The central location of Central Asia is a critical factor in shaping the geoeconomic dynamics of the region, as it lies at the crossroads of multiple economic and political forces. The sudden withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan in August 2021 has created uncertainty for the future of Central Asia, intensifying the region’s landlocked status and hindering efforts to establish direct connections to global waterways. The five nations of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – have deep cultural, political, linguistic, and illicit linkages with their southern neighbor.
Central Asia has experienced a period of relative steadiness in the past 25 years, but the region’s fate remains uncertain. Governments have undergone various transformations in politics, economics, and society but have managed to withstand internal and external pressures without collapsing. Various factors, including political transitions, the collapse of Soviet infrastructure, uneven economic growth rates, and divergent foreign policies, are driving Central Asian states towards different political, security, and economic factions, ultimately shaping their present and future.
Presently, the fragile situation in Afghanistan poses a significant threat to regional stability, despite the significant efforts of the international community. While some domestic reforms have yielded positive outcomes, others have negatively impacted the region’s stability and economic development. The strategic location and resource wealth of the region has attracted the interests of major powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia, potentially leading to either prosperity or conflict depending on the choices made by the Central Asian nations themselves.
The Taliban’s Afghanistan takeover presents obstacles and opportunities for the region’s politico-economic future, making it crucial to examine potential pathways for Central Asian republics to navigate their challenges.
The swift triumph of the Taliban in Afghanistan caught Central Asian governments off-guard, leaving them susceptible to potential surges in terrorism and extremism. Despite their past support for anti-Taliban factions and the US-led NATO campaign, these officials are now open to pragmatic dealings with the new Taliban regime. If the Taliban can effectively maintain security and facilitate trade, they may even be welcomed to safeguard foreign investments and infrastructures. Central Asia faces a trinity of vexing challenges after the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. The first and most pressing issue is the uncertain fate of the newly formed government in Afghanistan. The Central Asians’ efforts to expand their transportation network would be scuttled should the government collapse or the country’s economic situation deteriorate.
The second problem is their lack of intraregional cooperation and coordination, which limits the efficacy of their collective endeavors. Central Asia is considered one of the world’s least collaborative and coordinated regions, lacking interregional cooperation that can be seen elsewhere in South Asia, Scandinavia, and the Caribbean.
The third challenge they face is the shortage of resources to achieve their objectives either individually or collectively, necessitating external aid and support from international financial institutions. While Russia and China have made significant investments in Central Asian transportation, these initiatives are designed primarily to benefit their own interests. However, with the development of trans-Afghan transport routes from 2001 to 2021, both powers may show interest in supporting such initiatives again, potentially bringing Afghanistan closer to the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union.
Nevertheless, the end of the conflict and the cessation of Western aid pose substantial challenges for both Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics, creating a greater incentive for them to eliminate trade barriers, conclude infrastructure projects, and foster greater integration. With the opportunity to access Indian Ocean ports through Afghanistan, landlocked Central Asian nations stand to gain much from such endeavors. However, the Taliban’s victory could also increase support for violent extremist ideologies across Eurasia, given the presence of Central Asian fighters in Afghanistan and the continued threat of al-Qaeda and ISIS. While the Taliban leadership has pledged to renounce international terrorism and combat the ISKP, it remains uncertain whether all members will abstain from supporting them or turn a blind eye to their jihadist activities.
Talking about the opportunities for CARs following the Taliban’s takeover of the Afghan government, the Central Asian Republics can benefit from closer economic ties with Afghanistan, which can serve as a transit hub for goods and services flowing between South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. This could lead to increased regional economic integration and trade.
The landlocked Central Asian countries can also access Indian Ocean ports by using Afghanistan as a gateway.
This expansion of trade networks could lead to access to new markets. Additionally, there is an opportunity for the Central Asian Republics to collaborate with Afghanistan to develop energy infrastructure, such as oil and gas pipelines, that would allow them to export their energy resources to global markets.
Moreover, if Afghanistan seeks to rebuild its economy and infrastructure, there may be significant opportunities for foreign investment. Central Asian Republics could leverage their proximity and cultural ties to Afghanistan to attract investment and participate in these opportunities. Finally, if the Taliban can control transnational terrorist threats, criminal organizations, and mass migration, it could contribute to greater regional stability and security, benefiting the Central Asian Republics. These opportunities can transform the region and strengthen its economy, infrastructure, and security.
From a geoeconomic perspective, Central Asia occupies a strategically important position that enables it to serve as a key transit hub for regional trade and transportation networks. Central Asia’s location at the intersection of East-West and North-South corridors makes it a vital link between the markets of Europe and Asia. As such, the region has significant potential as a transit route for oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure projects that could connect the region to global markets. This strategic location gives Central Asian countries a unique advantage in attracting investment and engaging in regional trade. They can serve as a gateway for goods and services flowing between different regions.
The writer works as a researcher with China-Pakistan Study Centre at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. She also writes for different media outlets in Pakistan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org