city, was a nondescript village in the country’s northern steppes. Fast forward to present day and the gleaming metropolis is adorned with skyscrapers and unique structures designed by the world’s best architects. The city was willed into reality as a representation of Kazakhstan’s new wealth and outlook for the twenty-first century. Astana was designed to grab the world’s attention and to be used as a spectacle for events like this year’s world expo. Having failed to secure the 2022 Winter Olympics, Kazakh authorities have pulled out all the stops to promote the expo. A massive futuristic pavilion will house the expo and even world famous boxer Gennady Golovkin has been recruited to promote the event.

The wealth needed to allow for such projects only emerged following the tumultuous 90s. Under the leadership of Soviet era strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan has risen from planned economy stagnation to double digit GDP growth. Granted, this was not achieved through transparent economic practice and the rule of law, but through the development of its petrochemical industry. Hydrocarbons accounted for 60% of exports in 2015. However, due to the collapse of crude prices in late 2014, Kazakhstan has had to adapt to an alternate reality where sustainable development and outside investment needs to matter for the continued upward movement of the Kazakh state.

Astana 2017’s theme of “Future Energy” is an important continuation of the general worldwide consensus following the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference. As of September of last year, 101 countries have confirmed their participation at the expo with more than two million individual visitors planned for the three-month long event. Astana will take center stage for Kazakhstan’s future ambitions. Mr. Nazarbayev’s real vision of Kazakhstan’s role in the world is known only to him and a select few individuals in his inner circle. It is difficult to imagine him wanting Kazakhstan to take a leading role in the fight against climate change or energy equity.

Kazakhstan has outlined a plan to obtain 50% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2050. This target is not binding to any supranational organizations of which Kazakhstan is a part (ex. Eurasian Economic Union [EEU] and Commonwealth of Independent States [CIS]). Additionally, with the country so heavily invested in hydrocarbons all the while lacking almost any renewable energy infrastructure, it is unlikely that Kazakhstan will be able to meet it, despite an enormous renewable energy potential. These speculative inferences point to a likely scenario where Mr. Nazarbayev does not foresee his country using soft power to influence its neighbors with energy policy.

Instead of traditional established partnerships with its CIS and EEU partners, Kazakhstan may be looking for outside investment. With its conventional economy tied to the EEU trading block, which is also hurting due to the low price of oil, Astana 2017 could prove to be particularly useful to attract investment and diversify its economy. In addition to international representatives, the world’s largest energy and tech companies will be making an appearance. It is through partnerships with these giants that Kazakhstan can create its own homegrown industries which may be competitive in the EEU and abroad. Rapil Zhoshybayev, a Kazakh commissioner for Expo 2017 and a former deputy foreign minister described the expo’s mission in an article for The Diplomat:

“Our aim is to use EXPO to drive the next stage of our industrial development and diversification with a new emphasis on sustainability, high-tech and skills. The exhibition site and its buildings will, wherever possible, use the latest renewable power sources, smart energy networks and sustainable construction techniques. Their use will embed these skills and knowledge throughout our wider industry”.

It is extremely unlikely that Kazakhstan would hope to become a global leader in renewable energy. However, it can hope to be a player in an underdeveloped regional market and expand its influence that way.

Astana 2017 can lead to a more diversified and successful future for Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, its typical post-Soviet government may derail any plans even before they are formed. Mr. Nazarbayev is currently 76 years old and has been in power for more than 26 years. His recently more liberal attitude towards finance, development, and succession could all be rolled back should he be unable to fulfill his duties as president. There is no guarantee that his successor will be as open minded. Corruption, the traditional enemy of free enterprise in this part of the world, will also almost certainly have an impact. It is just a question of how much of an impact.

Kazakhstan has had an impressive start to the 21st century and its economy looks set to continue to grow. Astana 2017 presents a bridge to the outside world which Kazakhstan would likely be best served to explore.

Central Asia

30 years of Nazarbayev’s foreign policy: What Kazakhstan can teach the world in the new era

Yerzhan Saltybayev

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Photo Credits: AkOrda.kz

The COVID-19 pandemic has completely shaken the very foundations of the world order that we were all accustomed to. The world is entering a qualitatively new stage of development, which is characterized by increased conflicts and intense competition in international relations.

Over the past months, we have seen how the relations between the two largest powers in the world, the United States and China, have dramatically escalated.

The aftershocks of the coronavirus crisis are felt in almost all regions of the world, especially in the so-called “transit zones”, where the interests of key players intersect. The South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait – this is the incomplete list of tension points, which can violate global stability at any moment.

