Is there a Taliban-ISIS double threat to Russia and Central Asia?

The ongoing Taliban offensive on the Afghan strategic stronghold of Kunduz, which is only 45 miles away from the border with Tajikistan, has raised concerns that there could be a spillover of radical Islamism into Central Asia, the soft underbelly of Russia. While the experts approached by Troika Report ruled out air strikes such as those that Russia is currently carrying out in Syria, some pre-emptive moves by Moscow were considered a likely option.

 

Afghan government forces in the city of Kunduz, October 5, 2015. Source: Zuma / TASS

The sudden deterioration of the regional security environment prompted Tajik President Emomali Rahmon to fly urgently to Sochi to meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin and discuss, among other things, the strengthening of “bilateral military-technical cooperation” and additional effective measures to make the southern border with Afghanistan as impregnable as possible.

Meanwhile, Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of Russia’s Chechen Republic, met with Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum. After the meeting Kadyrov voiced the opinion that Russia should provide substantial assistance to Afghanistan in blocking the advance of the Islamic State (ISIS) radical militant group, which is now targeting this region too.

However, Moscow-based experts with a career in security services, diplomacy and academic studies have conflicting views on the likelihood of Russia’s readiness to go one step further than its current pre-emptive preparations and get directly involved in assisting the Afghan government to fight off the Islamist militants. There is also no consensus on the level of security threat to Russia and Central Asia from the expansion of ISIS jihadists’ outreach to Afghanistan.

So how serious is the threat of the Taliban consolidating control of an area in the vicinity of Russia’s Central Asian allies? Alexei Malashenko, a security expert at Moscow's Carnegie Center, claims the danger is being exaggerated.

“I think it is no threat to Russia. Moreover, it is no threat to Tajikistan as well; its real challenges are coming from within the country. I do not envisage the Taliban attacking Tajikistan; they do not have the force to do it.”

“The Taliban is preoccupied with its own, domestic, Afghan affairs.”

However, this opinion is disputed by another expert. Troika Report approached General Vyacheslav Trubnikov, former First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, former Director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, and former ambassador to Afghanistan, for his insight into the matter. Should the recent victories by the Taliban convince and persuade Moscow that it is better to act pro-actively than retro-actively by enhancing security along Central Asian borders?

“My personal opinion is that the situation in Afghanistan has never been calm or stable. Russia and its allies under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) are well aware of these dangerous developments inside Afghanistan. The recent CSTO summit paid due attention to these developments. It is essential for all the CSTO member states to be always on the alert.

“I do not think there is a direct link between Islamic State and the Taliban movement. But any terrorist threat, no matter where it comes from, should be responded to with certain pre-emptive actions. Such actions are effective only if they are well coordinated. The meeting of CSTO members was a step in the right direction.”

— Given the air strikes currently being carried out by Russia in Syria, is there a possibility that a similar operation could be undertaken in Afghanistan?

“Up to now we have not received a request from the Afghan government to enter an agreement specifying collective actions. Unlike in Syria, whose legitimate government requested concrete assistance from Russia.”

In any case, the capture of the strategic city of Kunduz by Taliban fighters, later pushed out by Afghan security forces, marks an escalation of the civil war in a country that has not seen stability for almost 40 years. The Taliban is on the march. What kind of a security threat is the Taliban for Central Asia? Georgy Mirsky, professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and one of Russia’s leading experts on Middle East affairs, had the following to say to Troika Report:

“There are various Islamist organizations — we should not focus only on the Taliban and al-Qaeda — there is Islamic State there and others. They are Sunnis but of different ethnic backgrounds: Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Pashtuns, etc. If there is a rebellion somewhere in Tajikistan, the rebels can reckon on arms supplies from Afghanistan because after NATO forces leave there will be an awful lot of weapons around. Some of these weapons may be transferred by local Tajiks and Uzbeks to underground organizations inside Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.”

— What countermeasures would it make sense for Russia to take in a pro-active mode?

“I met these kinds of people back in 1995, and they told me that their real and ultimate goal will be… Kazakhstan, and then [the Russian republics of] Tatarstan and Bashkiria. They would not achieve this goal. But the point is that they are ready to kill and die for this to happen. Russia should put up a barrier to prevent such incursions.”

The resurgence of the Taliban, after displaying a higher degree of military operational skill during the attack on Kunduz, as well as reports that some of its units are merging with or being subjugated by ISIS militants, adds uncertainty to the fate of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and to the preservation of a secular regime in Kabul.

The international jihadist forces now assembling in Afghanistan are a destabilizing factor for the entire region. This sounds an alarm bell for Russia and its allies in Central Asia, which sooner or later will force them to undertake pre-emptive action.

The opinion of the writers may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.

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