Afghanistan and Central Asia (CA)
In 2022, the security environment along the borders of Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan with Afghanistan will remain challenging and unpredictable. While Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers have made promises to prevent foreign terrorist fighters from coordinating attacks abroad from their territory, the deadly Kabul Airport attack on 26 August 2021, and subsequent mass casualty attacks in urban areas, demonstrates the Taliban’s failure to contain the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) group, despite a draconian campaign of mass arrests and extrajudicial killings. IS-K and other groups also seek to expand their operations further afield into Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China, by stepping up recruitment from these countries.
According to the United Nations, there were approximately 8,000-10,000 foreign terrorist fighters in Afghanistan. Those terrorist fighters will continue to pose a serious regional security threat in 2022.
Moreover, while the Taliban had only limited contacts and influence with militant groups that challenged the new post-communist governments of Central Asia in the 1990s, the fragmentation of Afghanistan in that era saw large numbers of these countries’ nationals, especially from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, travel to Afghanistan to learn terror tactics. There is now a serious risk of this happening once again; while IS-K has a light footprint outside of Afghanistan, dozens of Islamist suspects were already arrested in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for their alleged participation in extremist organisations in the closing months of 2021.
Furthermore, other existing issues such as drug trafficking and illegal migration will further increase in 2022. According to local sources, the last months saw thousands of Afghans’ attempts to illegally cross the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border whereas a large amount of drugs emanating from Afghanistan was reported in Tajikistan in October.
With vulnerable economies, poor human rights’ records and weak institutions susceptible to corruption, Afghanistan’s neighbours will struggle to handle the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people as well as manage the risk of cross-border clashes with smugglers and terrorists.
Central Asian governments’ efforts, except for Tajikistan, to build diplomatic and intelligence-sharing relationships with the Taliban are unlikely to prevent possible cross-border attacks, the flow of suspected terrorists, export of extremism, as well as to respond effectively to drug trafficking and illegal migration issues in the near- or medium-term.
Despite the economic leverage these nations hold over Afghanistan’s new rulers, the Taliban has proven unwilling or incapable of coordinating closely with any of its neighbours, save Pakistan, on these issues. Central Asian governments have turned to Russia and China for assistance.
India and Sri Lanka
India faces threats from both Hindu and Islamist extremism. Violent attacks by members of right-wing Hindu groups targeting Muslim individuals and businesss have been on the rise since the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014. The government has since introduced controversial policy changes such as revoking the semi-autonomous status of the Muslim-majority region of Jammu and Kashmir and a citizenship law that rendered many Muslims stateless.
India is also grappling with the threat of Islamist extremism, which is likely to intensify in the medium-term following the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. In the 1990s, the Taliban provided safe haven to Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba which have been responsible for multiple attacks across India, particularly in Kashmir.
The renewed opportunity for these groups to strengthen their bases in Afghanistan significantly complicates Indian counterinsurgency operations in Kashmir. Grievances in the country over the current government’s treatment of Muslim minorities act as a catalyst for radicalising youths who go on to join militant organisations.
A similarly tense environment surrounding extremism exists in Sri Lanka where the government has been criticised for its Prevention of Terrorism Act. Counterterrorism raids and arrests have increased nationwide following a large-scale militant attack in 2019 targeting three churches, which was later claimed by a home-grown jihadist group with links to the Islamic State (IS).
The policies undertaken by authorities and operations conducted by security forces are believed to be increasingly targeting the country’s minority Muslim population. Additionally, tensions prevail in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces, particularly in areas occupied by the former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), due to the strong presence of security forces who are believed to oppress the local Hindu Tamil minorities. Further extremist attacks in the future, whether conducted by Muslim or Hindu outfits, cannot be ruled out due to the perceived mistreatment of minorities by the authorities.