Will Afghanistan Take Central Asia Down with It?

Worries of a conflagration ignore the region's history.

If not a deliberate campaign by militants, what about the inadvertent spread of chaos through refugees? Here, the supposition is that coethnic (Uzbek, Tajik) refugees fleeing violence in Afghanistan stream across the border, overwhelm state capacity, and drive locals to take up arms. A similar sequence of events can be seen in Central Africa from Congolese refugees, or from the civil war in Syria. Yet unlike those cases, Central Asian governments are unwilling to accept large numbers of refugees and have the ability to keep them out. In the 1990s Afghan Civil War, despite the humanitarian need, the “frontline” states of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan together took in only a few tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, compared with 2.6 million in Pakistan and Iran.

So if the spread of people is unlikely, then what about ideas? For a true mappist, this is the most enticing yarn to spin, as the religious and cultural affinities appear from afar preordained to produce spillover. If the Taliban ends up taking power in Afghanistan, strategists fear a bandwagon effect, as locals try to emulate Afghanistan and install new, Islamist regimes. But what kind of inspiration could Afghanistan provide?

Despite cultural similarities on the surface, Central Asians regard the Taliban with disdain. They are justifiably fed up with their corrupt, repressive leaders. But the image of protracted violence in Afghanistan (followed by public executions, prohibitions on music and alcohol, and stoning for adultery) is certain to weaken domestic Islamists, buttress the legitimacy of secular-authoritarian regimes, and convince ordinary people to accept the devil they know. Central Asians interested in Islamic ideas tend to admire the Turkish or the Malaysian model, and remain influenced by Islamic debates emanating from Russia, but do not consider the Taliban as a model to follow.

U.S. officials must keep in mind that the spillover narrative supports two claims from Central Asian governments that are self-serving, erroneous, and counterproductive for U.S. policy.

First, Central Asian governments pushing the spillover claim: we are threatened and need help. In arguing that their sovereignty is at risk, they have successfully played the victim card vis-à-vis their Afghan neighbor. Thus, U.S. policy for the region post-2014 is focused on border security and the fight against drug trafficking, two programs that have yielded little success. The expected rise in narcotraffic post-2014 will not be a spillover from Afghanistan but “business as usual” carried out by senior officials in both Afghanistan and the Central Asian states. Moreover, the “nonlethal” material to be given to Afghan and Central Asian armies by NATO nations upon the latter’s exit could assist Central Asian armies and security services in repressing their own populations.

A second and more dangerous claim is that All bad things come from outside. The tendency to blame others comes naturally from the region’s politicians, and is often sold to ill-informed observers. Yet the perception of Afghanistan as the region’s scourge inevitably distracts from domestic political failings. Certainly, Afghanistan has its share of problems, but a focus on “containing” Afghanistan relieves Central Asian regimes of scrutiny over their own contributions to future instability.

The reality is that the greatest threat to Central Asian states comes from within—in the form of social inequality, corruption and blatant disregard for human rights. Future instability need not appear in the form of violent jihad, but can come from more mundane sources, like political factionalism and struggles over scarce resources. Policy makers might then be faced with a reverse spillover, when homegrown Central Asian instability spills over onto Afghan territory, as was the case during the riots in Khorog, Tajikistan, in July 2012.

If the long-term stability and prosperity of Central Asia is the goal of U.S. policy in the region, American involvement should focus on domestic issues, foremost by working toward making Central Asian states more accountable toward their citizens. The risk of investing heavily in programs spawned by the spillover myth, such as border security and counter-trafficking, is not only that they are destined to fail, but that they may end up enabling the outcomes we seek to prevent.

Scott Radnitz is an associate professor of international studies & director of the Ellison Center for Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies at the University of Washington. Marlene Laruelle is a research professor & director of the Central Asia Program, Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University.