Following a chaotic US withdrawal in August of 2021, Afghanistan has been under control of the Taliban, the fundamentalist group which had ruled the country briefly in the 90’s. A security vacuum left by US forces has sparked concerns among neighbors that conflict might not end at the nation’s borders. The fear of extremist spillover from the heart of Asia has galvanized responses from regional states anxious about the infiltration of radicals on their own soil. As the memory of Afghanistan begins to dull in the minds of the international community, can the world afford to ignore the potential proliferation of violence which could come as a product of the Taliban victory?
Since the US departure, the Taliban has solidified control of most of Afghanistan, but recent weeks have seen a significant uptick in activity by their rival terror group, the Islamic State. The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) has launched attacks on civilians of the Shiite and Sufi sects as well as ethnic minority groups. Their attacks have claimed over a hundred lives in the past month, reflecting a growing confidence in the group’s ability to undermine Taliban control. ISKP also claimed to have fired rockets into neighboring Uzbekistan, stoking fears the terrorist organization may try to expand into the Central Asian region.
While initial concerns abounded following the Taliban’s takeover, as the governing force in Afghanistan today, the group is incentivized to find a place in the status quo, rather than aggravate already tense relations with its neighbors. This is especially true given the mountain of internal crises the group is already underprepared to handle. Conversely, smaller more extreme factions, including chiefly the Islamic State, have interests in sowing discord and chaos to undermine Taliban rule. A way of accomplishing this is to conduct cross-border attacks and perpetuate intimidation at home. By demonstrating their fervor and independence at the expense of the Taliban leadership, groups like ISKP also seek to lure hardline fighters to their cause, particularly those with experience in combat and insurgency. This could prove to be especially threatening when considering the internationality of some of these fighters. Those hailing from the Uyghur region of China and various Central Asian states will be some of the most willing to forge an alliance with the Islamic State, in order to gain support for incursions into their home countries. Such attacks could be majorly destabilizing for an already impoverished and insecure region and threaten to bleed from Afghanistan outward.
The Taliban’s goals, as they have presented them, include the establishment of an emirate in Afghanistan, while in contrast, ISKP is part of a larger international effort to establishment a caliphate necessarily through the dissolution of existing borders. This was demonstrated in Syria and Iraq, where the group saw its greatest success, committing a vast number of atrocities to advance this goal. While as of yet, ISKP hasn’t tried to seize or hold territory in Afghanistan or Central Asia, their current strategy appears aimed at building support for their cause while undermining the governing authorities. If they manage to accomplish both goals, then developing territorial control and transforming from a network of cells into a coherent armed force will be next.
Three Central Asian states border Afghanistan: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Each of these states is governed by largely secular, authoritarian governments, deeply concerned about the instability which could be brought on by a proliferation of radical Islamist extremism. Of these, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are considered most potentially vulnerable to a spillover effect from Afghanistan.
Tajikistan is a deeply impoverished country with a military considered woefully underequipped and disorganized. In 2020 unemployment was at 7.5%, with an expected 17% of the country’s youth without jobs. These conditions make terror groups a more attractive option to those seeking employment and purpose. Additionally, the state’s long and mountainous border with Afghanistan make it a prime target for groups seeking to infiltrate the region. Additionally, the former Soviet state suffered a five-year civil war in the 90s in which the current government fought a combination of rebel groups which included a significant number of Islamist fighters. Many of the more radical veterans of this conflict fled to Afghanistan following the UN-sponsored ceasefire. Fears exist that grievances from this war, and existing social fault lines coupled with the unfavorable economic situation in the country could make it fertile soil for conflict and extremism.
While never having undergone the same degree of internal conflict, Uzbekistan is also a potential victim of spillover from Afghanistan. Religious radicals have long existed in Central Asia’s most populous country, with many hardliners operating under the banner of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a terrorist group which in the past fought alongside the Taliban and has more recently pledged support to the Islamic State. The IMU advocates the overthrow of the Uzbek government and its replacement with a fundamentalist religious state. Persistent crackdowns on religious expression and organization by the Tashkent government has led to the radicalization of some members of Uzbek society, many of whom sympathize with the goals of the Taliban. With the Taliban takeover, the IMU and similar groups could see support from Afghanistan, now that the fight against US forces is over. It is believed that hundreds of Uzbek fighters are still in Afghanistan, and with the war now largely over, many may seek to return home with their newfound skills and knowledge. While the financial and political conditions offer fertile soil for radicalism, the stability of Central Asian states has been underestimated before, and these governments may prove more resilient than one would give them credit for. Economic viability is and will be a key determinant for long term susceptibility to violent extremism, a condition which can be alleviated with international aid and selective support.
The United States may no longer have a major armed presence in Afghanistan, but it is critical that Washington not lose sight of the potential fallout of the Taliban rise. Especially when considering non-Taliban groups which may have even more belligerent designs for the region, with fewer constraints. Military action in the wake of the Afghan withdrawal is largely unfeasible, but economic and intelligence support for states facing pressure from radicals in the region is still an achievable goal. The emergence of a significant transnational terror crisis in Central Asia would draw the US’ attention and potentially endanger American interests or assets elsewhere. Washington should be conscious of its failings in Afghanistan, but not allow them to shutter the area permanently in the American mindset. The United States will no longer be the focal actor of the region but can still influence it enough to prevent an outpouring of extremism or a major destabilization of the area which could endanger both national and international interests.