Fighting in northern Afghanistan between the Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Daesh has greatly escalated recently. ISIS militants have spread their activities beyond their original base in the eastern province of Nangarhar in an attempt to expand their foothold in the country, as the Taliban seek to stop them. This was not an unexpected turn of events. In truth, it’s only natural for ISIS to move somewhere else after being defeated in Syria and Iraq.
While public attention around the world has been riveted on the events in Syria, ISIS in Afghanistan has grown stronger as defectors from other militant groups, particularly the Pakistani Taliban, have come to join its ranks.
The two rival groups are also separately fighting the government troops. The Afghan security forces are having a hard time. This month, US State Secretary Mike Pompeo went to Afghanistan on a surprise visit to encourage peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban. He said the US was willing to take part in the negotiation process.
All in all, there are about 12,000 ISIS militants fighting in Afghanistan, many of them coming from Central Asia. Roughly 1,500 ISIS fighters are operating in Jowzjan province. This force is not big enough to drive out the Afghan security forces or pose a threat to neighboring states, such as Turkmenistan for instance, but was anyone talking about ISIS in that region even just a couple of years ago? Nor is the Taliban a friend of Turkmenistan. Both movements pose a threat, but ISIS’s strategy is focused on fanning out across borders.
The disruption of the Turkmenistan — China gas pipeline, with a yield of 55 billion cubic meters per year, will be a heavy blow to the economies of those states. Unlike Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which are members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Turkmenistan will have to fend for itself if attacked.
The CSTO is a group with some teeth that can offer real protection and fend off security threats. It has a 17,000-member collective rapid-reaction force and a specialized peacekeeping brigade. The peacekeeping unit is trained to operate under the auspices of the UN. The Combat Brotherhood-2017 military exercise deployed 12,000 personnel, 1,500 pieces of equipment, and 90 aircraft from all the members: Russia; Belarus; Armenia; Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan; and Tajikistan. This massive training event is held regularly in order to keep those forces in a constant state of combat readiness. Last year the CSTO adopted a new security strategy that will be effective until 2025 and which includes an expanded list of threats to be addressed.
The CSTO is ready to deploy its forces at the Tajik-Afghan border if necessary. Command-and-control entities are being prepared for combat operations. Tajikistan is secure to its CSTO membership. Moreover, the CSTO can cooperate with the powerful Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). An idea to merge the two organizations has been floating around since 2014. Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are members of both the CSTO and the SCO. Both organizations have signed a document on the priorities of their cooperation.
The Turkmen Army boasts only 18,500 troops (3,000 in the air force and 500 in the navy). It also has a 12,000-strong border-guard force. Personnel training is a problem. The border is poorly protected and drug trafficking is almost unhindered. Drugs travel onward to Kazakhstan and Russia. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted, the NATO military contingent in Afghanistan is doing nothing to halt drug production and trafficking.
Turkmenistan is also threatened by the religious extremism that is spreading throughout the country. A large number of Turkmen in regions of Afghanistan, who are traditionally strong supporters of the Taliban, have switched their allegiance to ISIS in the last year. Inter-tribal feuds don’t make the country any stronger.
The situation is precarious, but Turkmen officials deny there is any problem along the border with Afghanistan, rejecting any offers of assistance from friendly neighboring states that are affected by the flow of drugs and the potential threat.
Uzbekistan is less exposed to invasion because the Afghan border is short enough to be well protected. Any militants would have to enter via Tajikistan, where Russia has a military presence. But the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan pledged its allegiance to ISIS in 2014. Roughly 1,500 Uzbeks have joined the group’s ranks to fight in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. They can always come home.
The spread of jihadist ideology could undermine the country from within. Tashkent withdrew from the CSTO in 2012. It has been a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) since 2001. Both groups handle security issues but, unlike the CSTO, the SCO has no rapid-reaction force to lend a helping hand in a crisis. Last year Uzbekistan held its first joint military exercise with Russia in 12 years.
The jihadists are a shared menace. In 2017, Russian special services uncovered 56 sleeper cells, detained 1,018 militants, eliminated 78 terrorists, and banned 17,500 people suspected of having ties to terrorist organizations from entering the country. Uyghur terrorists are also fighting in the ranks of ISIS and pose a threat to China. According to Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Alexander Bortnikov, “The bandits are most actively moving [from Syria and Iraq] to the territory of Afghanistan, where Daesh positions have already been established, and from there they are able to infiltrate Central Asia, Iran, China, and India. Using their foothold in Afghanistan, the terrorists are also attempting to carry out attacks against Russia.”
The potential spillover of extremists from northern Afghanistan into the states of Central Asia is a shared problem that must be tackled jointly. The threat can be effectively countered within the framework of the CSTO and SCO.