Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Cental Asia and the war on terror

The language around the war on terror is slowly slipping out of use.  Its consequences however, are very much so still part of the contemporary geo-political scene.  Whether we are talking about rendition, torture or illegal invasions – the war on terror has, and is still having a major impact on international relations.

In this blog however, I am going to focus on a region of the world that is often ignored in western news coverage, but has a massive influence on our foreign policy – Central Asia.  I will briefly track the rise of radical Islam in Central Asia before looking at its impact on the contemporary political scene.

To illustrate Central Asia's geographical significance in world affairs

Soon after independence after the collapse of the USSR, the independent governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan faced opposition from small radical groups.  The reason I single out Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is not because their situation was unique to Central Asia, but because of the harsh measures they took to counter this threat. From the early 90’s onwards political engagement was severely restricted.  Critics suggest that this helped fuel the more powerful radial groups, who were predominantly Islamic organisations. As they developed in numbers and sophistication, they became inter-connected to what we broadly understand today as part of the “international terror threat” (excuse my use of this misleading crass terminology).

In response to this growing threat, all the Central Asian republics took the extraordinary step of banning any political organisation based on religious or ethnic origins.  A number of small Islamic organisations were forcibly dismantled.  As such member dispersed, some to seek support abroad, others to work at community levels.

The civil war in Tajikistan (92-97) acted as a calling card for radical Muslims from across the region.  After a series of defeats, the mujahedeen (those fighting in the name of their faith) moved across the border to Afghanistan. Approximately 100,000 refuges made their way to Afghanistan, although of course these were predominantly civilians.  It was during this period that political activists first made contact with the Taliban and what would later be referred to as Al-Qaeda.

In the late 90’s people start returning home and there was a move throughout the region to organise better structured terrorist Islamic movements.  The most prominent at this stage were the Islamic movement for Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb-ut-Tahir.  From 1999-2001 the IMU launched a series of attacks on Uzbekistan looking to oust the political regime. These attacks would often be launched from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. They never took any real strong holds as they faced stiff international opposition predominantly from Russia.  In 2004 suicide bombings in Uzbekistan were allegedly masterminded by the IMU.

It is from this basis, we can see that post 9/11 Central Asian governments were more than happy to condemn the actions of Al-Qaeda and join the US in their “war on terrorism”. Immediately, all Central Asian republics granted free air-space over their countries to the US and NATO. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan all agreed to host US forces on their territory. The US set up two air bases, one in Kyrgyzstan and the other in Uzbekistan.

Once again, Central Asia is the unspoken stage of world politics.  Post the 2003 invasion of Iraq; we can see Russia, China, the EU and the US all fighting it out for influence in the region (for ideological, warfare and energy security reasons). Kazakhstan has sent engineers into Iraq, but the other 4 states have kept their distance.

Issues around energy security have become confused and intermixed with issues around the “war on terror”.  In 2005, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran all met up to hold a conference on protecting oil and gas infrastructure from terrorist activity.

Today, we can still see Central Asia’s role as a “feeder channel” to the Al-Qaeda missions fighting the US/NATO operations in Afghanistan. The growth of Islamic extremist and terrorist groups in Central Asia is directly impacting the stability of the Central Asia itself but also, Pakistan and US/NATO interests in Afghanistan. The volatile Afghanistan and Pakistan borderland is being made even more unstable and dangerous by Central Asian insurgents and it is unlikely real progress can occur without dealing with this issue head on. If we simply continue to fight the insurgents in a militaristic sense, I suggest that these “feeder channels” will continue to replace the fallen men. To really go at the problem’s root causes, long-term planning and effective and transparent regional cooperation will be needed. This is easier said than done when dealing with insular regimes such as Turkmenistan (which remember does have a massive border with Afghanistan).

The one thing that can be said for certain, is that Central Asia will remain to be a key geo-political battle ground that will, if trends continue, act as a testing ground for our “fight against terrorism” and global security.  The domestic politics of the 5 Central Asian states will continue to have ripple effects on all of our lives and cannot be ignored.

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Was the EU’s next special representative for Afghanistan implicitly involved in covering up evidence of a secret detention facility?

Vygaudas Ušackas, the new EU's next special representative for Afghanistan. Photo thanks to the Baltic development forum

Last month Dalia Grybauskaitė, Lithuania’s president, deemed there to be enough evidence to sack Vygaudas Ušackas, for alledgedly helping to cover up CIA secret detetion sites.  Ušackas has just been appointed as the European Union’s next special representative for Afghanistan and head of its delegation in Kabul.  With the growing influence of EU delegations with the implementation  of Lisbon, this appointment is a serious issue.  Why has the EU deemed this man fit to represent us, when one of its Member States has deemed him unfit for national government?

 The BBC reported that “The CIA set up at least two secret detention centres in Lithuania after the 11 September 2001 terror attacks on the US”. It is unknown how many other “black spots” there were/are on European soil.  We do however; know that they were integral to the coalition’s widely illegal “war on terror”.  The centres were used as stop off points for the US’s practice of “extraordinary rendition” (this broadly means capturing someone in one country and then moving them to another country with no legal oversight – it also just happens to be that the country that they get moved to is often notorious for its use of torture).  A European Parliament report described “hundreds” such flights taking place.

The report by a parliamentary committee which highlighted Lithuania’s role in this sordid business also absolved the political elite of any responsibility stating “the president was unaware of exactly what the US intelligence service was doing”.  Yet despite this, he felt it necessary to fire Ušackas.  Ušackas had served as Lithuania’s ambassador to the EU, the United States and the United Kingdom before he became foreign minister in 2008.  This would not have been a decision taken lightly by the President.

This remains a baffling mystery to me.  Why, considering all that has been said, would the EU (you know the beacon of human rights), choose Ušackas to head the delegation in Kabul? Did Cathy Ashton (who he is accountable to) have a say in this – one assumes so! The EU needs to show the world that it holds its values in the highest priority.  It cannot do this, by putting people who are (accused of being) complicit in wide spread torture in charge of a delegation – especially such an important one as Afghanistan!

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Afghanistan – they have all the time in the world

The US army, still present in Afghanistan. Photograph thanks to US Army.

Reading an article recently from E-Sharp magazine (http://www.esharp.eu/), I was reminded of a well known Taliban saying, “The Americans may have the wristwatches, but we have the time”. 

It is now coming up to 9 years since the invasion of Afghanistan.  Obama (and supportive European leaders), face a basic problem.  They justify their presence with their mantra of “things would fall apart if we were not there; we are protecting the locals from the Taliban etc”.  This is fine, and indeed holds a strong sense of truth to it.  The problem however, is what event is going to happen to change this situation.  What is going to happen that will make our troops withdrawal smooth and painless? Is the Afghan National Army suddenly going to become a lean mean fighting machine?

It reminds me of James Burkes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jason_Burke) basic point about fighting an idea rather than a physical enemy. Can you defeat an idea, by attacking those who advocate an idea? I suspect not (which is where our “hearts and minds” campaign comes in). 

This is not an up-beat message, that in all likelihood, whenever we pull out in the foreseeable future bloodshed will follow.  The only thing worse than this that I can imagine, is another 5 years of US sponsored bloodshed, that is then followed by a bloody withdrawal.  If we have not managed to create these conditions for withdrawal in 9 years, when will we have? If we set a withdrawal date, we look like we are abandoning the people.  If we stay we are guaranteeing more of the same.

It’s about time we looked for a plan B.  Are we sure a Western style democracy is the only way to bring about progression? Are we sure that more troops (for that final push?) are really needed? I do not claim to hold the answers, but it is clear that what we are trying at the moment is not working.

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