icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Afghanistan’s Taliban Expand Their Interim Government
Afghanistan’s Taliban Expand Their Interim Government
Tombs in a Muslim cemetery are silhouetted during sunset in the village of Karateren near the Aral Sea, in southwestern Kazakhstan, April 2005. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
Briefing 72 / Europe & Central Asia

Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia

The Islamic State (IS) is attracting Central Asians to Syria and fostering new links among radicals within the region. Unless the five Central Asian governments develop a credible, coordinated counter-action plan, including improved security measures but also social, political and economic reforms, growing radicalism will eventually pose a serious threat to their stability.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

I. Overview

Growing numbers of Central Asian citizens, male and female, are travelling to the Middle East to fight or otherwise support the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIL orISIS). Prompted in part by political marginalisation and bleak economic prospects that characterise their post-Soviet region, 2,000-4,000 have in the past three years turned their back on their secular states to seek a radical alternative. IS beckons not only to those who seek combat experience, but also to those who envision a more devout, purposeful, fundamentalist religious life. This presents a complex problem to the governments of Central Asia. They are tempted to exploit the phenomenon to crack down on dissent. The more promising solution, however, requires addressing multiple political and administrative failures, revising discriminatory laws and policies, implementing outreach programs for both men and women and creating jobs at home for disadvantaged youths, as well as ensuring better coordination between security services.

Should a significant portion of these radicalised migrants return, they risk challenging security and stability throughout Central Asia. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan form a brittle region, sandwiched between Russia and Afghanistan, Iran and China. Each suffers from poor governance, corruption and crime. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan resemble authoritarian police states. Kazakhstan has some wealth, but its regions are in disrepair, and its political system is autocratic. All five fail to deliver quality social services, particularly in rural areas. Their security services – underfunded, poorly trained and inclined to resort to harsh methods to compensate for a lack of resources and skills – are unable to deal with a challenge as intricate as radical Islam. Rather than promoting religious freedom while safeguarding secular constitutions and attempting to learn from European or Asian experiences in rehabilitating jihadis, the five fuel further radicalisation by using laws to curb religious growth and the police to conduct crackdowns.

Recruitment to the extremist cause is happening in mosques and namazkhana(prayer rooms) across the region. The internet and social media play a critical but not definitive role. The radicalisation of women is often a response to the lack of social, religious, economic and political opportunities afforded to them in Central Asia. Economic reward is not a motivation for those drawn to IS-controlled territory. For some, it is a personal adventure; for others it is a call to arms. Many find themselves providing support services to more experienced fighters from the Caucasus or Arab states.

Ethnic Uzbeks, including citizens of Uzbekistan, are most numerous among the Central Asians with the Islamic State, but Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Turkmen and Tajiks are also well represented. Some are recruited at home; others are radicalised abroad, often as migrant workers. The problem is acute in southern Kyrgyzstan, where the risks are amplified by the alienation of the Uzbek community since the violence in Osh in 2010.

The appeal of jihadism in the region is also rooted in an unfulfilled desire for political and social change. Rich or poor, educated or not, young or mature, male or female, there is no single profile of an IS supporter, but fatigue with social and political circumstances is an important linking thread. Uzbekistan is particularly exposed. Frustrated and excluded, people who would not have considered fighting with the longer-established Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) or the Taliban in Afghanistan perceive the Islamic State as the creator of a novel and ordained political order.

The number of Central Asians receiving combat training and progressing through IS command structures is increasing, as are the jihadi networks of which they are a part. Although most Central Asians find themselves in jamaats (factions) organised loosely along ethnic and linguistic lines, these form larger regional battalions of cooperating fighters from across the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China’s Xinjiang region. The risk is rising that these connections will gather pace and purpose in Central Asia, blindsiding governments ill-prepared to respond to a security threat of this type.

Russia and China are already concerned and have urged the Central Asian states to address the problem of radicalisation in light of the rise of IS. The region’s other international partners, including, the EU and the U.S., should recognise that Central Asia is a growing source of foreign fighters and consider prioritising policing reform, as well as a more tolerant attitude to religion, in their recommendations for combating the problem. Without a concerted effort on the part of the Central Asians, including their security services with respect to intelligence sharing, however, the response outside powers seek will likely flounder.

Bishkek/Brussels, 20 January 2015

A vendor (2R) selling Taliban flags waits for customers next to a large Taliban flag in Kabul on 24 September 2021. Hoshang Hashimi / AFP
Q&A / Asia

Afghanistan’s Taliban Expand Their Interim Government

The Taliban have made additional appointments to their cabinet. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Ibraheem Bahiss discusses what the moves may mean for Afghan politics and international reactions to the new government.

What do the new appointments signify?

