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Introduction to the topic
The major countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus are closely related in terms of their political atmosphere. Therefore, on one hand, they are influenced by the military actions in Afghanistan and other local conflicts of a different nature. On the other hand, it is also important to note that the events of September 11, 2001, the rise of terrorist movements, and, of course, War on Terror affected the situation in such countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan in general and their political life, in particular.
An overall atmosphere in some of the states in Central Asia and the Caucasus did not calm down after regional conflicts, the independence, and nationalistic movements in the Caucasus when countries, and jihadist groups in some of those countries. Thus, the objective of this paper is to review the major arguments related to the different perspectives of estimating the political situation in Central Asia and the Caucasus in relation to the War on Terror. The article is also to assess and critique those arguments, as well as to provide a possible framework for further discussion of effects and the current state of War on Terror in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Outline of the arguments
Although there are a number of discrepancies on the subject of which factors were the most influential in terms of shaping the current state of anti-terrorist policies in Central Asia and the Caucasus, the key role of some of the historical circumstances and events is undeniable. First of all, after September 11, 2001, the countries of Central Asia and especially Afghanistan gained significant geopolitical relevance.
The economic consequences of the terrorist attack included complications in many industries. Since some of the countries are bordering Afghanistan, there was an increased presence of the military aircraft of NATO states in the air space of such countries as Uzbekistan and Pakistan. On the other hand, the political effects of the conflict between jihadist groups from Afghanistan and the representatives of NATO’s mission also played an important role.
The mission’s objective was to ensure security in the region of Central Asia and the Caucasus. As a result, the states of this region appeared in the center of the geopolitical stage. However, although those factors had more negative than positive consequences for the economical situation in the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, those were important measures for ensuring safety and peace in the region.
According to Balci and Chaudet, one of the major aspects of War on Terror in Central Asia and the Caucasus is that the United States and its allies in the war against terrorism decided to protect those countries from the jihadist influences. For that reason, despite the fact that military operations take place in their territories, many states located in Central Asia and the Caucasus supported actions of the U.S. government and NATO as long as they helped to maintain order and peace. Moreover, Balci and Chaudet claim that any decision to reduce the military presence was met with disapproval and concerns. In particular, “Central Asian governments view with alarm and pessimism the withdrawal by the end of 2014 of most of the Western troops that have been present in Afghanistan” (Balci and Chaudet par. 8)
Balci and Chaudet also suggest that a claim of NATO leaders regarding the fact that there is no explicit threat to the countries of Central Asia from jihadist groups lacks reasoning (Balci and Chaudet par. 9). Moreover, Balci and Chaudet support the argument that one of the worst possible consequences of such a threat is the change in democratic regimes in Central Asia and the Caucasus. At present, the leaders of such states as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan consider the presence of the NATO mission to be an assurance of security in the region.
However, if the leadership of those and other countries changes, it is possible that there will be no other opportunity to control and prevent jihadist movements in the region. Balci and Chaudet support this argument by referring to the Uzbek jihadist movement that “found it difficult to have a direct impact inside Uzbekistan, where it faced an uncompromising regime, but was able to find a safe haven elsewhere — first in Tajikistan, then in Afghanistan” (Balci and Chaudet par. 18).
Those jihadists do not support any moderate approach, and their actions in Afghanistan resulted in forming the Islamic Jihad Union after the U.S.-led fight against extremists. They are also commonly associated with the Taliban and al-Qaeda (Balci and Chaudet par. 26).
The degree to which a particular social, national or cultural group is moderate in its beliefs is rather important in the context of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Given the fact that it is a very historically heterogeneous region, the “Central Asian regimes, forced to assert their national legitimacy through their ethnic and religious identities, have themselves Islamized to a certain degree” (Balci and Chaudet par. 30). For this reason, the change in political structure and regime when leaders will be supporting a more fundamentalist version of Islam can result in the U.S. and NATO losing states of Central Asia as allies in War on Terror.
It is also important to observe the political situation and War on Terror in Central Asia and the Caucasus with the regard to events in Syria. According to Souleimanov, with the development of military actions in Syria, since 2011, the “volunteers of North Caucasian origin, including Chechens, Dagestanis, Ingush, and others have been at the forefront of international mujahedeen” (Souleimanov 154). Souleimanov also notes the fact that those groups are notorious for the military confrontation with Russia in the North Caucasus, which is why the further development of mujahedeen and jihadists movements in this region could possibly result in threats to the security of Russia, Kazakhstan, and other neighboring countries.
In areas such as Chechnya, the radical forms of Islam face much less resistance than in other parts of the Russian Caucasus. That is why there is a growing danger of radical jihadist movements developing and becoming stronger in those areas.
