The attention to Central Asia as a possible new arena of civilizational war against the Islamic radicals is constantly growing. Dosym Satpayev, a well-known Kazakh political analyst, Director at Risk Assessment Group, an Almaty-based think-tank, addresses this and other issues in an interview with EADaily.
Russia is concerned over the increased activities of envoys of the “Islamic State” (IS or ISIL – an extremist organization banned in Russia and a number of other states). According to Russia’s Defense Ministry, this directly threatens the security of Central Asia and Russia. It appears that after the operation in Syria, Moscow is ready to settle the problems in Afghanistan. Could you, please, assess the risks for Russia and Central Asian countries?
- First, Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict may prompt a new wave of terror assaults. One should not forget that there is still terrorist underworld in the North Caucasus, where many Saudi and other Arab funds operated traditionally, which helped to disseminate radical Salafi ideas in Kazakhstan too. Radical organizations operating in Russia have already had a negative impact on our country. I mean that there is a kind of bridge linking the terrorist underworlds of the North Caucasus and the Caspian Sea regions, including the western regions of Kazakhstan. By the way, ISIL has already addressed Russian radicals calling them to attack Russia from inside.
Second, recruiting of the citizens of Kazakhstan and other countries in Central Asia by ISIL continues. Part of the ISIL militants may return to their motherlands, which threatens the countries in the region, though the Kazakh authorities tried to take preventive measures, for instance, by toughening the criminal legislation.
Third, we need to follow the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan more closely. It poses a big threat to us, as Afghanistan is located closer to us than Syria or Iraq. Judging from the latest development in Kunduz, the Taliban movement has intensified its activity in the northeast of Afghanistan. Radical organizations have become more active also on the borders with Central Asia. Some of them have created ‘The Terrorist Internationale’ under ISIL’s franchise actively recruiting citizens of the Central Asian countries.
At the same time, the Afghanistan-Tajikistan and Afghanistan-Turkmenistan borders are the vulnerable points in the system of our regional security. The terrorist can attack them and break into the Caspian Sea region, given the low combat efficiency of the local armed forces. This poses a direct threat also to the energy and national security of Kazakhstan. The radical groups will get access to the western regions of Kazakhstan, where Jihadists, including the radical underworld of the North Caucasus, have become quite active during the last years. With the present course of events, an attempt to seize the oil and gas deposits from Kazakhstan, like it happened in Iraq, seems quite realistic. In such case, at once several targets will be attacked. First, it will be the oil and gas interests of the West in the region. Second, the Sunnite radicals will gain one more foothold not far from Iran. Third, the risks of terror assaults will increase throughout the Caspian Sea region, including Russia, as the solid bridge of terror North Caucasus –West Kazakhstan will become even stronger.
What do you think about the Islamic State in Afghanistan? Do Russia and U.S. really fight the “Islamic State” or it is a kind of smokescreen for them to implement their own plans?
- First and foremost, ISIL just like Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are the creation of geopolitics and actions of separate countries. Saudi Arabia and its partners in the coalition may be interested in ISIL’s actions, as they fear Iran’s growing influence in Syria and other Middle East countries, particularly, Yemen. By the way, this June I was at an international conference in Iran where I had an opportunity to listen to the speech of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei about seven foreign policy principles of Iran. It is interesting that according to Ayatollah Khamenei, the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” is backed by U.S. Meantime, some U.S. experts say that ISIL was initiated by the Bashar al-Assad in order to split opponents of the Syrian regime. All those contradicting suppositions show that the conflicting parties are trying to use ISIL for their own goals either as a tool of war or as part of propaganda to discredit their rivals.
As to Afghanistan, I have already mentioned above that a certain organization is being formed from radicals of various nationalities, mainly, the citizens of Central Asian countries, which uses the ISIL’s franchise to ‘legitimize’ its activity. By the way, I am not sure that the extremists that have been rendered harmless recently in Kyrgyzstan were part of ISIL. After all, some ten people can gather and say “We are an ISIL cell” in our country too. They had no direct ties with ISIL. It was a group engaged in terrorist activity that, to put it in business terms, tried to operate under a popular brand. Why should they create an unknown organization, if they could come out as a cell of ISIL - an organization popular in the world? Once there was a similar situation also with Al Qaeda, whose autonomous representations emerged throughout the world without its knowledge.
After the NATO troops were partially withdrawn from Afghanistan, the situation has deteriorated. Taliban redeployed in the Northern provinces. However, as Afghans say, Taliban is a smokescreen for penetration of various radicals into the Central Asia? Is it true?
- On the one hand, ISIL’s followers may be much more dangerous of Taliban, as Taliban that are mainly Pashtuns, look to take control over Afghanistan first and foremost. Meantime, the Central Asian members of ISIL that are waring in Syria and Iraq have already announced their intention to establish the Islamic state “Khorasan” that will embrace the territory of Central Asia. On the other hand, Taliban movement is one of the destabilizing factors in Afghanistan, which create favorable conditions for the activity of other radical groups. Therefore, there is no need to choose the lesser of the two evils, as all these forces are dangerous for our region.
The north of Afghanistan has been traditionally controlled by Kabul and local “dukes” like General Dostum. Now Dostum asks Russia for help. He asks military equipment and weapons so far. Can Russia accept Dostum’s offer for military buildup in Central Asia like it is doing in Tajikistan now? Are there any grounds to say that Moscow may launch in Afghanistan an operation similar to the one in Syria?
- Hypothetically, it is possible through military support to the reincarnation of the Northern Alliance. However, it is necessary to create such Alliance at first to create a security buffer zone on the border with Central Asia. Inside the region, so far it is not clear how Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – these countries are still preparing to neutralize any incidents from Afghanistan on their own - will respond to Russia’s military buildup in Central Asia. Two groups may be formed in Central Asia to settle the problem of Afghanistan. The first will consist of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) members. The second will be ‘a duet’ of Tashkent and Ashkhabad. Nevertheless, the system of regional security will be incomplete, unless all the countries of Central Asia start cooperating closely.