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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Containing the Taliban

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Afghanistan has been unstable for more than two decades. The Soviet invasion in 1979 triggered a civil war but the 1989 Soviet withdrawal and the fall of the pro-Soviet regime in 1992 did not end it. Rather, these events only served to provoke changing alliances among the mujahedin groups and to lower the intensity of war for a while. The rise of the Taliban in 1994 worsened the situation, not only for Afghanistan but also for neighboring regions. The Taliban's continued rule over Afghanistan and its war with Northern Alliance forces will not only prolong the devastation of Afghanistan, but may contribute to instability in many southern CIS countries.

The spread of instability from Afghanistan to neighboring regions has long been a major concern, but the emergence of the Taliban added a new dimension. The group has regional ambitions and seeks to export its fundamentalist views to countries in its proximity. While the extent of its ability to destabilize other countries is a matter of disagreement, there is no doubt that it is harboring terrorists from different regional and nonregional countries.

The impact of the Taliban on the spread of fundamentalism in the southern CIS countries is a long-term concern.

The impact of the Taliban on the spread of fundamentalism in the southern CIS countries is a long-term concern. If the regional economic situation does not improve and if corruption and human rights abuses continue, the inevitable rise of mass dissent in — these countries will facilitate the rapid expansion of extremist ideologies, including fundamentalism. The Taliban and like-minded groups could — and probably will — take advantage of this opportunity to export their subversive ideologies.

For now, though, the Taliban have only a negligible influence in southern CIS countries. Fundamentalism as a political movement in Central Asia and the Caucasus has made little headway, despite claims to the contrary by the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (as well as Russia). The activities of religious groups, including fundamentalist ones, in the Fergana Valley (which is divided among the three countries) have been far less significant than claimed.

In fact, the major destabilizing force in the valley — and throughout the entire region — is international drug trafficking. The Taliban have tolerated opium cultivation and turned Afghanistan into the world's largest producer of opium and heroin, which is supplied to drug-traffickers operating freely on its territory. Besides the obvious health problems, drug trafficking threatens the security of all the southern CIS countries, especially those through which drug smuggling routes pass.

Fighting between regional security forces and armed drug traffickers in the Fergana Valley is potentially a major destabilizing force for Central Asia. Local instability in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan could spill over to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan because of the ethnic makeup of Central Asia.

Drug traffickers have developed considerable military capabilities in order to secure a safe path to export narcotics from Afghanistan to Europe via Central Asia. These countries have replaced Iran as the main drug route since that country fortified its border with Afghanistan and imposed the death penalty on drug traffickers. Now, Central Asia — which is the land link between Afghanistan and Russia, through which narcotics are smuggled into Europe — has become a desirable route for large-scale smuggling operations for at least two reasons. Local security forces are inexperienced and ill-equipped to deal with such operations, and Russia's own domestic market for narcotics is growing rapidly.

The ongoing civil war in Afghanistan will contribute to instability in various forms and extents from Central Asia to Russia. Dealing with the current problem (drug trafficking) and the looming threat (political and religious extremism) stemming from Afghanistan requires ending the civil war and stabilizing the country. It also requires containing destabilizing forces in all southern CIS countries, by ending human rights abuses and developing local economies to reduce poverty and unemployment, both of which create a pool of potential recruits for criminal and subversive activities.

Achieving these objectives demands the collective efforts of all countries capable of inducing the Afghans to create a nonextremist and ethnically inclusive government in Kabul. Ideally, the southern CIS countries should form a regional coalition together with Russia and Iran in order to develop a coordinated plan for stabilizing the region. Unfortunately, worsening relations among Central Asian countries in recent years have become a major barrier to taking such a step.

Local fears of Russia's long-term intentions in Central Asia are another significant obstacle. Many in the region fear that Russia will take advantage of the unstable situation in order to reestablish hegemony there. These fears continue to be bolstered by Russia's unilateral statements and actions, especially by its active support for military formations fighting against the Taliban.

Peace in Afghanistan and stability in southern CIS countries can only be achieved through regional efforts based on consensus. Unilateral attempts by regional powers (Russia and Iran) or any global powers (the United States) will only hinder united regional action. In turn, this will perpetuate the current half-hearted local initiatives and prolong the Taliban's rule — with dire long-term consequences for the entire region and, indeed, the world.

Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant with United Nations' agencies in Geneva and does research on the Persian Gulf, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.