Taliban Takeover Concerns Afghanistan’s Northern Neighbors
The rapid resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan amidst a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops by September 11, 2021, has revamped concerns for Central Asian countries seeking to maintain stability in the region. On August 15, Taliban leaderswere filmed in the Presidential Palace in Kabul hours after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, suggesting that the Taliban had assumed control of the country’s government in mere weeks after President Biden announced his withdrawal date. Scenes captured by Afghan citizens on the ground paint a grim picture. Thousands attempted to board planes, even flooding onto the runways, at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as chaos ensued on the streets of the capital city.
On August 6, leaders of the five Central Asian republics met in Turkmenbashi to discuss the possible implications for regional security of insurgents spilling across Afghanistan’s borders. Worries that a deteriorating humanitarian country could result in floods of refugees across the borders and a resurgence in religious extremist groups in the region are major concerns for the Central Asian leaders. Nevertheless, while the meeting presented a united Central Asia against the Taliban, recent events have forced each Central Asian country to reevaluate independently its relationship with Afghanistan and the Taliban, especially those sharing a border with Afghanistan: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
Tajikistan has adopted a harsh stance against the Taliban in recent years, branding the organization a terrorist and extremist group. However, the Taliban commandeered the 843-mile Afghan-Tajik border consisting of six crossings responsible for facilitating trade between the two countries. The seizure of main border crossings prompted more than 1,000 Afghan soldiers to flee into Tajikistan. The soldiers were repatriated to Kabul, but the arrival of fleeing Afghan troops and worries that a humanitarian crisis could lead to thousands of civilians flooding across the border have shifted Tajikistan’s stance on the Taliban. Tajik state media have been more cautious of outright criticism of the Taliban, likely hoping to receive assurance that the Taliban would respect Tajik sovereignty. Furthermore, Tajikistan could also be placing itself in a position to more easily stamp out Tajik militants fighting alongside the Taliban, often referred to as Jamaat Ansarullah, by relieving concerns that the Taliban could initiate an offensive attack against Tajikistan. In doing so, Tajikistan might dedicate more resources to quelling Jamaat Ansarullah. Fears that trouble could spill over the borders have also revived discussions of hosting joint Russian military drills with Central Asian countries.
Uzbekistan appears to have taken a softer approach towards the Taliban in Afghanistan. In June 2018, Uzbekistan established relations with the Taliban after inviting Taliban members to participate in a conference in Tashkent, although the Taliban declined the invitation. Uzbekistan deepened its involvement in Afghanistan by spearheading peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Kabul. While Uzbekistan hopes to sustain cordial relations with its southern neighbor, its most pressing priority is securing its borders from a possible spillover of violence spearheaded by Islamic extremists.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Uzbekistan adopted a more aggressive approach to the Taliban, allowing the United States to use the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in southeastern Uzbekistan to conduct air operations in Afghanistan against the Taliban. Former President Islam Karimov’s rule and the presence of U.S. troops in Uzbekistan resulted in disgruntled Uzbeks forming the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), deemed a terrorist organization by Uzbekistan. The IMU was granted permission to train in Taliban-controlled areas in Afghanistan, as well as in Pakistan, with the goal of toppling the government in Tashkent. Even though the IMU dissolved, Uzbekistan might focus on brokering a peace agreement with the Taliban to avoid the same challenges it faced 20 years ago. Moreover, Uzbekistan experienced a shift in foreign policy by increasing its regional and global engagement after President Shavkat Mirziyoyev assumed power, which could explain Uzbekistan’s eagerness to broker the peace deal.
Turkmenistan appears to be forming the friendliest relations with the Taliban amongst the Central Asian republics. On February 6, 2021, Ashgabat welcomed a delegation of Taliban members to reportedly discuss vital infrastructure projects, such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) power line. Details of the discussion remain scant, but Turkmenistan’s eagerness to secure reliable electricity transmission lines and pipelines to export its natural gas to outside markets could be driving its desire to engage with the Taliban. Moreover, Turkmenistan has historically maintained neutral relations with the Taliban. In the 1990s, Turkmenistan kept its consulate in Herat operational despite the Taliban ruling the country during the decade.
Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan share substantial and porous borders with Afghanistan, raising alarm that violence in their southern neighbor could quickly spill over into their countries. Each Central Asian country has formulated its own independent policy towards Afghanistan, but most align with the principle of avoiding any direct military confrontation with the Taliban. They criticize the Taliban, but regional unity against the Taliban remains weak. Each Central Asian republic seems to be pursuing its own independent foreign policy toward the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. A more unified response could address fears of unrest spilling into the region. Central Asian countries should remain alert to Taliban offenses, and they should avoid any hasty agreements with the organization.