Putin to Central Asia: Let Daddy Save You From the Islamic State

Russia is exploiting fears of the Islamic State to grow its military influence.

GettyImages-153488402
GettyImages-153488402

Since Russian border guards left Tajikistan’s 800-mile southern border with Afghanistan in 2005, where they had been posted to secure the porous frontier, Moscow defense officials have been frantically warning that it would become the next jihadi gateway into Russia. When he visited the Tajik capital of Dushanbe in April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that the country is facing “growing threats from the south due to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, where groups of Islamic State fighters have already emerged.”

According to the International Crisis Group, some 2,000 to 4,000 Central Asians have journeyed to Iraq and Syria, approximately 400 of whom are Tajik, but independent analysts have questioned whether the Islamic State has really gained a foothold in Afghanistan or whether fighters are using the name to boost their profile. Yet this vague threat hasn’t stopped Russia from stepping in and flexing its muscles in Tajikistan, where Moscow has pledged $1.2 billion in military aid to help the country combat the threat posed by the Taliban and the Islamic State.

For Russia, the threat posed by the Islamic State is, in a way, an opportunity. “Moscow is legitimately concerned about Islamic extremism in Central Asia,” John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan, told Foreign Policy. “There are real threats. But will the Russians try to oversell them and persuade Central Asian governments to work more closely with them? Absolutely.”

Since Russian border guards left Tajikistan’s 800-mile southern border with Afghanistan in 2005, where they had been posted to secure the porous frontier, Moscow defense officials have been frantically warning that it would become the next jihadi gateway into Russia. When he visited the Tajik capital of Dushanbe in April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that the country is facing “growing threats from the south due to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, where groups of Islamic State fighters have already emerged.”

According to the International Crisis Group, some 2,000 to 4,000 Central Asians have journeyed to Iraq and Syria, approximately 400 of whom are Tajik, but independent analysts have questioned whether the Islamic State has really gained a foothold in Afghanistan or whether fighters are using the name to boost their profile. Yet this vague threat hasn’t stopped Russia from stepping in and flexing its muscles in Tajikistan, where Moscow has pledged $1.2 billion in military aid to help the country combat the threat posed by the Taliban and the Islamic State.

For Russia, the threat posed by the Islamic State is, in a way, an opportunity. “Moscow is legitimately concerned about Islamic extremism in Central Asia,” John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan, told Foreign Policy. “There are real threats. But will the Russians try to oversell them and persuade Central Asian governments to work more closely with them? Absolutely.”

Strategically located along Afghanistan’s northern Kunduz province, Tajikistan is already home to a sizable Russian military presence, with 6,000 troops stationed at what is Moscow’s largest foreign military base and plans to add another 3,000 by 2020. Now, Russia is citing the Islamic State as a justification for bolstering its presence in the region.

In May, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Russian-led military bloc, put its forces on display along the Afghan-Tajik border. In drills involving 2,500 troops, 500 of which were Russian, the operation simulated an armed incursion of 700 Taliban fighters entering allied territory. Following the exercise, CSTO chief Nikolai Bordyuzha reiterated the bloc’s readiness to push back any force coming from the southern frontier. The move is seen as reinforcing Moscow’s role as the main guarantor of the fragile region’s security once U.S. troops depart Afghanistan.

The Islamic State provides “an additional lever of pressure to convince regional governments to join Russia-led multilateral organizations and ensure that the region stays solidly within Russia’s sphere of influence,” said Noah Tucker, editor of the Central Asia blog Registan.net.

Some analysts remain skeptical about whether the threat is as serious as Russian security officials have made it seem. “The Islamic State is in Afghanistan, but it’s grossly exaggerated,” said Christian Bleuer, an Afghanistan expert and a researcher at Australian National University.

The specter of radical Islam looms large in the minds of the Kremlin and Central Asia’s autocratic and secular governments. During Tajikistan’s 1992 to 1997 civil war, extremist militants from across the region joined a conflict that left more than 50,000 people dead. In 1999, a series of car bombings linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan rocked the Uzbek capital of Tashkent and left 16 dead and 120 wounded. In October 2014, Tajikistan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs claimed that it had foiled a plan by local men trained in Syria to blow up two tunnels on the country’s main highway.

Moreover, a propaganda video released by the Islamic State in May featured the defection of Col. Gulmurod Khalimov, an American- and Russian-trained Tajik police commander. Calling for violent jihad, Khalimov taunted his former colleagues in Tajikistan’s overstretched security forces: “I am ready to die for the caliphate — are you?”

Nonetheless, the presence of the Islamic State in Central Asia is proportionally quite low, according to Edward Lemon, a researcher focused on Central Asian fighters in the Middle East at the University of Exeter. “Only about 1 in every 20,000 Tajik Muslims are in Iraq and Syria. Compare that to 1 in every 1,500 Belgian Muslims who have gone to fight.” Additionally, most Central Asians who have gone to join the Islamic State are unlikely to return to the region or go fight in northern Afghanistan. “It’s a one-way ticket,” Lemon said. “Central Asian jihadis are dying at an alarming rate.”

Still, Moscow continues to bolster its military along the Afghan border and keep its former Soviet neighbors close in the process. “It’s wrapped up in the dressing of border security,” Lemon said. “But it’s about geopolitics.”

Photo credit: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/GettyImages

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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