Against this backdrop, Kazakhstan looks like a kind of “positive anomaly” – a post-Soviet state with rich natural resources, the world’s ninth largest country by area, and located in the very geographical center of Eurasia. Despite the extremely unfavorable geopolitical context and its own position at the junction of the interests of global players, Kazakhstan, to this day, confidently maintains both domestic political stability and constructive relations with all the main actors of the global game.

The case of Kazakhstan is of particular interest since historically the region of Central Asia, located at the intersection of Europe and Asia, has been a hostage to the Great Game between world powers. The strategically important geographical location, rich natural resources practically doom the region to the inevitable fate of being “geopolitically torn” between the interests of world powers.

However, Kazakhstan, which shares one of the longest land borders with two world powers, Russia and China, manages to masterfully manoeuvre in the dark waters of world politics.

In the current geopolitical situation, Kazakhstan’s external positioning is of particular interest to many countries that have faced the problem of worsening geopolitical conditions amid growing new global bipolarity.

The Kazakh “success story” is based on the foreign policy strategy of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the First President of the country, which gained independence in 1991. Nazarbayev, like Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, is the de facto architect of modern Kazakhstan. He ruled the country for almost 30 years, and voluntarily resigned in 2019. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s successor and the former Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, won the national elections in 2019, and continued the line of his predecessor.

I would like to briefly outline several key components of this strategy.

The first one is a system of “hedging” foreign policy risks through the balanced development of external relations in all strategic areas. This strategy is based on the “multi-vector” principle, which has doctrinal significance for Kazakhstani diplomacy.

Obviously, Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy is not a unique case, because a number of other post-Soviet governments de facto apply this principle too. However, what distinguishes Kazakhstan is a combination of consistency and flexibility in the implementation of this principle.

The basis of this approach is not “unscrupulousness” but reasonable pragmatism and the desire “not to put all eggs in one basket”. For Kazakhstan, the “multi-vector” principle has a cross-cutting nature, penetrating almost all spheres of its international cooperation.

One example is the sphere of security, the area of crucial interest for the Central Asian region.

Of course, many observers, who monitor the processes in the region, may note that Kazakhstan remains under Moscow’s ‘umbrella’ in the security sphere.

However, to understand the full picture, it is necessary to take into account the whole system of partnerships that Kazakhstan has built over the past years. It is impossible not to mention the Shanghai Cooperation Organization(SCO). Today, it is represented not only by China, but also by another Asian nuclear giant – India, which joined the organization in 2017 along with Pakistan.

Kazakhstan is also an active participant in the NATO Partnership for Peace program, and maintains close cooperation with the United States, which, despite irritation in Moscow and Beijing, plays an important stabilizing role in the region from the point of view of Kazakhstan’s interests

On top of this, Nazarbayev sought to expand the orbit of his interests, intentionally associating himself with a broader international agenda. So, in the Asian direction, Kazakhstan initiated the creation of the CICA (Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building measures in Asia)- the only international platform providing a stable dialogue on security issues in Asia as a whole. Through chairmanship in the OSCE in 2010, Kazakhstan was able to identify its presence in the European security architecture too.

The second aspect of the Kazakhstani path is the principle of economic pragmatism, which was the main criteria for all strategic decisions made by Nursultan Nazarbayev.“Economy first, then politics”, the catchy phrase coined by Nazarbayev, is the quintessence of this approach.

This message has been intended not only to block political radicalism within the country, but also in the external arena, in relations with strategic partners.

A typical example is the position of Kazakhstan in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), where Kazakhstan invariably emphasizes the purely economic nature of this organization. Of course, Russia aims to create a deeper form of political integration, but it was Nazarbayev’s principled position in favor of economic pragmatism that blocked all attempts to politicize the union.

Another case is Turkic integration, which is often regarded by external observers exclusively from the perspective of issues of pan-Turkic identity and “big politics” in the region.

The “Astana process” on Syria, as well Nazarbayev’s successful mission to reconcile Putin with Erdogan in 2016became possible in particular because of special relations with Turkey. In the latter case, Nazarbayev’s personal trusting relationship with both leaders played a special role: as a result, the tensions between Moscow and Ankara were resolved in the spirit of classical old diplomacy, transmitting the letter from hand to hand.

The third point that deserves attention is related to Nazarbayev’s anti-crisis diplomacy, thanks to which Kazakhstan was able to avoid the risk of being drawn into contradictions between world powers.

