Afghanistan and Central Asia: Nobody move, nobody gets hurt

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

As Western powers and NATO gradually pull out from Afghanistan, the European Union is increasingly looking at the potential spillover threats for Central Asia as a whole, write Jos Boonstra and Marlene Laruelle.

Jos Boonstra is a senior researcher and head of the EU-Central Asia programme (EUCAM) at FRIDE, a Madrid-based think-tank. Marlene Laruelle is director of the Central Asia Programme at George Washington University, EUCAM researcher and FRIDE associate.

As the NATO drawdown from Afghanistan approaches, the European Union looks more and more at post-2014 spillover threats to Central Asia. According to a recently released UN report on Afghanistan, despite registering a decrease overall in the number of civilian deaths in 2012 (the first time in six years), the death toll spiked in the second half of the year, compared with the same period in 2011, leading some analysts to suggest that Afghanistan is likely to face continued violence post-2014, with potential implications for the broader region.

While the EU wishes to foster regional cooperation, progress so far has been limited, and incorporating Afghanistan into broader regional initiatives will prove even more difficult. Central Asian regimes are concerned with Western disengagement, especially given that the drawdown will also entail the end of lucrative contracts for transporting materials to and from Afghanistan.

In the face of potential spillovers from Afghanistan, in particular terrorism, radicalism and increased drug trade, Central Asian leaders argue that the West has made two grave mistakes: first, invading Afghanistan in 2001 and secondly, leaving before the job is done. In other words: "If you move, we will get hurt."

The EU largely accepts this perception. While it is true that the drawdown will bring uncertainties, these mostly relate to Afghanistan’s own future. Will the 2014 presidential elections be free and fair? Will they lead to a new stable government with reasonable power-sharing? Will Afghanistan develop or will it fall into chaos and civil war, even with a return of the Taliban?

These questions are separate from Central Asia, which faces its own problems. Radical Islamism in the region is foremost a home-grown phenomenon. Central Asian governments’ increasingly authoritarian tendencies based on a strong secular narrative seem to push unsatisfied groups towards Islam, including in its radical forms.

Authoritarian rule has also spurred corruption, while bad governance is affecting the educational system, forcing citizens to either leave their countries to find work elsewhere (mostly in Russia) or rebel, and is having an impact on social services provision, increasing the rich-poor gap. The authoritarian regimes are also ill-prepared for nearby successions, especially in the case of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that are ruled by ageing presidents.

Central Asian countries have only been independent for 20 years and new leaders will not be able to lean on their Soviet heritage of secular rule and might need nationalistic arguments to gain popular support.

On a regional level, the lack of intraregional cooperation aggravates tensions over resources, which could potentially lead to open conflicts in the future. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are already entangled in a severe dispute over water resources; while Tajikistan is set to build the Rogun dam to increase its control over water flows to become a substantial electricity exporter, Uzbekistan clearly opposes this as its large cotton industry depends on water flows from Tajikistan.

In addition, lack of cooperation is also due to inexperience and fear of sharing interests with others. Current regional formats are almost all externally-driven by the EU, US, China or through Russian economic and defence cooperation initiatives.

So far, the EU has sought to foster regional cooperation through initiatives on water management, education and the rule of law. However, these exclude Afghanistan and so far progress has been limited. Another area of increased attention is border control. The EU-funded BOMCA border management programme has been going on for over five years, but again this is largely separate from other EU border control initiatives with Afghanistan. BOMCA results are poor due to the different interests and expectations of Central Asian recipients and European donors.

While the former are keen on new border posts, jeeps, weapons and uniforms, the EU wants to train personnel and foster long-term reform. In Tajikistan – which has become the frontline of Afghan drug-trafficking – the lack of results are most pressing; international assistance has not helped to decrease drug trade and there are serious suspicions that Tajik officials themselves are implicated.

However, there are some matters on which Brussels and its partners should invest more efforts to bring Central Asian countries together and include Afghanistan:

  • First, water management is a highly sensitive and conflictive issue in Central Asia, and Afghanistan is geographically part of the waterways in the broader region.
  • Second, in terms of trade, especially local cross-border initiatives are worth pursuing and should be more strongly integrated with border management activities.
  • Third, education programmes could occasionally also include Afghanistan. The EU could try to help Afghan students to go to Central Asia or Russia to study, which might be more realistic than bringing large numbers of students to Europe.
  • Fourth, border control efforts need to be re-thought and better coordinated to improve their efficiency. How keen is Europe in countering drug flows and helping reform in these countries? If the answer is positive, the EU should increase its investment and involvement. Its current low-intensity support is nothing more than a drop on a hot plate.
  • Lastly, the EU should investigate how it can work with international partners, especially Russia and the US, and have similar objectives in the region, especially in some areas such as border control and education which might leave options for an increased bundling of efforts.

Yes, the region will change post-2014 and the challenges will be many, but the EU should not accept the "nobody move, nobody gets hurt" narrative of Central Asian regimes without any critical thinking. Instead, it should urge the governments of the region to move or they will be left behind.

A full report on the Afghanistan-Central Asia relationship is available at www.eucentralasia.eu

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