By Paul Goble
General Sergey Afanasyev, deputy chief of the GRU, the Russian military’s intelligence service, says that approximately 4500 people in Central Asia have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State and that they constitute a problem for the countries of the region and ultimately for Russia as well.
In reporting his remarks, “Moskovsky komsomolets” asked Azhdzar Kurtov, the editor of the “Problems of National Strategy” journal issued by the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI) for his reaction (mk.ru/politics/2016/04/27/v-centralnoy-azii-naschitali-4-500-boevikov-igil.html).
Kurtov expressed a certain skepticism about the number Afanasyev reported. “It is in general strange,” the RISI editor said, “to think about where this number came from because now GRU officers can collect information only in Syria and Iraq but not in Central Asia.” Moreover, it is necessary to make distinctions between loyalists and activists.
That there are ISIS loyalists and activists in Central Asia is beyond question, he continued. “More than that, according to certain parameters, the situation in Central Asia is very similar to the one which preceded the appearance of ISIS in the Middle East” – poverty, brittle authoritarianism, and explosive demographic trends.
At the same time, Kurtov argued, there is no chance at present that ISIS could expand into Central Asia as it has in Syria. That would require the further destabilization of the states involved and the influx of more radicals from Afghanistan, many of whom are Islamists but not followers of ISIS.
In his view, even though the borders between Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, on the one hand, and Afghanistan, on the other, are relatively poorly defended, the armies of at least the last two of these states are strong enough to counter any visible threat, especially given that it is likely to remain divided and fragmentary.
Kurtov concludes by noting that for the time being, the ISIS radicals and the Taliban are fighting one another even more than they are working to extend Islamic influence. “Certain Russian diplomats have even proposed cooperating with the Taliban in the struggle with the Islamic State because it is the lesser of two evils.”