The Russian-Georgian conflict of August 2008 became a certain test for the multi-vector policy of the country. Refusing to openly accuse the Kremlin at the start of the conflict, Nazarbayev, at the same time, was able to withstand the pressure from Moscow to recognize South Ossetia’s independence. Then, the Kazakh side actively supported the resolution calling “for preserving the territorial integrity of states.” at the SCO summit.

However, a more significant “balancing” step was the decision of Kazakhstan to begin exporting oil to the West through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline in the fall of the same year, which was aimed at partially reducing the dependence on the transport and communication systems of Russia.

The Kazakhstani experience shows the importance of proactive actions in moments of international crisis, when the country does not try to “sit out and wait” for the end of the conflict, but seeks to independently create favorable external conditions.

For example, against the backdrop of aggravation in relations between the West and Russia, as well as deepening contradictions between the US and China, Kazakhstan has created the Astana International Financial Center (AIFC), operating under the norms and principles of English common law.

Kazakhstan’s strategic calculation, not to a small degree, boils down to the fact that Western capital, which has become a hostage to geopolitical friction, can receive a strategic springboard for entering the Russian and Chinese markets through the AIFC.

This approach perfectly demonstrates Kazakhstan’s ability to skillfully integrate itself into the dynamics of relations between different poles of power, effectively capitalizing its competitive advantages as a transit zone.

Finally, the fourth component of the “Kazakhstani recipe” is bonded with Nazarbayev’s systematic efforts to integrate Kazakhstan’s foreign policy initiatives into the very center of international politics. In addition to the image dividends, this policy pursues a number of specific tasks, such as preventing a peripheralization of Kazakhstan, as well as the Central Asian region in the international arena.

One of the most important steps in this direction was the unilateral rejection of nuclear weapons arsenal by Kazakhstan at the very dawn of its independence. It should be mentioned that back then Kazakhstan possessed the 4th largest nuclear capability in the world, which was more than what China, the UK, and France had combined.

Voluntary rejection of WMD initiated by Nazarbayev himself, first of all, was the strongest political move. This immediately served to increase the country’s credibility in the West and among the international community in general.

Besides, the abandonment of nuclear potential has also brought quite tangible dividends. Since 1991, Kazakhstan has attracted more than $300 billion of foreign direct investment, accounting for 75% of all investments in Central Asia as a whole.

Another classic example is Nazarbayev’s initiative to create “Greater Eurasia”, based on the unification of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Silk Road Economic Belt, and the European Union into a single mega-project (announced at the 70th session of the UN General Assembly in 2015).

The idea of Greater Eurasia is exactly where the emerging contours of a fundamentally new, non-bloc policy for the future world can be spotted. The stability of the new architecture will be reliably ensured, first of all, by the deep and objective interdependence of the interests for all players.

In such a world, along with the great powers, a significant role will be played by the active position of small and medium-sized countries, which constitute the absolute majority of the modern world. Its architecture will be based on the principle of “indivisibility of security”, first voiced in the framework of the CICA.

In a word, for small or medium-sized countries, proactive politics is now the best way to stay “afloat”, which makes it possible not to become a passive hostage of a steadily escalating rivalry between major powers.

In a wider context, we have every reason to believe that Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping potential is far from being exhausted. This potential is based on the already accumulated political baggage of trusting relationships with various centers of power.

It should be remembered that the capital of Kazakhstan has already played the role of a mediating platform, thanks to which an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program was reached.

Furthermore, a new format for meetings of political and business elites in the capital of Kazakhstan – Astana club – was launched on the initiative of Nazarbayev. This is a unique forum where the most influential representatives of the USA, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, and 30 other, mainly Eurasian, countries gather at the same table.

In the near future, the “Asian Vienna” might be of considerable interest, first of all, for resolving contradictions along the USA-Russia, USA-China, USA-Iran lines. It should be emphasized that in all three cases we are talking not only about a conflict of interests, but also about the deep-rooted distrust between the parties. And this is the main aspect, in which Nazarbayev himself and Kazakhstan’s diplomatic and mediating experience may turn out to be very valuable assets, worthy of being examined more closely.

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SARS –an Unusual National Security Foe: Success of Central Asia Countries in Stemming COVID-19

Sayfiddin Juraev

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Authors: Sayfiddin Juraev and Gregory Gleason*

As the features of the virus which causes the corona pandemic are emerging with greater clarity, we are beginning to understand the dangers more fully. One of the things we are beginning to appreciate is that the SARS virus is a very unusual foe.  The virus is directly endangering the lives of people directly through the severe acute respiratory effects that it produces, but it also has endangered the way societies function around the world.   The disruption of international trade and traffic has an immediate effect which we all have observed.  Only now are we beginning to see the emergence of the long-term effects on how countries interact with one another and how they protect their own national interests.  The SARS virus is a danger to human security and national security alike.