Moreover, considering the proximity of Syria, there is even more ideological support. Spreading of jihadist ideology throughout the Caucasian region would mean the globalization of this form of radical Islamic ideology and an internal terror threat for bordering countries. According to Souleimanov, the ideological position of the North Caucasian jihadists is “to fight [their] Russian enemy, its interests, and its allies, wherever they may be; and to fight the enemies of Islam around the world” (Souleimanov 156). While the first proposition presupposes the possibility of a major threat to Russian security, the second motive unites the North Caucasian movements with the most radical terrorist organizations at the global level.
Furthermore, growing support for jihadist ideology among the people from the North Caucasus creates a number of geopolitical challenges. Despite the fact that Chechens and other jihadists of the North Caucasian origin are ideologically divided into many subcategories, the major problem for them is whether to fight overseas or to attempt to build a jihadist state within their native territories. Souleimanov claims that North Caucasian jihadists would not necessarily attempt to conduct terror attacks or excavate the situation in their native areas, but it is possible that they will actively participate in military conflicts such as the Syrian war supporting extremist forces, including ISIS (Souleimanov 156).
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Assessment and critique of the arguments
In the process of assessment, it is important to consider the implications of the War on Terror in Central Asia and the Caucasus both in global and regional perspectives. Firstly, Balci and Chaudet exhaustively analyzed how important it is to the global community that the regimes in the countries of Central Asia continue their democratic efforts and that they stay allies with the U.S. and NATO.
Secondly, the stability in the region relies on the moderate religious or national doctrines of the countries’ leaders and relative sustaining of security. In particular, Balci and Chaudet provide a strong argument that those states are “developing a tolerant version of Islam compatible with the state’s religious policy” in order to find consensus in the society (Balci and Chaudet par. 27). However, the traditionalistic approaches are still quite strong in the region.
Although Balci and Chaudet claim that a change of regime may lead to an outbreak of terrorism in the area, they do no expand on the idea that without the support of the Western allies, the regimes could slowly radicalize on their own. There is a high possibility of that in the situation when a moderate regime is both threatened by the radical forces and left without military support from democratic allies.
In terms of consequences for the region of Central Asia and the Caucasus, Souleimanov points out that there is a growing split between supporters of different groups of radical Islamic ideology (Souleimanov 156). Overall, Souleimanov provides a correct forecast of the development of the situation with the North Caucasian jihadists. There is a number of strong arguments provided by Souleimanov regarding why the jihadists from the North Caucasus would rather fight for their ideology overseas than in Chechnya, Dagestan, and other North Caucasian territories.
According to Souleimanov after the split between the supporters of different ideologies, most of them are likely to assimilate with ISIS because the “split was caused by Omar Shishani’s desire to join the ranks of ISIS, pledging allegiance to its leader, Baghdadi — a move that Sayfullah and his associates strongly opposed” (Souleimanov 158). In such a way, Souleimanov anticipated precisely the tendencies of how the outlook and allegiance of the North Caucasian jihadists would develop, as well as what implications this factor bears on a global scale.
Naturally, in the context of the Syrian war and with a growing number of ISIS attacks, it causes a number of concerns for the region. Souleimanov provided a set of security implications for Russia, underlining the fact that there will be some jihadists of the North Caucasian origin returning to their homeland after the Syrian war and that they can “revitalize the North Caucasian insurgency, now bleeding and largely decapitated” (Souleimanov 161). So far, this threat implication represents less scrutiny both for the region and on a global scale than the ISIS-led forces of the North Caucasian origin.
A change in the political regime of the Central Asian countries can result in their new leaders supporting a more fundamentalist version of Islam. Such a possibility would lead to the U.S. and NATO losing states of Central Asia and the Caucasus as allies in War on Terror. For that reason, in the process of further discussions, it is important to analyze all the implications of such a possibility and to review the pros and contras regarding NATO’s mission leaving some of the Central Asian states. It is also important to analyze whether those countries will be able to sustain a democratic regime with a moderate form of Islam without the support of the Western states. Regarding the jihadists from the North Caucasus, it is important to analyze the future implications of some of their groups joining ISIS and the threats they represent on a global scale.
Overall, the leaders of Central Asian face a challenge of finding a compromise between traditional societal values and being able to maintain War on Terror and security of their citizens. There are possible risks of radicalization of their regimes after the withdrawal of NATO’s mission. Meanwhile, the jihadists of the North Caucasian origin represent a threat both if they return to the Russian territories and if more of them will join ISIS and other radical movements.
Balci, Bayram and Didier Chaudet, “Jihadism in Central Asia: A Credible Threat after the Western Withdrawal from Afghanistan?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 2014. Web.
Souleimanov, Emil A. “Globalizing Jihad? North Caucasians in the Syrian Civil War.” Middle East Policy 21.3 (2014): 154-162. Print.