Forceful Displays and Soft Rhetoric: Central Asia’s Response to Developments in Afghanistan
This piece is a collaboration between the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs.
The swift fall of the Afghan government and Taliban takeover over the past few weeks poses challenges for the countries to the north. Central Asian governments desire a stable and secure government in Afghanistan that can prevent the spillover of a destabilizing conflict across their borders. In addition, while Afghanistan is less of a lucrative market for trade with Central Asia, with less than $2 billion in trade per year, it is crucial to connecting the region with the 1.5 billion-person combined markets of Pakistan and India.
Several major infrastructure projects are currently planned to run through Afghanistan, including the Central Asia-South Asia Electricity Transmission Project (CASA-1000), a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan Power Interconnection Project (TAP), and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Gas Pipeline Project (TAPI). For these projects to achieve sufficient investment and execution, however, Central Asia needs to prove that it and Afghanistan are sufficiently stable.
More important than these problem-laden projects is the narcotics trade. Of the three Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan, the largest amount of narcotics pass through Tajikistan en route to China, Russia, and Europe, and drug trafficking is now estimated to comprise 30% of Tajikistan’s GDP. If the Taliban do follow through on their promises to eliminate production of heroin in Afghanistan, it could enormously impact Tajikistan’s economy. However, given the group’s reliance on the heroin trade as a cash crop, it seems most likely that things will remain business as usual.
With these interests in mind, Central Asia has significantly increased its efforts to create a more united regional front, with three summits of Central Asian heads of state since 2018. These summits have been organized in parallel with international conferences meant to attract investments in Central Asia connectivity, including a conference in Tashkent in July that gathered 44 countries and 30 international organizations.
Preparing for the Fall
As the Taliban quickly gained control of Afghanistan’s borders with Central Asia at the beginning of July, neighboring states seemed to be taken by surprise. Turkmenistan reportedly rushed military forces to the Afghan border on July 10 as the Taliban captured nearby towns. Around the same time, Uzbekistan began conducting military preparedness exercises and sent more troops to the border, while Tajikistan called up reservists to fortify its 1,344 kilometer border with Afghanistan. Tajikistan also held a combat-readiness exercise in late July, ostensibly mustering over 200,000 active-duty and reserve military, though reports from Sughd, Bohtar, and the Rasht valley suggest the actual numbers were far lower than the government claimed.
Just before and after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan engaged in several military exercises, including a week-long set of military drills with Russia, during which forces practiced “action against invading militants.” Tajikistan also conducted an anti-terror drill with China on August 18. These drills were a clear warning for the Taliban and any other armed groups in Afghanistan to stay out of Central Asia.
Faced with the prospect of Taliban rule, Central Asian countries have softened their rhetoric toward the group. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have made statements expressing intentions of “friendship and good-neighborliness” with Afghanistan. Both countries’ consulates in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Herat remain open and operational, and officials from Turkmenistan have met on multiple occasions with Taliban leadership in Afghanistan.
But Tajikistan’s stance has been less cordial. President Rahmon reportedly expressed concern about terrorist groups along the Tajik border at the August 6 summit of Central Asian leaders in Turkmenistan. After seizing checkpoints near the Tajik border in June, the Taliban put Jamaat Ansarullah, a Tajik terrorist group that reportedly aims to overthrow the Dushanbe government, in charge of five districts in Badakhshan along the Tajikistan border. Although the country’s tone has softened recently, referring to the Taliban as an “armed group” rather than an extremist organization.
Hard Stance on Afghan Refugees
Afghanistan is in the grips of a humanitarian catastrophe, with many trying to flee to the north. Meanwhile, the approaches of Central Asian countries to refugees from Afghanistan have diverged. Turkmenistan has adamantly rejected refugees from Afghanistan, including ethnic Turkmen. Apart from a vague announcement that the country is providing its “airspace” for the evacuation of international personnel from Afghanistan, it does not appear that the country has assisted directly with evacuations either.
Uzbekistan has similarly denied Afghan refugees entry into the country. Despite this, hundreds of Afghan soldiers have entered Uzbekistan over the past few days. Although some of these refugees are being held temporarily in tent camps, the country insists that they will not stay and has even returned some refugees to Afghanistan after negotiations with the Taliban. Uzbekistan has been more cooperative in assisting the evacuation of other countries from Afghanistan, however, evacuating at least 1,982 citizens of foreign countries through Uzbekistan in the past few days.
By early July, Tajikistan had already taken in over 1000 refugees, and by late July the Tajikistan government announced it was prepared to accept up to 100,000 Afghan refugees, but has remained silent on the issue since. Like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan has acted as a transit country for personnel of Western countries evacuating Afghanistan.
Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, announced that it would issue 500 visas to assist Afghan students, though it has not announced any further plans to accept refugees. After rumors that Kazakhstan was preparing to accept up to 70,000 refugees led to some public outcry, the country reversed its preparations and announced that it would only assist UN employees evacuating Afghanistan upon official request.
Implications of Central Asia’s Response
The military posturing and reticence to shelter refugees indicates that these countries are deeply concerned about the potential not only for Taliban aggression, but for infiltration by other extremist militant organizations operating out of Afghanistan, which they fear may enter the countries disguised as refugees. Furthermore, they may feel the Taliban is more likely to assist with fighting groups like IS-Khorasan Province if they maintain good relations with the group. Accepting refugees that are enemies of the Taliban would undermine these efforts.
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan’s friendly posturing toward the Taliban also reflects the priorities of these governments: moving forward with transregional infrastructure projects that would be a huge boon to both countries’ economies. The Taliban insisted back in February that they would guarantee the safety of the trans-Afghanistan gas pipeline, and Central Asian countries would not want to put these projects in jeopardy by antagonizing them. Tajikistan’s greater fear of threats by militant groups means it has been less enthusiastic about the Taliban, but potential gains in electricity exports through the CASA-1000 project upon completion of Tajikistan’s massive Rogun hydroelectric dam may explain its still-muted public response toward the Taliban.
It is exceedingly difficult at this point to predict how events will unfold as the situation quickly develops in Afghanistan. The response of Central Asia thus far, however, provides an important indicator of the countries’ immediate concerns and strategic priorities, and can provide clues as to how they will continue to react as the situation in Afghanistan unfolds.
Jonathan Meyer is a Research Assistant at the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and an MA student at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where he studies conflict management. He previously worked in the Kyrgyz Republic for two years with the Peace Corps, living in Jalal-Abad Oblast. His research interests include ethnic and border disputes, nationalism, and conflict resolution.