The form of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome known as SARS-CoV-2 operates according to its own rules. This SARS is universal and non-discriminatory.  It affects everyone. It does not discriminate between good and bad, rich and poor, north and south or east and west.  This dangerous and highly contagious SARS virus, spreading the disease known as COVID-19,isa common threat to all.

It is important that we find ways to prevent this form of the SARS corona virus from magnifying the effects of economic disruption and social upheaval and from further dividing people and setting us against one another.  One step in overcoming this challenge is to recognize that this virus is an unusual enemy.  Successfully combating this unusual enemy requires that we understand the ways it functions and the ways it can be stopped.

Drawing upon the experience of countries that have done well in the first stages of this pandemic is valuable.  The experience of the states of Central Asia offers useful insights into strategies to combat this pandemic. 

The damage caused by the spread of COVID-19 in the Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—is currently at the low end of the scale in comparison with more economically advanced countries.  For example, UK, Italy, Spain, and France currently record the numbers of fatalities attributed to COVID-19 in the tens of thousands.  In contrast, the reported fatality figures in the Central Asian countries are much lower.  As of June 1, 2020, the World Health Organization reported deaths attributed to COVID-19 as: Kazakhstan—38; Kyrgyzstan—16; Tajikistan—47; Uzbekistan—14.  Turkmenistan reported no deaths. 

These figures represent the “reported” data.  No international organization has the authority to independently collect primary health data in all the world’s countries, nor could it without violating basic principles of national sovereignty.  But if these reported WHO data are even approximately accurate, the governments of all the Central Asian states deserve high marks for their ability to stem the “brushfire” spread of the SARS virus and gain time to more effectively address the fundamental questions raised by the pandemic both home and abroad. 

What Accounts for Successful Containment in Central Asia? 

As the initial cases of COVID-19 appeared in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and later in Tajikistan, the governments swiftly responded, instituting emergency measures, empowering law enforcement and medical authorities to implement a broad range of counter-infection mitigation measures to protect public health. Cross-border travel restrictions were imposed. Lockdowns and sheltering-in-place restrictions were imposed in most major cities and curfews were enforced.  Routine commercial air flights were cancelled or significantly reduced in international airports and many domestic airports. New levels of visa restrictions were implemented in all the Central Asian countries. The initial infection containment measures were highly successful in curtailing the early spread of Covid-19duet to the will and capacity of the governments of these states in implementing and enforcing the containment measures urged by medical authorities. 

The problems faced by the Central Asian states were much the same as those faced by countries around the world.  As in all cases, the success of the governments in responding to the pandemic depends upon addressing five key stages: 1) identification and assessment; 2) containment; 3) mitigation; 4) management of immediate consequences; 5) long-term economic and social consequences. The first stage of response to the pandemic—the immediate medical response stage—involves recognizing and acknowledging the scope of the hazard to public health and empowering medical authorities and law enforcement and public security services to take the steps necessary to get infected individuals under medical care as quickly as possible.  Containment means identifying and then isolating those people or those processes which can potentially transmit the infection.

Full information about the transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 was not available at the beginning of the pandemic. Consequently, many decisions were made solely based on assumptions using the experience from other cases of virus-based influenza. A full picture of transmissibility of the SARS-CoV-2 has not emerged even at this point, but the evidence suggests two primary routes of transmission. One route involves airborne transmission in minor droplets of water transferred in expiration of breath of infected persons. The second route appears to involve fomite transmission on surfaces of objects where the virus has been deposited.

A government policy of containment involves identifying those people who have come into contact with those transmitting COVID-19 and isolating them to ensure that they do not transmit the virus to others.  Identification and isolation involve “contact tracing”, a form of investigation conducted with local authorities to propose, or even impose isolation measures on those who have been affected. Contact tracing and the imposition of isolation is a highly labor-intensive and highly intrusive government process that must be conducted on objective bases but can only be successful if it is conducted quickly and effectively.  Government authorities in the Central Asian states were quick to undertake these steps and, accordingly, were successful in containing the spread of COVID-19 in the initial stages of the pandemic. 

