As U.S. and NATO forces drew down their military presence in Afghanistan this Summer, the country’s northern neighbors witnessed Taliban fighters swiftly overrun most of the rural parts of northern Afghanistan, establishing control over nearly all of the 1,500-mile border between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. This all happened in a matter of weeks — along with the Taliban’s capture of key border posts with Iran and Pakistan — and represents a major shift in the geostrategic context for Central Asia. The reactions of the great powers, the Taliban and the Central Asians themselves to these developments have come equally swift. How might these shifts change the calculus for conflict and cooperation between Central Asian states and between the great powers with an interest in the region?
The Taliban Surge
The pace of military developments and the rapid collapse of northern districts took many, including military planners in Afghanistan and Central Asia, off guard. In some bordering districts, Afghan military personnel and civilians were forced to cross the border and seek safety in Tajikistan or Uzbekistan under immediate Taliban military pressure. The effort appeared coordinated, and some have speculated that it is part of an attempt to preemptively seize northern districts that were a primary source of armed resistance during the Taliban’s rule.
The Taliban did not fire on or threaten Central Asian forces on the border. On the contrary, they appear to have simultaneously launched a diplomatic charm offensive aimed at reassuring their neighbors. Delegations from the Taliban’s political office visited Moscow, Tehran and Ashgabat in recent weeks in a bid to reassure these countries of their respect for their territorial integrity with a commitment to keep the war within the borders of Afghanistan. They even appeared to reassure China that they would ignore the suppression of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang in exchange for China’s support in rebuilding Afghanistan.
Reactions from Central Asia
The frontline states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan all reacted with a demonstrative flexing of military muscle, shoring up border security. The Taliban’s relationship with Central Asia, particularly Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, goes back many years. In fact, Turkmenistan kept its consulate in Herat open during the Taliban’s rule in the late 1990s. While Uzbekistan has been very active in support of the U.S.-led Afghan peace process, Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov in a June interview reminded everyone that “Uzbekistan was the first country to establish direct contacts with the leaders of Taliban,” which many observers viewed as the country adopting a more conciliatory approach to the insurgent group. Despite Tajikistan’s harsh stance on politicized Islam at home, the Tajik government appears to have softened its stance on the Taliban in recent weeks.
In August Tajikistan accepted a small number of Afghan refugees and reportedly set up tent camps for hundreds of fleeing Afghans. They also requested support for dealing with refugees from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in anticipation of more refugee flows across their border. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, on the other hand, have been very cautious in opening up their borders for refugees with the Uzbek authorities even turning back Afghan military personnel who escaped to Uzbekistan after their bases were overrun by Taliban fighters.
All of these countries will be reluctant to allow refugees in on a large scale. State capacity has been stretched thin because of COVID, which is now resurgent as the delta variant continues to spread across South and Central Asia, adding further stress on a region dealing with high levels of poverty and unemployment. At least on the surface, the Central Asian response is to watch the walls, limit the exposure and keep the lines of communication open.
The Powers That Be
Beyond the problems on the border, however, a major shift is underway in the roles of the United States, China and Russia in the region. The United States continues to actively pursue a diplomatic solution, but given the Taliban momentum on the ground, the group’s openness to a negotiated settlement seems unlikely. With U.S. and NATO forces withdrawing, the United States has left a power vacuum others will seek to fill or be drawn into.
Russia has reasserted its hard military commitment to protect its CSTO treaty allies in Central Asia from any military threat coming from Afghanistan while actively opposing U.S. efforts to place troops “over the horizon” in Central Asia. Moscow has also publicly engaged with the Taliban, seeking and receiving assurance that they will not allow Afghanistan to become a security problem for Russia and Central Asia. In essence, Moscow is asserting its own over-the-horizon role on security issues without an explicit position on the resolution of Afghanistan’s internal problems. It is also explicitly encouraging the United States to leave the neighborhood.
China has also stepped up its engagement with frontline states. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi launched a high-profile tour of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan this month on the way to a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The Taliban effort to sing Beijing’s song on the plight of the Uyghurs suggests that they want to leverage China’s and the SCO’s long-standing commitment to non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states to allow the militant group to consolidate their gains in Afghanistan. The CSTO member countries all agreed in mid-September to both deny Afghan refugees entry into their countries and to deny access to “foreign” military forces, a balance between Central Asian and Russia interests.
