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Afghan Chaos Spreads to Region

Afghan Chaos Spreads to Region
Drugs, Islamism and civil war in Afghanistan are oozing out into the neighboring countries. What are the chances that the region does not catch fire in the coming 2015? Radio Sputnik is discussing it with Prof. Conrad Schetter (Germany).

Pakistan requests assistance from Afghanistan and ISAF in conducting a joint operation against those who organized the school massacre in Peshawar. On Wednesday Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif came to Kabul to meet the top Afghan military and political leaders.

Accompanied by the director general of Inter-Services Intelligence, General Sharif met Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and John Campbell commander General of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

According to Dawn online, the army chief came to discuss the possibility of a joint military operation by Pakistani and Afghan armies against handlers of the Peshawar carnage that left 141 people, mostly children, dead.

The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan creates huge problems for its neighbors. Pakistan is one of these. Yet there are other countries, particularly in Central Asia, which, too, are faced with a growing number of security problems stemming from Afghanistan.  

Says Dr. Conrad Schetter, the Director for Research at Bonn International Center for Conversion:

If we focus on the Central Asia, I feel that the main withdrawal of the NATO troops from Afghanistan will have a large impact on the region. I think the first and the most obvious one is what we can observe, and what has really been of concern over the last years, which is the whole question of the opium production in Afghanistan and of the exit ways of opium from Afghanistan via Pakistan, but also via the Central Asia.

So, the question is – to what extent does the Central Asia in particular, but also Russia and Europe, get flooded by the drugs from Afghanistan. And I currently see that this is an economy which can’t be stopped anymore, in particular nowadays when there is no Afghan state and no international forces. And this is one tremendous problem for the whole region.

The other topic I see is the question of militant Islam. And I feel that over the last years we could observe that Afghanistan became a safe haven for the Islamists. And the question is – to what extent will the militant Islamists from Afghanistan become stronger in the Central Asia.

So, is there any connection between those two factors?

Dr. Conrad Schetter: This is a very good question. I think in Afghanistan it is even more problematic due to the fact that in Afghanistan we can see a kind of a narco-state. This means that not only various rebel groups, but also the Government is involved into the drug economy. This means that it is not only the rebel groups who are getting their income via this economy, but also the Afghan Government. And this makes Afghanistan such a difficult and also dangerous place in the future.

And, like you are saying, the feelers of that economy are spreading over to the region. Let’s look at the Central Asian states –the former Soviet republics. What is the condition there? How strong are the state institutions there? And what are the prospects for those republics drug-wise and security-wise?

Dr. Conrad Schetter: What we can observe, on the one side, is that the authoritarian rule in all these countries gets stronger again. A particularly interesting country here, and therefore an example, is Tajikistan where since the civil war we can observe that the state rule becomes stronger and stronger, particularly fuelled by the anxiety over the drugs from Afghanistan and militant Islamism. What we can also observe is that all these countries try to separate themselves completely from Afghanistan and Pakistan, so that the border becomes even more severe than it was in the past.

And what I find interesting in the Central Asia is that all the states are not really eager to cooperate. This means that you’ve got a very strong national identity, a very strong national focus which holds on the borders of your own country, and any kind of cooperation is not wanted at this current stage.
And I think that with respect to all these tremendous challenges the region is facing, this cooperation will be needed in the future, particularly if we talk about the militant Islam. This is the challenge facing all these countries and they all will have to cope with it. And I think you can do it much better, if you do this in a constructive and cooperative way. The same is true, for example, for the drug economy.

Could there be any third factor which could come into play and bring all those states under a single umbrella, so to say? We know that Turkey has been making attempts over quite a number of years to increase its presence there and promote its own ideology. 

Dr. Conrad Schetter: It is an interesting thing that Central Asia again becomes a heartland of geopolitical interests. You’ve mentioned Turkey, we've got China, we've got Russia, the US, for sure, Europe who all see Central Asia as a politically very interesting and fascinating place, but also a place rich in resources. And reaching the oil and influence, this leads to some kind of new geopolitical battle all these agencies try to have a certain influence on. The same is also true for India or for Iran.

On the other side, what they are all doing is playing their own national games, and this doesn’t help the Central Asia. So, I'm afraid that the Central Asian states become nervous if they face such strong national interests of these countries mentioned. Perhaps, one step might be the Shanghai Cooperation, which also Russia and China are part of. This is the kind of cooperation where the Central Asian states feel a bit more wanted, than in this kind of national cooperation.