Despite initial success, the nature of COVID-19 disease also suggests significant challenges ahead for the Central Asian states as well as for others.  If the transmission of the disease is basically enabled by proximity, then distancing and containment will work in individual cases. But the ideas of containment and mitigation which underlie the professional guidance of medical authorities are based on the experience of highly localized cases of successful treatment procedures.  Physicians know that to stem the spread of an infectious disease they need to isolate an infected patient.  If individual isolation fails, then it is assumed the perimeter should be extended and the room should be isolated.  If that fails, then the entire ward should be isolated.  If that fails, then the wing of the building, or the building itself or the entire region of the city should be isolated.  The idea of a “widening perimeter” is the principle that has now been applied to entire countries. Can such a principle work effectively on a global basis? 

The principle of infection isolation is not something that was devised to apply at once to the entire globe.  In any collective effort the weak link always endangers the protection of the whole.Ifspecific, geographically defined territorial areas can be isolated the infection can be contained within that area.  But as the perimeter grows larger and larger, the task of containment grows increasingly more challenging.  As the perimeter widens to a certain quantitative point, the challenge becomes qualitatively different.

SARS—A Different Kind of Foe

The scope of the “widening perimeter” challenge encourages us to look more closely at the dynamics of the disease and the way the disease interacts in international affairs.  We do not currently have a complete picture of how the virus operates and therefore we do not have exhaustive knowledge about how to stop it. Medical specialists acknowledge that the urgency of the pandemic forced them in the early part of 2020 to make judgments in circumstances where they had only insufficient data. Based on the advice of medical authorities at that time, policy-makers wanted to know how the virus could be defeated and when it would be expected to retreat.  These were obviously the policy-makers’ primary concerns at the outbreak of the pandemic.  But asking the questions in this way may have sent many policy-makers in a direction that led them to standard combat tactics.  This may have complicated or even interfered with the achievement of their goals.

Combat tactics are designed to overcome a foe who is a purposive enemy.  SARS is a different kind of foe. Some microbiologists argue that the corona virus is not alive, at least in the traditional sense of that term.  The corona virus does not reproduce itself; it simply replicates itself by relying upon other living cells from which it derives an advantage.  From the perspective of some microbiologists, the virus is not a “living thing” but only an “acting thing” which by its nature is not attempting to achieve a purpose but is merely programmed to exploit an advantage.  If this view is accurate, the corona virus is not “plotting” against human beings. It is not a “devious” opponent; it is indeed deadly, but not devious. If the corona virus is driven by the pre-programmed goal of continuation through replication, then the strategy to defeat it should be focused specifically on the behavior of the opponent, not on presumptions. Deprive the virus of the conditions for its opportunities for replication, and it has been defeated. The rule is simple: focus not on the virus but on the conditions which enable it.

If the corona virus statistically takes advantage of circumstances which allow it to replicate and multiply, then it is merely existing in a niche of opportunity.  As long as that opportunity exists, the deleterious effects of the virus will remain.  The tactics to “combat” this virus, therefore, are not those usually used in combat situations.  If it is not alive, the idea of “killing” the virus is a metaphor at best, because this virus does not exhibit the conventional attributes of living organisms.  If that is true, the goal should not be to combat the virus through killing it but rather to disrupt or “destabilize” and thereby neutralize the virus to defeat it.  Tactics should be focused specifically on a narrow goal—deprive this preprogrammed protein of the conditions of which it takes advantage. 

Tactics used by the governments of the Central Asian countries in the initial stages of this pandemic were effective because they focused on physical distancing. This was crucial for flattening the epidemic curve.  Central Asian governments responded to the challenge by imposing strict lockdowns and even surveillance measures on citizens. For democracies, the implementation of such strict measures, even if only temporarily, places pressures on democratic institutions which, in turn, risk undermining public trust. Some analysts view the corona pandemic as a global crisis that presents particularly unique challenges for democracies. In contrast, the outcome of the response of the Central Asian government deserves high marks.  A “brushfire” spread of panic and disorder was prevented.   

SARS, the “Widening Perimeter” and International Cooperation

The current form of the SARS virus may attenuate entirely or may in the future end up in returning in waves and only gradually recede in importance.  The unprecedented costs SARS has already exacted in terms of those who have suffered and those who have died are compounded by the costs of those whose lives have been severely disrupted socially or economically.  In the time ahead these human, economic and social costs are likely to be multiplied by the national security costs in terms of the increased international tensions and the diminished capacity to conduct international affairs in traditional ways. 

The corona virus pandemic requires us to think of solutions that may be outside of the more traditional ways of thinking.  To begin with, defeating this unusual foe will require two things which on the surface may seem to be opposed to one another—first, only capable and effective national governments will be able to succeed in addressing the immediate challenges of counter-pandemic containment and, second, only international cooperation will succeed in addressing the global aspects of the spread of disease. 