What to Watch
Here are three issues that will shape the trajectory of the Afghan conflict and Central Asian states response to it:
- Northern militias: One open question is how involved Central Asian states will be in ethnic dynamics across the border, given the rise of local militia groups across the country to resist the Taliban, many of which were active during war with the Soviet Union and fought against the Taliban in the 1990s. All three frontline states have ethnic Afghan brethren. In the past, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan provided financial and even military support to local Tajik and Uzbek leaders in northern Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. This includes factions loyal to Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, and the militias aligned with the son of late mujahedeen and Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik. Central Asian states will likely take their lead from Russia on this but most likely would be reluctant to be drawn into an Afghan civil war.
- The poppy trade: The last time the Taliban took power they declared and successfully enforced a ban on poppy cultivation. In the joint statement of the Taliban’s political office and the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow after their recent meeting the Taliban agreed to “eradicate drug production in the country.” While this will not have an immediate impact on the drug trade and Taliban finances since there should be enough stockpiles of opium and other products, it will boost the Taliban’s legitimacy, ease Western apprehension and help warm up relations with northern neighbors, including Russia. It could, however, have a significant long-term impact on organized crime and corruption in Central Asia, which has been a source of toxic political interference and conflict in the region.
- Regional dynamics: An important open question is how this will impact relations between Central Asian states. Over the past few years as the older generation of leadership passes in Central Asia there has been a tendency for the countries to work together as a bloc and to balance great power influence. A strong countervailing trend, however, is the simultaneous increase in nationalist and nativist political rhetoric in the region. The latter demonstratively broke out into the first organized military clash between Central Asian states last April in a social-media-fueled conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Tajikistan has turned to the CSTO for help on its border with Afghanistan and the on-going trouble on the border with Kyrgyzstan has been put on the back burner, it seems. It remains to be seen how the reconfiguration of great power influence and the common threat of the Taliban will play into these regional dynamics.
Living with the Taliban Again
One Uzbek acquaintance of one of these authors noted: “We lived with the Taliban as neighbors before, we can adjust again.” While a politically negotiated settlement between the Taliban and Afghan government would be a desirable endgame for Afghanistan, the autocratic statesmen of Central Asia may be content to live with a contained Taliban-led theocracy in Kabul, especially if it behaves itself outside its own borders.
Central Asian leaders have no particular interest in maintaining the status quo in Afghanistan and have no motivation for supporting the weak, fragmented and corrupt government in Kabul that is neither in peace with itself nor able to provide peace and security in the country. An Afghanistan engulfed in civil war would pose serious security and economic challenges to Central Asia. A descent into chaos could return Afghanistan to a hub for jihadist and criminal organizations that would greatly destabilize the entire region and impede any progress on South-Central Asia economic connectivity, trade and transit.
The Taliban, on the other hand, have tried to position themselves to be for a centralized and strong government in Afghanistan — something that the Central Asian leaders are very familiar with. As long the Taliban are willing and able to fight the Islamic State group and eliminate or contain other transnational violent extremist groups such as al-Qaida and the remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan; secure their borders; and provide for safe passage of goods and trade between Central and South Asia, Central Asian states are likely to adjust to working with them again. Time will tell.
About the Authors
Dr. Gavin Helf is a senior expert on Central Asia for the U.S. Institute of Peace where he works on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Before joining USIP, Dr. Helf worked as a senior democracy and governance advisor in the USAID Asia and Middle East bureaus, covering democracy promotion and countering violent extremism portfolios. From 2007-2009 he worked at USAID Iraq, managing and helping design much of the democracy and governance, community peace-building, and civilian assistance portfolios there during “the surge.”
Barmak Pazhwak is a senior program officer working on Afghanistan and Central Asia for the United States Institute of Peace. Previously, Pazhwak worked at the United Nations Development Program, where he was the senior international adviser to the minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, government of Afghanistan. Before that, he was director of program development and faculty with Southwestern University and Global College in Tucson, Arizona, where he developed the international development curriculum and taught courses.