The region has been pretty much open territory since the 1990s, and is being eyed by ISIS and several major powers.
In 1991, the Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time. In its place would emerge the Russian Federation, assuming the role of successor state. Stripped of its superpower status, Moscow also lost a significant amount of territory, including all of Central Asia. Part of the reason the Soviet Union collapsed was due to a decade-long war just south in Afghanistan, in response to a coup that toppled the pro-communist leadership. The Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, and the Taliban grew to be the most powerful group of warlords by the mid-1990s.
Central Asia’s Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. / The Astana Times.
In 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan to root out Al Qaeda, and we have been there ever since. Now the longest-running war in American history, the War in Afghanistan was recently back in the headlines after Trump promised to increase troop levels there by several thousand. Though the roughly 8,400 American troops in the country today pales in comparison to the 100,000 troops that were there in 2010, the announcement nonetheless demonstrated the US’ commitment to remaining in the country for some time.
Why not cut our losses and leave? Departing in defeat would signal to the American public and rest of the world that the US military was unable to beat a bunch of tribal militias. There are also potentially trillions of dollars of natural resources under Afghanistan's surface, just waiting to be turned into financial gains for our lovely energy industry. But a major geopolitical reason is the fact that Afghanistan is the cornerstone of Central Asian stability, and whatever happens to it could be a blueprint for what happens to the rest of the region.
Language and dialects in Central Asia. / Washington Post.
Like Afghanistan, the countries that make up Central Asia are predominantly Muslim. However, as we can see from the picture above, they are all somewhat ethnically, linguistically, and culturally mixed. Nationalism is a foreign concept to some people in the more diverse countries, based on previous loyalties and customs. The bigger countries around them are diverse too, but with stronger national foundations.
Until 1991, Central Asian countries were all ruled by Russia. Most of the strongmen that currently rule them have remained largely unopposed since the end of the Cold War, and their leadership qualities vary. The more-powerful countries that surround Central Asia are simply waiting for the opportunity to expand their influence, as soon as instability returns.
In 2014, Vladimir Putin is noted to have said that there had never been a country called Kazakhstan, and that the country was created by current leader Nursultan Nazarbayev. Russians constitute almost a quarter of Kazakhstan’s population, and following the annexation of Crimea, there are fears that it could be the next choice for Russian foreign adventurism.
Russia maintains the strongest military capabilities in Central Asia, and has several military bases dotted throughout. It may not have the same reach that the Soviet Union used to enjoy, but Russia is still the foremost power in the area. If Central Asia begins to show signs of fragmentation, expect to see Russian troops rush in to “secure the border” with Kazakhstan, as well as any other areas with a significant Russian-speaking population.
The New Silk Road economic project aims to increase China’s ability to trade with the rest of the world. Many of these trading corridors will pass through Central Asia, and the region must appear economically and militarily stable in order for that dream to come to fruition. The Chinese have spent billions of dollars in an attempt to bring the region into their economic sphere of influence, so that there will be no complications when the Silk Road is up and running.
However, the trade routes must remain stable in order for the project to appear viable. China does not have the same military capabilities Russia has in the area, but it is willing to bribe its way to the top of the totem pole. For example, the Taliban recently cleared China to mine for copper in Afghanistan, while Beijing continues to offer economic incentives to the Afghan government. So long as warlords and armed forces are paid sufficiently, China can expect to keep its dream alive.
The country will continue to buy loyalty throughout Central Asia, and will increase its efforts in Afghanistan once American forces leave. Nonetheless, China has to be wary of Russia, which could easily threaten the supply routes China will need to sustain its economy.
There are roughly three million Afghan refugees currently in Iran. The picture a few paragraphs above shows Iran’s cultural links with Afghanistan, but also with Tajikistan. By 2005, Iran became one of Tajikistan’s most important trading partners, and has actively actively tried to court the country’s leadership away from Russia and into a so-called “Persian Axis”.
After years of fighting its way through proxy in Iraq and with its own soldiers in Syria, Iran no doubt appreciates being able to expand its power through cultural and monetary means to the east. However, should a breakdown in Central Asian Security occur, we can assume that Tehran will do whatever it can to keep and expand its footprint eastwards too.
When Trump dropped the Mother Of All Bombs on an ISIS position in Afghanistan in April, it became apparent to the American public that the group was active in that country as well. ISIS has held a presence there since 2015, and the general lawlessness that characterizes Afghanistan has allowed it to grow.
As ISIS continues to lose territory in the Middle East, it will be looking for a backup in order to prolong its caliphate. As a predominantly Muslim region where Al Qaeda flourished just south, Central Asia will also remain a prime target for the group and its destabilization efforts. Until the ideology of ISIS is no longer relevant, the terrorist group can bring chaos anywhere.
Result of a bombing attack on Afghan army troops. / PressTV.
Save for a miracle, there will be no rescuing Afghanistan (in terms of keeping it together). The government controls less than 60% of the country’s territory, and is plagued by competitive corruption on behalf of the major powers that surround it. Furthermore, some countries (Pakistan, Iran) actively aid the Taliban and ISIS, threatening the government’s ability to function.
Afghanistan is being continuously dissected, economically and militarily, and the local authoritative power is incapable of controlling the country. Ironically, the Taliban probably could control the country, but only after they finish fighting not only American and NATO forces, but ISIS as well.
As soon as the US leaves, Afghanistan will begin to break up further. Though its borders might not officially change overnight, local powers, aided by foreign money and firepower, will divide up the country themselves. Afghanistan’s national foundation is weak. Its population is made up of people from various different and often warring tribes, and foreign powers promote violence more. If widespread instability truly engulfs Afghanistan again, it will begin to creep up into Central Asia. The local powers around it will act in the name of security, and see what they can get. Whether this development occurs or not, it’s hard to say which scenario is worse for the Afghan people.🔷
“Two basic patterns of conquest are evident in the history of Central Asia: that of the barbarian, accomplished with arms and ephemeral in its results, and that of the civilized — slow, rather unspectacular, achieved through technological superiority and absorption.” (History of Central Asia, by Gavin R.G. Hambly & Denis Sinor, Encyclopædia Britannica)