Russia, Uzbekistan Floating Plans To Create "Buffer State" In Afghanistan
As Russia, China and Central Asian countries plan for post-2014 Afghanistan, they are floating plans to create "mini buffer states" in northern Afghanistan in order to stanch the potential flow of Islamism and violence into the post-Soviet space.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the China-led security organization that also includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, held a meeting of member state defense ministers this week in Khujand, Tajikistan. The participants made the usual vague public statements about how the SCO was playing a key role in regional stability. “We do not share the West’s optimism about the chances of stabilising the situation in Afghanistan following continued actions by international terrorist and Islamic extremist organisations,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. “The SCO is turning into one of most important structures, to our mind, not only in Central Asia, but also in the East,” he added. The defense ministers also discussed the upcoming iteration of the annual Peace Mission joint military exercises, to be held this year in August in China's Inner Mongolia.
The most intriguing suggestion to come out of the meeting, though, is that regional countries are apparently discussing plans to strengthen regional power brokers in northern Afghanistan as a means of combating the spread of instability into Central Asia and Russia. "Russia and its allies in the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, after the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan, will create on its borders with the [post-Soviet states] several buffer territorial formations, which will prevent the infiltration of instability from that country into other governments," Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported, citing "military-diplomatic sources," saying that plan was discussed in the closed session of the Khujand meeting. "Similar mini-governments existed in Afghanistan in the 1990s."
Interestingly, an analysis published this week in UzMetronom, a Tashkent-based site relatively well informed as to the thinking of the Uzbekistani government, referred approvingly to the idea of "mini buffer states" in northern Afghanistan.
"First, as structures with a great degree of political and international authority, the SCO could take on the burden of dialog of Afghanistan's problems with NATO and the U.S., including discussions on the creation of a buffer zone in northern Afghanistan using the capacity of SCO member states," the piece's author, Oleg Stolpovskiy, wrote, proposing a "constructive division of responsibility among the SCO member states and the current participants in the resolution of the Afghanistan conflict."
Stolpovskiy also, interestingly, endorsed the potential of the CSTO, an organization which Uzbekistan abandoned two years ago in an effort to reduce Russian influence in the country. "The capacity of the CSTO as a military-political organization of regional cooperation could be used in the conditions of the growth of Afghan narcotrafficking to the north, and the spread of crossborder crime and international terrorists from Afghanistan. This could entail the strengthening of border control mechanisms in the Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan up to the joint guarding of the borders of the most problematic areas, particularly in Tajikistan."
Nezavisimaya Gazeta also referred to a visit by Abdul Rashid Dostum, a leader of the ethnic Uzbeks in Afghanistan, to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan earlier this year, saying that its aim was discussing these sorts of plans. And a recent analysis by Igor Rotar in Jamestown echoed that conclusion:
Much as they did in the 1990s, the Uzbekistani authorities recognize the possible value a buffer state in the ethnically Uzbek region of Afghanistan-should one again be established there. "Dostum is one of the most secular politicians in Afghanistan and his policy is convenient for the Central Asia authorities. Nobody wants to see the Taliban near their borders," said pro-government Uzbek political scientist Rafik Saifulin.
"After the withdrawal of US troops, the probability of Afghanistan disintegrating into a few ethnic-based states is high," the Russian Oriental Studies Institute's [Alexander] Knyazev told Jamestown. "It is possible that Dostum discussed with Uzbek and Kazakh authorities the option of recreating a de-facto independent state in the Uzbek part of Afghanistan," Knyazev posited.
All of this is still obviously just in the discussion stage, but all of this -- the potential deliberate fragmentation of Afghanistan, and the concomitant rapprochement between Uzbekistan and Russia that it suggests -- would be a big deal.
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.