Globalization itself bears much of the responsibility for this infectious disease.  If it were not for the high-tech linkages of air, rail, and shipping connections linking the entire globe, there could not be such rapid transmission of this new and dangerous virus.  But if globalization is the cause, global cooperation may also be the only viable solution to the problems it has created.  Many of the problems produced by this corona virus pandemic will be achieved through the close connections of science, information, communication, and international cooperation.  Only a new form ofglobalization—what we might call “improved globalization”—can make this possible.     

* Gregory Gleason is professor of security studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.  The Marshall Center is a partnership between the German Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Department of Defense.  This article does not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense. 

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Central Asia

Why Central Asian Jihadists are Inspired by the US-Taliban Agreement?

Uran Botobekov

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Abu Yusuf Muhajir, the leader of Katibat Imam al-Bukhari group (second left)

Central Asian Jihadists Congratulate Taliban and Threaten Five ‘Stans’

Al-Qaeda-backed Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups were highly encouraged by the US-Taliban agreement which was signed in February 2020, aiming to bring peace to Afghanistan. Some Uzbek groups such asKatibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB), Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), and Tajik militants of Jamaat Ansarullah (JA), and Uighur fighters of Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) from China’s Xinjiang region, have already expressed their clear opinion about this particular deal through their respective Telegram accounts. Some of the groups congratulated the agreement, while others dedicated emotional eulogies to the Taliban.

The KIB which is formed primarily from Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz militants from Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley, was one of the first organizations to congratulate the Taliban, denominating as a “the great victory of the Islamic Ummah”. On February 29, 2020, Abu Yusuf Muhajir, the leader of KIB’s Syrian wing, in his congratulatory letter said: “The US and NATO forces, who imagine themselves to be the rulers of the entire world and the divine judges of human destinies, and claim divinity on earth have stunned the world with their humiliation, disgrace, and failure of the crusade.”

The KIB leader proceeds by saying that “the Americans were forced to sign an agreement with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which they considered a helpless crowd and below their dignity, but they [the Taliban] survived all difficulties with the support of Allah and gained strength.”

Then Abu Yusuf praises the Taliban’s former Amir, Mullah Mohammed Omar, “who did not flinch at all when America, intending to extinguish the beam of Allah, had attacked Afghanistan.” The Uzbek jihadist leader quotes Mullah Omar’s words: “Allah has promised us victory, and Bush [US President George W. Bush] has promised to defeat us, so we, slaves of Allah, shall see which of the two promises will be fulfilled.”

“Despite the fact that the whole world helped Kafirs-invaders, today they experience the bitterness of defeat, because Allah was against them” he continues. Further Abu Yusuf Muhajir continues to extol the Taliban: “Neither the attacks of the infidels nor the arrests of the Mujahideen [holy warriors] could force the Taliban to abandon the path of Sharia.[UB1]  If the Taliban complied with the slightest condition of infidels [he means US condition for the Taliban to extradite Osama bin Laden], they could remain in power. But the Taliban’s leaders and glorious Mujahideen did not bow their heads to the Kafirs.”

At the end, he congratulated the Islamic Ummah for the Taliban’s ‘victory’ and attached to his letter a congratulatory poem, “My Dear Taliban.” The author glorifies the Taliban with such phrases:

“You became a hospitable Ansar [local fighters] for Muhajireen[foreign fighters];

You broke the Russians yesterday, and  defeated NATO and the US today;

Your song “La illahaillallah” as spiritual wealth;

May Allah give You a blessed Nusrat [victory].”

 It should be noted that KIB’s chief terrorist Abu Yusuf Muhajir is distinguished by his relentless oratory, reciting eloquently Surah and Ayahs of the Quran during Juma Khutbah [preaching].

Also, the ideologists and militants of KTJ in Syria, which swore allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2015, enthusiastically praised the Taliban’s “successes”. Today, KTJ’s Uzbek jihadists are fighting alongside the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the largest Sunni jihadist group in Idlib, against the Bashar al-Assad’s forces. One of KTJ’s propagandists on Telegram posted a short message that “today is a great day for entire Ummah because, after the 18-year war in Afghanistan, America humiliatingly acknowledged its defeat from the Lions of Islam. This victory came at the behest of Allah, who subordinated the chief Shaitan to Mujahideen.”

Jihadists of Katibat Imam al-Bukhari before the attack, Idlib, Syria.

