There is the need to assess objectively whether Central Asia is under any threat from ISIS?
Media reports are appearing with gradually increasing frequency, noise is being generated from certain quarters; there is debatably a systematic drive to create the fear of ISIS in the collective heart of Central Asia.
Curiously, every story about ISIS in Central Asia is ultimately traceable to either RFE/RL (Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty) or a so-called ‘institute’ in Russia. — This is a rather thin and narrow base for such a big story.
All the three major news services – AP, AFP and Reuters – have their stringers in Herat and/or Mazar-e-Sharif, the areas quite close to the borders of Central Asia. None of them have picked the story so far simply because there is no ISIS at the borders of Central Asia — at least, not as yet.
To examine this matter closely, several sets of questions need to be asked and answered.
The first set of questions: 1. Is there really any ISIS threat right now at the borders of Central Asia; 2. If there are any ISIS fighters in the border regions, where did they come from; 3. What is their approximate strength; 4. Where and how are they are hiding; 5. What is their source of sustenance; 6. Who is arming and financing them; and 7. What are their aims?
The second set of questions: 1. Is there any likelihood of ISIS appearing near Central Asia borders or within Central Asia; 2. Under what circumstances can they possibly appear; 3. Who would they be, foreigners or locals, or a mix of both; 4. Who would finance and support them; and 5. What would be their aims after they make their presence public and how would they go about achieving those aims?
The third set of questions: 1. If there is no ISIS along the Central Asia borders right now, why are certain quarters intent on creating the fear; 2. Does someone want to use ISIS threat for some other purpose; 3. Is it in someone’s interest that a group posing itself as ISIS appear near or inside Central Asia; 4. What is the motivation; and 5. Who would benefit?
Before looking further into ISIS, it is necessary to underline that ISIS cannot be examined in isolation from other militant tendencies and organizations. — The militant outfits tend to become brand names. The current ISIS in Iraq and Syria is a mix of former Al Qaeda fighters, members of disbanded Saddam army and assorted people driven by grievances, ideology, religion and adventure.
Returning to ISIS in Central Asia, let’s go step by step through the three sets of questions mentioned here.
The advocates of the theory that ISIS is gathering at the borders of Central Asia assert that the militants driven out of the Waziristan area of Pakistan after the army operation are regrouping along the borders of Central Asia.
This sounds like a valid argument until we remember that only three kinds of militants could have been found in Waziristan: 1. Local Waziri and Mehsud tribesmen; 2. Foreign fighters hiding in Waziristan; and 3. Pakistani criminal absconders who may have been hiding in Waziristan after committing crimes in Pakistan.
Of these, Waziris and Mehsuds, who would logically be the majority group fleeing Waziristan, cannot hide and mix in the bordering areas of Central Asia, where they would stand out like Putin in Botswana.
The Pakistani criminals would rather return to Pakistan and try to blend with the population than moving into areas where they can be spotted straight away.
The foreign fighters leaving Waziristan cannot be in very large numbers. A pentagon report some years ago put the total number of remaining Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and border areas of Pakistan to less than one hundred. Assuming that none of them has died since then, about one hundred fighters in an area that would naturally be hostile to them, cannot be a serious threat to Central Asia.
No matter how many they are, the Waziris and Mehsuds, the Pakistani criminal absconders (feraris) and the remnants of Al Qaeda would find it tremendously challenging to use border areas as a launching pad for their assault on Central Asia.
For one, all of them would be hampered by the language barrier. Pashtun is not the first language anywhere near Central Asia borders. And, these people are not known to have near-native command of the local languages such as Uzbek, Turkmen and Dari.
Then, there is the matter of local hospitality. Militancy cannot flourish without the local logistic and moral support. If we argue that these fighters could be commandeering the local resources, it should be big news already because sustaining an army of a few thousand through snatched or stolen rations cannot remain hidden for long.
Also, there is the matter of terrain. Waziristan is a natural territory for guerilla fight; the mountains, the endless labyrinths of caves, the ledges and ditches at every step, the unbelievable environment where a small group can resist a regular army for as long as it wants.
The borders of Central Asia offer no such luxury.
The satellite monitoring, the drone surveillance, the local grapevine and the border patrols are all there to provide a reliable picture of any suspicious border movement. Had there been any ISIS assemblage, it would have come to notice through multiple sources.
It can be said with reasonable certainty that there is no sizeable ISIS presence at the Central Asia borders.
Let’s therefore look at the second set of questions.
To be continued . . .