28 January, 2010

Islamic Fundamentalism in Central Asia: Possibility or Paranoia?

Published in Global Politician on 27 Jan (http://www.globalpolitician.com/26194-central-asia)
In 2009, the world strategic community was mostly concerned with the ‘Af-Pak’ hot spot. In 2010, the trend is most unlikely to change, although new flashpoints like Yemen, Somalia and North Africa are likely to emerge in the geopolitical horizon.

But one very challenging aspect to the theoretical circles shall be the contemplation on the repercussions of the Af-Pak conflict on the Central Asian Republics (CAR). A couple of plausible reasons, among other things, may be posited for this future scenario.

First, a slow and silent revolution which pertains to Islamic religious
upthrust, is being staged in some nation-states of Central Asia: especially, in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Second, and more important, is the opening up of the countries of the region, apart from Turkmenistan to the influx of American logistics for the war against terror in Af-Pak.

To make matters clear, it must be stated that the International Crisis Group, in its update briefing issued on 15 December 2009, reported on the steady growth of Islamic proselytizers inside the prison-cells of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The data from the prisons of other states was insufficient to draw any logical inference, though the number of jailed Islamists was higher in those nations. Moreover, the said report also talks about the strong influence that the Islamists have over the prison-inmates, even petty criminals coming under their sway.

Against this backdrop, USA is embarking on a new rail and road network through Central Asia and Russia in order to reach the zone of conflict in Af-Pak. Till date; America used the routes emanating from the Pakistani port of Karachi and thereby supplied support materials to its troops in Afghanistan. The beefed up insurgency in Pakistan under the aegis of Al Qaeda and its local franchisee Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is definitely the major factor to have pushed the U.S. to search for alternative and rather peaceful avenues.

The fresh transit routes are collectively called by the U.S. Central Command as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). It has three components: the northern, the southern and the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan pathway. The northern part of the NDN, starting from the Latvian port of Riga connects Afghanistan via Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. On the other hand, the southern stream of NDN, originating at the Georgian port of Poti completely bypasses Russia and reaches Afghanistan through the terrains of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; through the Caspian Sea.

Thus it is probably evident that the Central Asian states are being drawn into the war against terror through their acquiescence in providing access to ‘non-lethal goods’ to reach the war-torn Afghanistan. By the middle of 2009, leaving apart Turkmenistan, the other four Central Asian states went into agreements with U.S.A. in order to be a part of NDN.

Presently, Islam is not the state religion in the CAR and the internal political structures are secular and sovereign. During the pre-1991 Soviet period, religion was at the backburner; being totally separated from politics. Even after the demise of the ‘Communist Umbrella’, religion was not allowed to take over the polity. Still, there are certain inherent institutional bottlenecks in these countries which do not augur well.

And nonetheless, there may be negative spin-offs from the crackdown that the governments of these nation-states employ to thwart any rise of fundamentalism. Even, peaceful preaching is reproached and proselytizers are incarcerated. On top of this; rampant corruption, poor governance and a dilapidated jail system in the CAR portend aggrandizement of Islamic Extremism.

In this regard, three main Islamist groups having a considerable base need to be mentioned. They are, in order of importance; the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ). Amongst these, the HuT seems to be the deadliest, at least in a long term scenario, though they advocate peaceful means of attaining an Islamic State.

The IMU commenced its activities in Uzbekistan but now has relocated to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. It suffered a jolt when its leader Tokhir Yuldashev was eliminated by a U.S. drone attack in August 2009. Presently, they are fighting alongside the TTP, against the Pakistani military at FATA. It is reported that its new leadership is desirous of taking the fight back to the CAR and overthrow the democratic regimes there.

In these circumstances, it may be a distinct possibility that the Al Qaeda and its local arms try to disrupt the CAR, more so because of the NDN. The fertile ground to launch their ideology and war may be provided by the mass mobilization achieved by HuT; consequent alienation of those ‘aligned masses’ from the mainstream due to repressive policies of the respective regimes of the CAR and the underpinning of violence provided by militant groups like IMU.

A stable CAR is not only a pre-requisite for the American led NATO forces, but an imperative for the security and stability of South Asia and Middle East. Keeping in view the past history of the CAR, it seems difficult for the extremists to make inroads, though occasional terror-strikes may be in the offing. And the frequency of such attacks may inflate in the near future.

In fact, the Taliban has arrived in close proximity to the border areas of the CAR as they have surged in the Kunduz province of Afghanistan (to the south of the Tajikistan border). They were also sighted near the borders of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2009.

Can there be any Indian role envisaged in this context?

India surely can and strategically should, get involved in the building of infrastructure in the CAR, especially collaborate with U.S. in developing the road and rail network of Central Asia. It has already entrenched itself in Afghanistan and further involvement in the CAR would benefit it in the long run. The Indian ride shall not be smooth as Pakistan’s hypothesis of an ‘Indian encirclement’ will be a stronger case then and to what extent U.S.A. would allow Indian incursions remains a matter of speculation.

Nevertheless, if geopolitical considerations are shrugged off and geo-economics is given due weightage, then Greater Central Asia and South Asia as well as the world economy would stand to gain from such a collaborative venture.

The situation in Af-Pak is perilous and no wise brain will want the terrorism to spill-over to the neighbouring areas. But to contain the war within a strict geographical territory would require many ‘wise heads’. An extended ‘arc of conflict’ encompassing the CAR would be an enactment of the proverbial ‘domino effect’ and can spell doom for the region.

Thus Richard Holbrooke has rightly pointed out in his briefing at the Brookings Institution on 7 Jan 2010: “Without exception, every country in the region agrees that what’s happening in Afghanistan and in the border regions is of direct vital strategic interest to them as well, and I need to underscore that.”

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