From the Ferghana Valley to South Waziristan

The Evolving Threat of Central Asian Jihadists

Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are active fronts in the wider conflict against violent extremism centered on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although these states are less prominent in discussions about U.S. security interests in the region than nuclear-armed Pakistan, their stability is an important and unacknowledged component of the AfPak equation. And, as conditions in Afghanistan continue to deteriorate, the menace of jihadism could eventually worsen into a strategic threat for Central Asian states, particularly when paired with a succession crisis, natural disaster, or other sudden shock. Beyond threatening indigenous regimes, some Central Asia militants have also demonstrated a clear intent to mount operations against foreign targets, both within the broader region and, in the case of the Sauerland Plot, in the European Union.

Alarmist predictions have dogged Central Asia since the breakup of the Soviet Union, yet the region has proved remarkably resilient. Despite Tajikistan’s civil war and episodic outbreaks of violence in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, stability has been the rule and disorder the exception. Amid much ambiguity, the region has “muddled through.” It may continue to do so, but declining labor remittances, looming succession struggles, latent ethnic tensions, counterproductive government policies, and returning militants are conspiring against the forces of stasis.

Taking a proactive approach toward these challenges will be difficult. Regional complexities defy simple solutions, and a fractured U.S. economy and misgivings about foreign entanglements make greater engagement with Central Asia a hard political sell domestically. But U.S. policymakers should not wait for militancy in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to become entrenched before taking action. This report reviews the progress and prospects of militancy in these states, examines its interrelation with events in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and offers specific recommendations for a preemptive regional strategy to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda–style jihadism in the region.

Daniel Kimmage, Thomas M. Sanderson, and David A. Gordon