Geopolitical risk in Central Asia and AfPak: what to watch in 2023

Geopolitical risk Central Asia and AfPak SpecialEurasia
Geopolitical risk of Central Asia and AfPak (Credits: SpecialEurasia Monitoring & Risk Analysis Map)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 27 Issue 1
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi

In 2023, foreign actors’ interests, terrorism, authoritarianism, and economic slowdown might threaten Central Asia and AfPak’s security and stability and increase regional geopolitical risk.

At SpecialEurasia, we think that ‘geopolitical risk’ is the threat coming from wars, terrorist attacks, countries’ tensions, and economic crises. Therefore, considering this definition and our geopolitical methodology, we create a framework to monitor and interpret events and transform them into valuable Intelligence.

This report aims to highlight trends and challenges in Central Asia and AfPak in 2023, which analysts and local experts might investigate to understand the regional geopolitical risk and provide helpful consultancy to private and public institutions.

Central Asia
Geopolitical risk: medium

What to watch:

  • Regional stability and Central Asian governments’ strategies to avoid domestic riots.
    During the entire last year, Central Asian republics sought regional cooperation and internal stability to face the consequences of the pandemic and the Western sanctions against Russia due to the Ukraine conflict.
    Among regional problems, totalitarianism, corruption, and economic crises are the main challenges that the Central Asian government need to face to avoid local protests, political turmoil, and disappointment that might push young generations to look at jihadist terrorist groups and radicalisation as the only answer to their problem. Indeed, Although local governments have promoted different joint projects to stabilise their countries and Central Asia, the region was not immune to political turmoil as those happened in Kazakhstan, Gorno-Badakhshan (Tajikistan), and Karakalpakstan (Uzbekistan). In addition, military escalation due to border security, as happened between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in September 2022, might contribute to regional destabilisation.
  • Geopolitical competition in Central Asia among regional and international actors.
    Especially after the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, Central Asia has proven to be a geopolitical ‘battleground’ between regional and international powers. Indeed, Central Asia has a strategic value due to its geographical location in the Eurasian geopolitical chessboard, which makes the region a ‘bridge’ between Europe and Asia. During 2023, we might expect the Central Asian governments’ effort to balance between Russia, China, and the West by promoting a multilateral agenda which will consider other regional actors such as Turkey, India, Iran, and the Gulf Arab monarchies.
    Moscow has a privileged relationship with Central Asian republics thanks to the recent historical past. Indeed, the Kremlin considers Central Asia as part of its blizhnee zarubezhe (near abroad) and lebensraum (vital space), where the Russian Federation has attempted to extend its political, economic, and military ties through the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).
    Since the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launch in 2013, China has raised its role in Central Asia by investing huge financial funds into local markets and infrastructural projects. Therefore, Central Asian republics have developed a substantial economic dependence on China because Beijing owes a significant share of regional republics’ GDP and external debt.
    With the desire to diversify its import-export partners and contrast the Western sanctions’ impact on the national economy, Iran has looked at Central Asia. Indeed, over the years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has consolidated its relations with the countries of Central Asia, exploiting either the Persian common ethnic-cultural element or proposing itself as a logistic hub for the energy sector and trade corridors.
    Even though in the past NATO closed its office in Central Asia and currently Washington seems more interested in the Asia-Pacific, the United States has never abandoned the idea of exploiting soft power to enhance its presence in Central Asia and contrast Russia, China, and Iran. Therefore, Washington has promoted a strategy based on improving economic relations with local Central Asian governments and assisting them in stabilising their country through military support and equipment, especially after the U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan allowed the Taliban to take power in Kabul.
    In recent years, Turkey has emphatically promoted its Pan-Turkism and the idea of creating a Turkic geopolitical bloc among the Caucasus and Central Asia, which might confront Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union, Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, Brussels and Washington’s regional strategies and the rise of Gulf Arab monarchies in Central Asian financial market. The promotion of Turkic culture might threaten Russian and Chinese regional strategy. Pan-Turkism’s revival in Central and Western Asia might pose a threat to social stability and long-term security in Xinjiang (East Turkestan) and create an alternative socio-political, military, and economic bloc against Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).
    In 2023, in the Central Asian geopolitical ‘battleground’, the European Union might energetically attempt to promote its agenda. Indeed, considering the consequences that the Ukraine conflict and Western sanctions have caused in the energy and transport markets, whose repercussions have also hit the EU, Brussels cannot lose ground in Central Asia due to the regional interconnectivity’s role and natural resources.
    Among the international actors, during this year, Gulf Arab monarchies might become more involved in Central Asian infrastructural projects and economies since local governments look for financial partners’ diversification and foreign direct investments (FDIs). In the last years, the United Arab Emirates has shown its commitment to play a significant role in the region by promoting investments and humanitarian aid and increasing bilateral trade with local republics.
  • Terrorist threat due to the Afghan situation.
    Terrorism and jihadist propaganda still represent one of the main challenges in Central Asia. The U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s rise to power have created fertile ground for terrorist groups and activities in the Afghan territory. Therefore, neighbouring countries, especially Tajikistan, have sought cooperation with regional and international actors to increase border security and national stability.
    The ISKP might be considered the main threat to regional security due to its violent attacks and jihadist propaganda to recruit local citizens. Russia, China, and Central Asian governments are constantly monitoring the situation in Afghanistan since the Islamic State has conducted jihadist propaganda to promote its ideology and recruit Tajik, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Uighur.
    Particular attention should be paid to Tajikistan, notably after the establishment of Tehrik-e Taliban Tajikistan (TTT) in northern Afghanistan, an organisation whose purpose is to unite people from Tajikistan under the Taliban brand and overthrow the Government in Dushanbe.

AfPak
Geopolitical risk: high

What to watch:

  • Terrorism in Afghanistan and Taliban policies to face the internal socio-economic crisis.
    The Taliban government has demonstrated its inability to cope with local and international terrorism. Since the Taliban took power in the country after the U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Islamic State Khurasan Vilayat (ISKP) has increased its violent attacks against civilians and Taliban fighters. The U.S. killing of al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in August 2022 confirmed Washington’s interests in the country and the Taliban’s policy to host terrorist organisations in the country, which has become a ‘safe heaven’ for different jihadist groups.
    Due to the Taliban leadership, Afghan people face harsh economic and social conditions, especially women and ethnic minority groups, and the rise of terrorist activities, drug trafficking, and restrictive measures uncertainty marks the country’s future.
    In 2023, the Taliban interim-government might continue to promote a foreign policy to reach international recognition and economic agreements necessary to support the fragile national economy. The Taliban have adopted a foreign policy whose purpose is to attract foreign direct investments (FDIs) from regional actors (China, Pakistan, India, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Russia) and implement several ambitious transport and energy projects such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline, the Central Asia-South Asia power project (CASA-1000), and the Trans-Afghan Transport Corridor.
  • Pakistani fight against terrorist activities and Islamabad’s strategy to reassure foreign investors about national stability.
    In Pakistan, since Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) broke the peace deal with Islamabad, the country’s security situation has deteriorated. Shortly, the Pakistani government should prove its capacity to face the increasing wave of violence and possibly restore the peace deal with TTP. Indeed, violent attacks and terrorist activities might arm the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and the deterioration of the security situation in Pakistan could influence neighbouring Afghanistan, transforming the AfPak region into a terrorist hotspot and elevating the local geopolitical risk.

For further and tailored reports and analyses on Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, do not hesitate to contact us at info@specialeurasia.com.

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