Security in Central Asia could take a turn for the worse when the United States and the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) remove the bulk of their combat troops next year. Afghanistan is still the current main centre of gravity for Islamic radicalism in the region, but other countries are experiencing their own struggles with home-grown militant movements.
On top of the diplomatic foot dragging, Afghanistan’s poppy harvest is still churning out phenomenal amounts of opiates each season. Despite almost US$7 billion spent by the US government in attempts to eradicate the poppy harvests in the country since 2001, the production of black tar heroin (a less refined version of its better-known cousin, white heroin) threatens to reach historic highs.
This is having destabilising effects in downstream trafficking destinations such as Russia and Iran. Iran has fought hard against the trafficking of heroin into their country. According to estimates by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, in 2008 Iranian youth consumed almost half of the total 2,800 tons of heroin produced in Afghanistan that year.
This has lead to a disturbing rise in HIV and AIDS infection in the Islamic Republic over the years. Official estimates place the numbers of addicts today between 2 million and 3.5 million heroin users in the country, with that amount quickly growing. While their government has devoted impressive resources to fight traffickers, with over 3,200 Iranian soldiers dead in the struggle to date, the supply of heroin keeps coming.
Afghanistan is still the major growing platform and ground floor for heroin production, although Mexico’s drug cartels are trying close that gap. The Taliban use the profits gained from selling opiates abroad to finance their battle against international troops.
Given these dynamics, working to limit the spread of heroin could be something Iran and the US may wish to cooperate on in the future. This will, of course, depend on whether some US forces are allowed to stay in the country after 2014.
Afghanistan's defence minister could sign a security pact allowing some US troops to remain in the country after 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry suggested December 3. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been reluctant to sign such a deal, saying he might not do so until after elections in April 2014. Both al Qaeda and the Taliban are eager to exploit any power vacuum while other groups around the region will be ready to join the battle for ideological supremacy should the Americans leave for good.
None of this was likely foreseen when the US government decided to intervene in Central Asian affairs back in 2001. But changing the status quo revealed the barely healed rifts between tribes and ideologies which have proved impossible to repair since.
Picking up the broom to sweep the Taliban and al Qaeda from the country was meant to be a short-term mission. Al Qaeda has been eviscerated in the past decade and is now only a shadow of its former trans-national self, yet the Taliban has proven to be a different beast altogether.
They were far more resilient than their international terrorist friends and enjoyed a deep interaction with the Afghan populace, which they exploited for their own gains. The current and future strength of the Taliban was in their ability to melt convincingly into the surrounding cities and countryside when the Americans and ISAF launched their campaign. In the face of overwhelming force, the group decided that discretion was the better part of valour.
Only when the combat had calmed down did the Taliban regroup. They returned to the battlefield in far larger numbers to wage a brutal guerrilla war against the international forces. That battle has been cycling through ups and downs of violence for over a decade and the United States is only marginally in a better strategic place today than it was in 2001. The future for the broken country remains bleak, and there are few tangible results to show for more than ten years of fighting.
The high dispersion of tribes, ethnicities, and religion – and their almost ritualistic preference for combat - was never going to easily cohere with the Western model for centralised government or our common understanding of a nation-state. So there is little surprise Afghanistan is today only a semi-functioning state.
Afghanistan and many of the other “stan” nations (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) have certainly benefited from US military presence and diplomatic interaction. Yet they remain very worried about their precarious security situations. And each will require continued support once the US departs.
Ironically, Western support for a few ethnic groups has proven to be a double-edged sword. Not only has the strange mix of repressive and pseudo-democratic governments of the “stan” countries been bolstered, militant groups such as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Haqqani network (HQN) has grown in strength for similar reasons.
Although each group shares a vague Islamic religious affinity, coordination between the groups is probably unlikely to develop. It is not clear whether the various group’s goals are built to destabilise their own governments or whether they are looking only to carve out autonomous zones.
How the security forces of these weak countries intend to achieve long-term safety when the Americans leave the region is still unknown. Few of them possess sufficient resources to divide between day-to-day responsibilities and fighting militants.
Russia and China would be happy to offer their services, because controlling the spread of militancy is in all of their national interests. However, the result of encouraging two massive rival countries into further competition in Central Asia could itself undermine the security of these states.
US General Douglas MacArthur cautioned for decades against the folly of attempting to fight wars in Asia. He was referring at the time to the lessons he learned in Korea, but the message is worth pondering today. Those campaigns never end very well for the larger powers. The horrible Russian and British experiences should have been instructive for US planners before they committed so much treasure and personnel to the Afghanistan effort.
Central Asia and Afghanistan especially, are poised to experience significant economic growth should they develop their large energy fields and mineral deposits. But the threat of militancy could deter foreign investors and economic development if it cannot be shown to be under control.
There is a growing feeling of urgency among American and NATO strategists to create a more robust and longer-lasting presence of security in Afghanistan before their expiry is up. Using Afghanistan as a base of operations takes obvious advantage of the existing network of military bases and a decade-long history of interaction with the people on the ground.
However, if a good plan for security is not implemented by the close of 2014, instability could begin to grip the region earlier than expected and undo even the small advancements made by the international effort. The clock is ticking for Kabul, Washington, and Brussels to come up with a plan.