I think one of the main problems is that even the Central Asia states don’t like to be called the Central Asian states. Take Kazakhstan, they feel so strongly related to Europe. Take Turkmenistan, which has related themselves to their own national roadmap to the future. And they are all somehow trying to avoid being mentioned as one of the Central Asian units. And I think this is something that, perhaps, also has to breakup and you need to consider that these national identities are much stronger, and find ways for all these countries. But nevertheless, I feel that cooperation, particularly in the fields like natural resources management, is needed.

Does that imply that the European politicians are aware of those preferences in these states? Are they somehow making use of them?

Dr. Conrad Schetter: No, I think in Europe there is a wide ignorance of the national identities and perceptions in the Central Asia. From the perspective of Germany or France the Central Asia is always seen as one unit and these different perspectives, and in particular these national sensitivities are not taken into consideration. And I feel that they have to bear them in mind.

If we talk about the strategies of other major players you’ve been mentioning – China and the US – could we compare them in that region?

Dr. Conrad Schetter: No, because I think the interests are different. For China, what is driving their interest in the Central Asia is of course a strong hunger for energy. But also, I have to say that the Central Asians become nervous about China, because there are tendencies that say that the Chinese also have some other interests in the Central Asia.

The Americans’ interest is much stronger related to their bases in Afghanistan, and in particular much more related to Russia. And the Russian interests are very strongly guided by the Soviet sentiments, I would say. One also has to consider that Russian is still a very important language in the Central Asia, that many Russians are living in the Central Asia. So, these are the issues which are coming in.

So, I would say that all these different players have got their own unique interests in that region. Take Turkey, as you’ve mentioned, the Turkish language and the idea of the Turcoman plays a role. Iran has got very strong connections to Tajikistan and the Iranian language plays a huge role. So, these are more or less all the different interests in that region.

Does Caucasus play a role?

Dr. Conrad Schetter: I think that Caucasus plays a role in a different way, because it is seeing that other players are coming in and it is much closer seeing to the current situation in the eastern Ukraine, particularly Georgia. It is one of the main players coming in here, particularly with its opposition to Russia.

And the other thing, I feel that it is important that you are mentioning Caucasus, because I feel that the conflict about Nagorno-Karabakh is the one which is increasing. I think we also forget about this conflict and we don’t see that we currently can observe that Armenia, as well as Azerbaijan, they both invest highly in the military and that this conflict is not over, but it is still a very hot conflict. But here I think it is interesting that Russia is in cooperation with these both countries. So, here we see a completely different dynamic.

And curiously enough, that raises the role of Turkey.

Dr. Conrad Schetter: Right! I think that Turkey, because of the vicinity to its own borders, has a strong interest here. In general, I think we can observe that Turkey has become a much stronger player than 5 or 10 years back. So, Turkey really sees itself as one of the strong players in the Caucasus, as well as in the Central Asia. And in particular, due to the Ukrainian crisis, it becomes also a much more important player from the Western perspective.

All those countries we've been mentioning used to be the countries of particular interest for the UK in the 19th and a major part of the 20th century. Have the British retained their interest in the region now and if so, how is it manifested?

Dr. Conrad Schetter: You are right! The whole region was of a tremendous interest for Britain, particularly during the 19th century. I think that this changed, just because Britain lost or gave up all their colonies in the ME and in Asia. It was always the way that the Central Asia and Afghanistan, and the so-called Great Game, was seen as the buffer zone towards India. And the same was true for the Ottoman Empire with respect to their colonies in the ME.

Since Great Britain lost these colonies, what we can observe is that Great Britain doesn’t anymore focus on that region so much. Here the interests are much stronger in the south Asia and in the cooperation with the south Asia, but I see them not as a strong player in this particular region anymore. I think that this is something that they have completely lost their interest in.

So, just to sum it up, the main challenges for the region are: opium trade, militant Islam and the mere fact that this region has once again become the focus of interest of major international players?

Dr. Conrad Schetter: Right! And the additional fear is that the civil war we currently have in Afghanistan, could also increase and move into the Central Asia. So, I think that Central Asia is still a very instable region and there is always a fear, particularly for places like Fergana Valley, that kind of a civil war could come up there. And I think that for everyone has got a strong interest that this should be avoided.

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