By George Friedman
On Jan. 27, an unnamed preacher on the Islamic State’s radio station, Voice of the Caliphate, broadcasting in eastern Afghanistan, said that Muslims were determined to oust infidel governments from regions that he called East Turkistan and Khorasan province. East Turkistan includes parts of China’s Xinjiang province, Balkh province in northern Afghanistan and Bukhara in Uzbekistan, while Khorasan is the medieval name for Afghanistan and adjoining parts of neighboring countries.
The tendency is to dismiss this statement as one of many, not backed by an effective fighting force and unlikely to succeed under any circumstances. All of this is true, but nothing that IS says ought to be discarded out of hand. The group’s exploits in Iraq and Syria surprised many, and the assumption that it can’t expand to other theaters is just that, an assumption.
Central Asia, with Afghanistan to the south and Xinjiang province in China to the north, is particularly susceptible to instability. The drop in energy prices has left some of the nations in difficult situations. The financial crisis leaves these countries’ regimes vulnerable. With the exception of Xinjiang and Afghanistan, these are former Soviet republics. While the formal Marxist-Leninist ideology never penetrated their societies as deeply as it did in Russia, the Soviet-era governments did use it to legitimize the state. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Soviet-style state survived, remaining in power by distributing money. Some were already shaky precisely because the states lacked what we might call financial legitimacy. Now, however, most of the states lack financial legitimacy and face growing signs of social unrest, political factionalism within the elite and, accordingly, even greater reluctance on the part of investors to become involved in the region.
Islam was one of the many cultural elements suppressed during the Soviet era, but it could not be completely stifled. Islam went too far back in the region and it represented the only meaningful ideological alternative to the regimes. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, there was some Islamic re-emergence but it was contained by a combination of Soviet-era secularism and economic success. With that success gone, the door is open to ideology and the most likely source is the past Islamic tradition.
This region hasn’t been fertile soil for Islamists since the founding of the Soviet Union, but events have evolved in such a way that might well give them an opportunity. The war in Afghanistan, which has really been under way since the Soviet invasion in December 1979, has drawn in some elements from Uzbekistan in complex and ambiguous roles. They may be an unlikely conduit of radical Islamism to Central Asia. And while the Taliban may not be seen as friendly in the region, Afghanistan is still full of radical Islamists, and however conflicted they are with each other and with some groups in Central Asia, a carefully organized campaign might help energize underlying Islamist tendencies.
The same can be said for Xinjiang. There is an intense Islamist movement in this region, which the Chinese are trying to suppress. In this process, the Uighurs – the natives of Xinjiang – are becoming increasingly radicalized and must seek safe haven outside the region, allowing them to transmit their ideology beyond the borders.
I am citing the two cases of Xinjiang and Afghanistan only because of their physical proximity to Central Asia. There are others, and people from as far away as Chechnya could easily come to the region. The important thing to bear in mind is that when the state weakens, the security apparatus weakens. And when the security apparatus weakens, actions that could not be imagined under other circumstances become conceivable.
Most Islamist movements are based locally or nationally. In spite of sharing religion, other characteristics such as ethnicity and language become barriers. IS has come close to transcending that problem by integrating movements as far flung as those in Nigeria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Turkey, at least through declarations of allegiance. But this pledged loyalty does not translate into united action. Further, the ability to transmit operational elements to raise consciousness and resistance has not been seen, and certainly not at great distance. But there is an element of IS in Afghanistan and it is imagining moving into Central Asia. It has to be taken seriously.
Anything that expands IS is serious. But here the matter is compounded by the fact that while most of Eurasia is destabilizing, Central Asia is only teetering on the edge of instability. We expect it to go over the edge, which would mean not only another unstable region in Eurasia, but a region both unstable and to some degree involved with IS. If we extrapolate even further, imagine a Central Asia that is both actively Islamist and at least in part under the control of IS.
It might be a stretch to go from the statement of an anonymous preacher on an obscure radio station in Afghanistan to a vision of geopolitical destabilization in the center of Eurasia. But it might not. It would be irresponsible to completely dismiss the possibility, and sometimes intelligence like this gives us a sense of what is coming. I am sure that Central Asia is destabilizing. I find it likely that what emerges from that destabilization will include a dimension of radical Islamism. I see no reason why IS wouldn’t try to fish in these waters.