On 22 September, the Taliban published several new appointments, including at ministerial levels. The announcement came a day after the Chinese, Russian and Pakistani envoys met with the head of the Taliban government, Mullah Hassan Akhund, calling for more inclusive governance. The list of new appointees very slightly broadens the new government’s makeup, as the interim administration is no longer composed entirely of Taliban stalwarts. Most of the new appointees either have no prior affiliation with the group or are not prominent members of it. Key appointees such as the ministers for trade and public health, and their deputies, do not appear to have past affiliations with the Taliban. Others with no formal connection with the movement include Nazar Mohammad Mutmaeen, head of the National Olympic Committee, and Najeebullah, head of atomic energy. Still, many of these outsiders are considered sympathetic to the Taliban.

Has the interim government now become inclusive?

The [interim] government is still dominated by the Taliban's clergy.

Yes, slightly. With these additions, the new government now counts four Tajiks, two Uzbeks, one Turkmen, one Hazara, one Nuristani (an ethnic group native to Nuristan province) and one Khwaja (claiming Arabic lineage, Khwajas generally speak Dari as their native tongue). With a total of 53 members, this expanded cabinet is a small gesture toward including ethnic minorities, though it is still dominated by Pashtuns. Several of the new names appear to have been selected, in part, because of their ethnic backgrounds or professional experience. Noorudin Azizi, the new trade minister, is from Panjshir province, where the Taliban have been fighting the remnants of the Northern Resistance Front (NRF). Azizi and his two deputies are businessmen from the north, with no known affiliation with the Taliban. The new health minister, Qalandar Ebad, and his two deputies, all three of whom are medical doctors, also do not appear to be Taliban members. While the government is still dominated by the Taliban’s clergy, there are now a number of technocrats in less prominent ministries. The current list has at least three appointees with degrees in engineering, four with medical training and one with a doctorate. By contrast, there are at least fourteen maulawis or qualified clerics in the interim government. Some appointments, such as the new chancellor of Kabul University, have generated widespread debates, even among Taliban figures, on whether the leadership made the appointments sufficiently based on merit.

Do the appointments include women or former establishment figures?

Despite continued international pressure, the Taliban have so far failed to appoint any women in their cabinet. Their failure to do so exacerbates concerns about significant deterioration in women’s rights under the new regime, especially after the new government announced that secondary school would resume for male students only, while claiming that female students will be able to return in the near future. No public explanation has been provided for why girls have been prevented from resuming their education. In addition, the majority of women in the public sector have not yet been allowed to return to work.

Similarly, the Taliban have resisted calls from regional and Western governments to include figures from the previous Western-backed political establishment. Taliban interlocutors claim to Crisis Group that despite an internal push by some members to include figures associated with the former system in the new government, most of the top Taliban leadership has so far opposed such a move due to the perception that former politicians were corrupt and discredited. Perhaps more importantly, there were also concerns among the Taliban that if they moved to bring in either women or former politicians, they could risk backlash from the rank and file, who might view the leadership as betraying their ideals. The resurgence of the Islamic State Khorasan Province, which has sought to portray the Taliban as compromising their Islamist credentials, is likely to further diminish prospects for inclusion.

Do the appointments signal any significant shift in Taliban policy?

Although the inclusion of more officials from minority groups is something Western and regional governments have been pushing for, these nominations do not indicate that the Taliban are yet willing to make any significant concessions for the sake of international recognition, sanctions relief or the resumption of aid flows from Western governments. Many of the new appointments seem designed largely to strike an internal balance by accommodating various Taliban factions that felt neglected following the first round of nominations. For example, Sadr Ibrahim and Qayyum Zakir, two prominent commanders from Helmand province, have been appointed as deputy ministers for interior and defence, respectively. Gul Mohammad, another important figure within the faction associated with former Taliban leader Mullah Mansour, has been appointed as deputy minister of borders and tribal affairs. Maulawi Abdul Rahman Rashid, an ethnic Uzbek from current Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Baradar’s faction, is now the minister of agriculture. These appointments are likely to reduce tensions that appear to have resulted from the first round of nominations. They reaffirm the notion that as the Taliban continue to expand their cabinet and administration, they will likely prioritise the movement’s internal cohesion over external considerations.

The Taliban’s decision not to offer any ministerial positions to women ... deals yet another blow to hopes that the movement will be susceptible to external leverage.

The Taliban’s decision not to offer any ministerial positions to women or former establishment politicians deals yet another blow to hopes that the movement will be susceptible to external leverage. The group’s latest appointments appear to have been designed to make the government ever so slightly more inclusive, perhaps indicating a certain degree of pragmatism. But the Taliban’s rhetoric on sanctions is becoming increasingly uncompromising. The paucity of Taliban concessions is bad news for foreign powers concerned about finding counterparts in the new government for the work ahead on mitigating the humanitarian catastrophe already under way, Afghanistan’s impending economic collapse and the prospect of large-scale forced migration. Without any clear signs that the Taliban are willing to work toward a more inclusive governance model, donors remain understandably wary of empowering a regime at the early stages of what remains an uncertain transition from militancy to government.