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
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.
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.