Will Afghanistan Take Central Asia Down with It?

Worries of a conflagration ignore the region's history.

While U.S. foreign-policy makers are currently preoccupied with the Middle East—chaos in Egypt, raging civil war in Syria and ongoing violence in Libya—military strategists are drawing up plans to deal with a region that many see as the next hotbed of instability: Central Asia. Long seen as a powder keg, according to the current thinking, the region is susceptible to extremism, violence, and instability emanating from Afghanistan and spilling across the border to the north.

It is of course important for government agencies to prepare for any eventuality, including the most dire. Yet we believe the alarmism in this case is based on faulty assumptions.

U.S. strategists have long imagined that chaos might spread from Afghanistan into Central Asia. In the 1980s, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the CIA in fact tried to facilitate the spread of insurgency from the mujahedeen it was supporting to infect the Washington’s ideological rival to the north. Yet they found the majority of Soviet Central Asians unsympathetic to the Afghan cause.

By the same token, today’s strategists exaggerate the threat Afghanistan poses to northern neighbors. Proponents of the “spillover” are highly selective in the data points they bring to bear, and like nineteenth-century British imperialists or today’s American neoconservatives, they have fallen victim to “mappism”: the practice of making predictions about political trends based on geographic proximity and facts that can be easily displayed on maps, such as ethnic settlement patterns, population density, and natural resources. Such an approach has its merits, but it also means neglecting other details—such as culture, history and political practices—which can make all the difference in understanding which scenario plays out.

While the details of how a spillover might unfold are usually left ambiguous, statements by defense and intelligence planners suggest the following scenario: after NATO withdraws its troops, the Afghan government, lacking a robust military presence and sufficient funds to buy off rival power brokers, will weaken to the point of collapse or find itself drawn into a civil war.

Then, sometime after, elements of Afghan chaos spread across to border to the weak, corrupt and poorly governed Central Asian states, whose populations share religious and ethnic ties with groups fighting in Afghanistan. The result is a region-wide conflagration—collapsing states, widespread violence, Islamic extremism, rising drug trafficking—a nightmare scenario with dire implications for U.S. interests. We see three plausible mechanisms by which the admittedly unlikely spillover could take place: militants, refugees and ideological inspiration.

First, militants engaged in an Afghan civil war can cross the Amu Darya to recruit Central Asians to their cause or to overthrow their own governments. For this to happen, two assumptions must be correct: that NATO is holding back the deluge of militants, and that militants would indeed target Central Asia. In fact, NATO does not prevent Afghans from slipping across now if they want to, so there is unlikely to be a major change next year. Even if, technically, the crossing of Afghan borders with the Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen neighbors is easy thanks to corrupt border-guard agencies, Central Asia has never been “invaded” by flows coming from Afghanistan.

Borders do not keep all the bad guys (nor drugs or any other illicit goods) out, but states are good at sealing borders when they want to, and crossing the Pamir Mountains is not easy. If the recent past is any guide to the present—and it should be—then the lack of militant penetration into Central Asia during the last Afghan Civil War (1992-96), when the post-Soviet states were much weaker, should give pause.

But do militants actually have their sights on Central Asia? Despite what the region’s leaders have claimed, the presence of anti-government Islamic groups is small, so militants would be starting almost from scratch. Moreover, the Taliban groups that may take power in Kabul are not interested in an all-out war with their neighbors, and some, such as the Quetta Shura, have explicitly stated they will maintain good economic relations with the Central Asian states, in part because Afghanistan imports electricity from the region. They would therefore be unlikely to support calls for toppling established regimes.

Pages