Afghanistan creates tricky new reality for Central Asia

The five post-Soviet Central Asia states find themselves in a newly difficult position as they navigate the return of the Taliban.

Expert comment Published 27 August 2021 3 minute READ

Unlike the West, the Central Asian states have been preparing for the return of the Taliban to neighbouring Afghanistan for several years, building up their diplomatic relationships and enhancing domestic security, but the takeover leaves them facing enormous challenges.

The uncertainty of the situation in Afghanistan and whether the Taliban can keep its security guarantees to Moscow of preventing the export of extremism is a worry, but Russia is also using the momentum and the ignominy of the US withdrawal to deepen its security involvement in the region, whether the region wants it or not.

Central Asia governments have to tread carefully with their actions and messaging towards both actors as despite Russia – and even the US – exaggerating the security risks over the last 20 years, the risks for Central Asia are certainly real.

Russia’s military might is unlikely to contain any unpredictable and asymmetrical warfare from extremist groups, while deeper military engagement in the region poses risks

The Afghanistan crisis makes vast swathes of the population vulnerable to more extremist forms of Islam, and the Taliban’s jihadist ideology could inspire domestic Islamic groups to become more active in the region – as witnessed in the 1990s when the Afghan mujahideen’s propaganda spread quickly in Central Asia.

Serious threat to regional security

Afghan territory became the epicentre of international terrorist and religious-extremist organizations, such as the Islamic Movement of Turkestan, posing a serious threat to the security and stability of the region’s countries. As regional governments battled to suppress non-state-sanctioned religious movements, their own domestic situations became more brittle as these movements went underground and become more politicized.

Without the buffer of the Northern Alliance – a military alliance of rebel groups which operated along the borders after the Taliban last came to power in Afghanistan – militant Islam in Afghanistan is more dangerous today for Central Asian countries.

The Taliban owes some of its recent victory and expansion to the fact that disenfranchised ethnic minorities, including Tajiks and Uzbeks, in Afghanistan have joined the Taliban’s fight. And Ashraf Ghani’s government fell for reasons which keep several Central Asian governments awake at night – a lack of legitimacy, the perception of corruption, increased religiosity, and a disenfranchised population.

In Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, a generation of young adults facing a lack of opportunity and omnipresent corruption question their governments’ rule – especially in Uzbekistan which has gained more religious freedom under President Shavkhat Mirzioiyev.

Support for both the strong governance of Vladimir Putin and the Taliban is growing among this segment of the population, so, if extremist elements penetrate, they will find fertile ground.

But Central Asia’s overall response to the Taliban is complicated with the region far from homogenous in its views. Tajik president Emomali Rahmon has not engaged with the Taliban and warns that Dushanbe will not recognize a new government in Kabul if it undermines the interests of ethnic Tajiks and other ethnic minorities in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile Taliban representatives have reassured Turkmen officials that pipeline connecting Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India will be completed – although in reality this is highly unlikely.

Uzbekistan is treading carefully following its concerted diplomatic and commercial engagement effort after President Shavkhat Mirzioiyev came to power in 2016. Envisaging new economic and trade opportunities and shorter routes to the sea, trade and economic exchanges with Afghanistan were boosted.

Kazakhstan, which does not share a border with Afghanistan, is being true to its fabled multi-vector foreign policy by taking meetings with senior Russian government figures to address a coordinated response, while also hosting temporary United Nations offices formerly located in Afghanistan. And Turkmenistan, economically on its knees, wants security assistance from Russia and China for its 700-kilometre desert border with Afghanistan.

Growing reliance on Russia

This divergence in response among the Central Asian countries only forces them to rely even more on Russia, the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), and China. Although not a CSTO member, Uzbekistan is participating in the CSTO Collective Security Council and could join if the regional security situation significantly deteriorates.

The security challenges faced by Central Asian countries are highlighted by a refusal by both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to allow refugees in permanently

Ostensibly Central Asia’s main security guarantor since the Soviet period, Russia traditionally exaggerates the security threat to advance its security presence and security infrastructure in the territory of its southern neighbours. Now it is again flexing military muscles and deepening engagement in the region with increased military exercises.

But even Russia’s military might is unlikely to contain any unpredictable and asymmetrical warfare from extremist groups, while deeper military engagement in the region poses risks given Russia’s own conflict with Islamic extremism in the North Caucasus and possible security threats among migrant communities from Central Asia.

By withdrawing from Afghanistan, the US has created a vacuum which its two main rivals, China and particularly Russia, will happily fill where possible.

And with these two countries’ already opaque involvement in security in the region and the drug trade, it will become harder for the US to re-engage and apply conditional aid, especially as Russia is working so hard to keep the US out of Central Asia.

The security challenges faced by Central Asian countries are highlighted by a refusal by both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to allow refugees in permanently out of a fear they might be accompanied by militant extremists.

The governments must tread a delicate line with their newly resurgent southern neighbour to ensure promises are kept about restraining the spreading of uncontrolled weaponry, the export of extremism, the rise of drug trafficking, and terrorist threats.

This, however, means recognizing the Taliban – currently an officially banned terrorist movement in the region – once it forms a government, and it remains unclear if the Taliban can do so including representatives from the region’s many different ethnic groups and political forces.

Regardless of that, the Taliban is going to struggle to gain wider international recognition which will continue to stymie the restoration of the Afghan US dollar-denominated banking sector on which regional Central Asian trade heavily depends.

The Central Asian states may fear the Taliban and its influence in their countries but, owing to their proximity to Afghanistan, they must try to find a way of cooperating with it, whatever shape or form it takes – and with Russia.