WASHINGTON – There are no imminent threats from Islamist radical groups to Central Asia, but there is concerned that the groups could become a threat after the U.S. withdraws from the region is the 2014 troop drawdown in Afghanistan, a key State Department assistant secretary and other experts told the a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee Wednesday.
“We’re dealing with an area of the world where the borders were drawn by Joseph Stalin,” said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., of the region comprised of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan, which has the largest population in Central Asia, has been a significant ally to the United States in the expulsion of the Taliban from Afghanistan.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, chairman of the terrorism subcommittee, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., chairman of the Eurasia subcommittee, recently returned from a diplomatic visit to Uzbekistan. Poe said that the government is worried that the Taliban may become a threat to the security of its nation after the United States withdraws troops from Afghanistan in 2014.
“Their forecast of the future is bleak,” said Poe.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a militant Islamist group that operates along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, has worked with the Taliban in the past. Small Islamist groups like this are a threat if they become part of a larger, organized network, Jacob Zenn, research analyst of Eurasian and African Affairs for the Jamestown Foundation, said in his testimony. Funding from outside sources can help facilitate this networking.
Poe raised concerns that Pakistan plays a large role in giving money to the Taliban, which in turn can provide smaller contributions to radical Islamist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
This money can move quietly to the Islamist radical groups in Central Asia because they do not imminently threaten the region, according to Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
“Central Asia was not always on the radar screen,” said Cohen.
Contributions to radical groups emanate from the Persian Gulf in legal forms like zakat, a tax paid by citizens to the government, he said. It is collected by both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Following the tenets of the Quran, the money then is distributed by the government to individuals in need. This can lead money into the wrong hands, according to Cohen.
Drug trafficking is the other major source of money for radical Islamist groups, Cohen said. Afghan poppy products, both heroin and opium, provide major fiscal support to these groups, he said.
It is important for Uzbekistan to continue to stand with the United States against the Taliban and other threats of radical Islam as American troops leave Afghanistan, allowing for a more free rein for the groups, according to State Department Assistant Secretary Robert Blake, head of the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.