On March 15, 2020, KTJ’s jihadists, appreciating the Taliban’s “successes”, threatened the Central Asian states through their account on Telegram channel named “Mujahideen of Sham”. Uzbek militants furiously reacted to the words of Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, who during the signing ceremony of the US-Taliban agreement in Doha stated that Uzbekistan would not interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. KTJ mocks Uzbek’s top diplomat by calling him Tahgut [Quranic term: who rebels against Allah and transgresses his will] and threatens by stating “soon the Shaitan regimes of Central Asia will burn in the flames of Jihad ignited in Afghanistan and defeated America considering itself omnipotent.” KTJ jihadists lionize the Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who signed a peace treaty with the US. “In 2010, Baradar was in Karachi prison as a terrorist, and in 2020 he is already sitting in Doha, signing an agreement on the surrender of America, that is an amazing victory given by Almighty Allah”, says the end of the message.

The Uighur TIP on its radio Voice of Islam, published on its Muhsinlar.net website on March 7, 2020, praised the Taliban’s victory and described the Afghan government as traitor.

Taliban is Perceived as ‘Godfather’ of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Groups

Thus, the US-Taliban “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”, designed to put an end to the 18-year war, sharply raised the morale of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups. They did not hide their cheery emotions on social media,  and even further posted gushing praises to the Taliban and widely expressed ‘Takbir’ [“Allah is greater”, used in prayer, as well as to express victory, celebration or distress].

The reason for the delight of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups is apparent as many of them, such as the KIB, TIP, IJU, KTJ and IMU, have long-drawn and tight ties with both the Taliban and al Qaeda. They have a common goal in aiming to establish an Islamic government in Afghanistan, Central Asia and Chinese region Xinjian, which would be governed by Sharia law, under the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence. 

Many Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz and Uighur extremists,persecuted by government forces in their homeland, were forced to flee and found refuge in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rule from 1996 until 2001. The ideological views of the Central Asian Muhajireen were formed and crystallized under the influence of al Qaeda and the Taliban, which portrayed itself as an exemplary Ansar [local fighters]. It was this that predetermined the further fate of the Taliban when a U.S.-led invasion toppled its regime for providing refuge to al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden. Then the Central Asian jihadists so deeply integrated into the ranks of al Qaeda, which today has become the Taliban’s Achilles’ heel in its relations with Washington.

The main point of the Doha agreement is the Taliban’s obligation to sever ties with al Qaeda and other Central Asian terrorist groups and disallow them to threaten the security of the US and its allies using Afghan soil. However, the agreement lacks specific mechanisms, timelines and evidence of breaking the Taliban’s ties with al Qaeda.

Judging by their reactions, the Central Asian jihadists are not at all concerned about the Taliban’s commitment to break ties with al Qaeda. For them, the withdrawal of the US military from Afghanistan, the Taliban’s return to power and the establishment of Islamic Emirate based on Sharia law were a long-awaited treasured dream that could come true anytime from now. They are sure that after 18 years of joint jihad against “the Western crusaders” and when the sacred goal is just around the corner, the Taliban will not leave them.

Since July 2018, the UN Security Council has published several reports by monitoring teams responsible for assessing the status of al Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist organizations. These reports document the ongoing and close relationship of Central Asian terrorist groups with both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. For instance, according to a new report released by the UN Security Council in 2020, “in Afghanistan continuing activity by the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement [former name of TIP], Jamaat Ansarullah, KTJ, IJU, KIB and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Approximately 400 foreign terrorist fighters from China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan now plan to continue hostilities in conflict zones, transfer trained fighters to various countries to carry out terrorist acts and disseminate propaganda via the Internet.”

Regarding the ideological views on jihad and Sharia policy, the KIB is the closest group to the Taliban among the Salafi-Jihadi movements of the post-Soviet area. The Uzbek KIB, which publicly swore allegiance [Bayat] to the Taliban in 2014, has openly identified itself as an integral part of the Taliban. The group officially refers itself “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — Katibat Imam al Bukhari” and has the same emblem as the Taliban. KIB operates in both Afghanistan and Syria. The leader of the KIB’s Syrian wing is the aforementioned Abu Yusuf Muhajir, who congratulated the Taliban in poetic form. 

 KIB was sent to Syria from Afghanistan by the Taliban and Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of the Taliban’s top deputies and leader of the powerful al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network. According to the UN Security Council, “the leader of the Afghan wing of KIB, which mainly operates in the northern Afghan province of Faryab, is Jumaboi Aka, a former member of IMU.” The US State Department designated KIB to the list of global terrorist organizations affiliated with al Qaeda on March 22, 2018. The UN Security Council particularly concerned that “KIB leaders view Afghanistan as a new staging ground to project attacks against neighboring Central Asia countries.”

