SEPTEMBER 24, 2013
Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a two-part series on the relationship between Central Asia and Afghanistan and the expected effects of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan on Central Asian security. Click here to read Part 2.
Contrary to popular perception, Central Asia is not likely to see an immediate explosion of violence and militancy after the U.S. and NATO drawdown from Afghanistan in 2014. However, Central Asia's internal issues and the region's many links with Afghanistan -- including a web of relationships among militant groups -- will add to the volatility in the region.
Central Asia has numerous important links to Afghanistan that will open the region to significant effects after the upcoming U.S. and NATO drawdown. First and foremost, Central Asia is linked to Afghanistan geographically; Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan share borders with Afghanistan that collectively span more than 2,000 kilometers (about 1,240 miles). The Afghan border with Tajikistan, along the eastern edge of Afghanistan, makes up more than half of that distance, at 1,344 kilometers. The borders with Turkmenistan (744 kilometers) and Uzbekistan (137 kilometers) run along Afghanistan's western edge. Most of the Tajik-Afghan border is mountainous and therefore poorly demarcated, and the topography of Afghanistan's frontiers with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan is largely desert.
Central Asia and Afghanistan also have important demographic ties. Afghanistan is an ethnically diverse country, with more than a dozen ethno-linguistic groups represented substantially in the country's population of slightly more than 31 million. The Pashtuns are the largest such group (42 percent), with Tajiks (27 percent), Hazaras (9 percent), Uzbeks (9 percent) and Turkmen (3 percent) constituting significant cohorts as well. The Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen populations are concentrated primarily in northern Afghanistan and are largely contiguous to their ethnic brethren across the borders in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Historically, Afghanistan's borders with the Central Asian states did not exist in a modern sense; rather, they consisted of frontier areas that constantly shifted hands, given that warfare in the region was the norm. Indeed, the area comprising these states and northern Afghanistan was, at various times, part of a single state or empire. This changed with the coming of the Great Game between the Russian and British empires in the beginning of the 19th century. Russia's imperial expansion into Central Asia coincided with the growth of the British domain over India, and the result was the establishment of a buffer zone in what is now Afghanistan. This set the borders of Afghanistan as we know them and -- with the transition from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union in the early 20th century -- led to a closing off of the borders between Central Asia and Afghanistan for the first time in history. The ensuing 70 years of Soviet rule in Central Asia created significantly different political and cultural identities among the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen in the Soviet Union and those within Afghanistan, given the vastly different governing structures.
However, ties were far from severed. Because of the geography of the border areas, interaction and movement between the peoples of Central Asia and Afghanistan was difficult to stop. Furthermore, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 created direct interaction between the Soviet Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen and their ethnic cohorts in Afghanistan, with many of the former participating in Soviet military operations (in large part because of their ethno-linguistic ties). The Soviet Central Asians' exposure to their more tribal and religious Afghan counterparts (with certain groups becoming increasingly radicalized as a result of the invasion and the growing presence and strength of the mujahideen) also created a lasting impression among many Central Asians.