It is a well-known that the al Qaeda-affiliated TIP and the Taliban have a long and trusted relationship based on the general principles of Jihad. The UN Security Council confirms that “the ETIM/TIP’s leadership and Uighur militants remain present in Afghanistan.” The TIP’s emir, Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, who is a steadfast brother in arms of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Haibatullah Akhunzada, periodically claims his unfailing allegiance to both al Qaeda and the Taliban. The TIP’s top leader, who was even appointed a member of al Qaeda’s elite Shura Council in 2005, has ardently criticized ISIS as an ‘illegitimate’ Caliphate and tried to maintain the unity of Sunni Salafi-Jihadi groups under the leadership of the Taliban. Abdul Haqlater followed the example of his ideological patron, Osama bin Laden, who had personally sworn bayat to Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s leader.

Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups IJU, KTJ and IMU, which are mainly comprised of Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz, also fight under the auspices of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The UN Security Councilstated that “IMU is now integrated into Taliban forces operating in the Provinces of Faryab and Zabul”, while “IJU, led by Ilimbek Mamatov, is operating primarily in the Afghan Provinces of Badakhshan, Sari Pul and Takhar.” Almost all of the Central Asian terrorist groups in Afghanistan via Telegram channel reported that they had participated in Taliban’s “Al-Fath Jihadi Operations” last year.

The statement of Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhunzada after the Doha agreement, posted on the Taliban’s website, saying “the termination of occupation of Afghanistan…is the collective victory of the entire Muslim and Mujahid nation”, became a compass for Uzbek and Uighur militants. Thus, the UN reports show clearly the ongoing and close relationship between the Taliban and Central Asian terrorist groups. Therefore, it is clearly seen why there is a common thrill of the US-Taliban peace agreement which they labelled as “Victory”.

What the US-Taliban deal means for Central Asia?

Now that the US has legitimized the Taliban by concluding a “peace” deal with them, five Central Asian governments will be forced to build bridges with the Taliban. Prior to this, only Uzbekistan had informal contacts with the Taliban, organizing an Afghanistan peace conference in March 2018 in Tashkent.

Post-Soviet nations know that the Taliban will control Afghanistan in the future. For them, the main security challenge remains al Qaeda-linked Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups and the remnants of the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) operating in Afghanistan, who dream of building an Islamic Emirate in the Ferghana Valley of Central Asia.

The US-Taliban deal has already inspired Uzbek and Uighur militant groups fighting in Afghanistan and Syria. Their propaganda, as we witnessed above, claims that the Taliban vanquished the Americans and already forces them out of Afghanistan. KIB and IJU used the US-Taliban deal to recruit new militants from Central Asia. On April 2, 2020, Uzbek Jihadists media center Khorasan Ovozi (Voice of Khorasan) on the Telegram channel posted that “the Mujahideen managed to break the invincible US army, tomorrow we will come to you, but today you can make hijra [migration] to Khorasan and join our ranks.”

The Taliban factor also could provide inspiration and a morale boost to underground radical Islamists inside Central Asia and encourage them to raise arms against secular regimes. If in the future the Taliban comes to power and establishes Sharia rule in Afghanistan, this could increase the activity of the Islamic opposition in the Five “Stans”.

There are no illusions that the Taliban will so easily and quickly abandoned al Qaeda and Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups, who are closely aligned with the Bayat, which means the sacred Quranic Oath for all of them. Moreover, the Taliban’s structure is rather fragmented and networked, among which there are many local armed leaders who respect the relationship with Muhajireen. Therefore, it should be expected that their relationship will develop in an secretive manner until the US leaves the country.

Therefore, Central Asian pro-Moscow authoritarian regimes must seriously prepare for a new redistribution of power and resources in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops, which could be accompanied by hostilities and felt far beyond Afghanistan’s borders and for several years to come. The “peace” agreement strengthened the Taliban’s already strong position, who demonstrates its clear desire by forcing to seize power and not to share with anyone. After the deal, they intensified the attack on government forces.

If the US will not retain control to keep the Taliban on a shorter leash, then soon the main actors in the conflict may return to the battlefield and Afghanistan may again relive its four decades of civil war story. As the bitter experience of Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq has shown, al Qaeda, ISIS and other Central Asian terrorist groups take root only in war-torn soil.   

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