Case Study of Afghanistan (under Taliban’s Regime) and Central Asian Republics

Afghanistan is located in the South of the Central Asian Republics, bordering Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, which resulted in a major geostrategic shift for Central Asian Republics. The announcement of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the de-Americanization of security in Central and South Asia has led to new opportunities for regional powers and Afghanistan’s neighbors. The neighbors as well as regional powers have little choice but to engage with the Afghan Taliban regime. The border states reacted with a demonstrative flexing of military muscle, sustaining the security of borders. Tajikistan had already accepted Afghan refugees and also requested support from Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in this regard.

Uzbekistan is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and has not been particularly accommodating refugees, human rights organizations have encouraged Uzbekistan to do something more for Afghans. Tashkent is not keen on the inhabitation of Afghans in the region, despite Uzbekistan permitting international partners to transit Afghans and others via its territory. A big group of Afghan pilots who had escaped to Uzbekistan in mid-August were apparently under pressure from the Taliban to be sent back and from the United States to be kept safe until they could be transferred to a third nation. In the middle of September, the pilots were eventually transported to the UAE.

Afghanistan had made significant progress towards creating an environment that was conducive to investment prior to the Taliban’s control, and it was gearing up to serve as a hub for travel between Central and South Asia.

Taliban after seizing power, launched a diplomatic charm offensive aimed at reassuring their neighbors.

They have assured the completion of the pipeline connecting Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. But many obstacles still need to be overcome before Central Asian nations can open trade lines through or with Afghanistan after the Taliban took control.

The security situation in Afghanistan (under the Taliban) is a significant barrier to regional connectivity and Central Asia’s political system and capacity to trade with Afghanistan. In the following month of the Taliban’s return, there were several rocket attacks on the Afghan-Uzbek border, for which ISK (Islamic State Khorasan Province), an extremist and violent militant group, later claimed the credit. In a similar vein, the Tajik government reported the shooting near the Afghan border. These incidents showed that the Taliban are unable to close the security breach at the border, and the recruitment agendas of militant groups continue to date under the Taliban administration. ISK also recruits fighters from diverse regions, mainly from Central Asia.

Al-Qaeda is still a menace and poses a significant risk to regional trade and collaboration with Afghanistan even after 20 years of the US and the international community’s fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. The Taliban released a sizable number of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters from the Pul-e-Charkhi jail after returning to power. On January 10, 2022, at the CSTO summit Tajik President Emomali Rahmon said, “Since the second half of August 2021, thousands of members of (Islamic State), Al-Qaeda, (Jamaat) Ansarullah, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and other terrorist groups have been released from prisons in Afghanistan”.

Due to corruption and their incapabilities to hold their local leaders accountable to their own Sharia law, the Taliban are unable to keep their commitments to cooperate with commercial activities. Turkmenistan, whose economy is in shambles, requests Russian and Chinese security support for its 700-kilometer desert frontier with Afghanistan. The National Resistance Front (NRF) is the only organization currently leading the struggle against the Taliban (a threat to them). It’s an advocate for freedom, independence, justice, and women’s rights. It has gained strength and stepped up its offensives against the Taliban in recent months, but still, states have to cope with insecurities and obstacles they face in ties with Afghan Taliban, as longer restraint or resistance would no longer be an effective solution to intense problems.

The economic downfall in Afghanistan can prove a blessing in disguise if Central Asia built ties with Afghanistan for increased economic, business, trade, and investment opportunities. After the Taliban took control, there was an abrupt end to civilian and security aid (more than $8 billion annually, or 40% of Afghanistan’s GDP). No nation in the world could have survived such a severe economic shock, which was made worse by sanctions, the freezing of Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves, and the unwillingness of foreign institutions to conduct business with the nation. Since August 2021, the economy has shrunk by 20% to 30%, causing many people to lose their jobs, resulting in the complete devastation of social services, poverty, and hunger along with the humanitarian crisis. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country, leaving government agencies devoid of managerial and professional staff, downsizing or closing many Afghan businesses, and reducing the existing low levels of investment.

The Afghan economy is stabilizing after a lengthy period of the free slide, but at a considerably lower level, leaving people poorer and more susceptible to deprivation, hunger, and sickness.

If Central Asian Republics built diplomatic, economic, and political ties with the Taliban, this would be much beneficial for Central Asia (enriched in energy and natural resources) as well as Afghanistan (rich in resources as well as a gateway to the Middle East and South Asia).

Tajikistan never established diplomatic connections with the Taliban. The only head of state (that borders Afghanistan) who was in office during the initial Taliban occupation is President Emomali Rahmon. In the late 1990s, his government supported Ahmad Shah Masoud’s ethnic Tajik forces as they resisted the Taliban. Rahmon would find it challenging to shift his stance on the Taliban at this time (after seizing control), especially given the way his government continues to demonize and oppress more moderate Islamic organizations within Tajikistan. For many years, Jamaat Ansarullah and other foreign extremist groups have operated in northern Afghanistan, according to Tajik officials. The Tajik government increased its military presence along the Afghan border after the Taliban seized control in 2021. Along the border, it also carried out a number of military drills, including ones involving Russian and Uzbek forces.

After the assassinations of Burhanuddin Rabbani (former Afghan President) and Ahmed Shah Masoud (Afghan Military Leader), the Taliban’s fierce adversaries from the late 1990s, Rahmon presented them with awards. On September 9, 2001, Masoud was killed, and on September 20, 2011, Rabbani was assassinated. Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s administration’s final ambassador to Tajikistan, Mohammad Zahir Aghbar, is still stationed at the Afghan Embassy in Dushanbe and is periodically permitted to speak in public regarding the ongoing resistance of former government soldiers to Taliban rule. The Tajik border was guarded in part by Taliban reinforcements, including fighters from Jamaat Ansarullah, in September. The Tajik government’s animosity towards the Taliban grew as a result, as was to be expected. Within a few weeks of the Taliban regaining control, videos and reports from northern Afghanistan began to surface showing ethnic Pushtun Taliban displacing Turkmen and Uzbeks from their houses and depriving them of their basic necessities.

The Uzbek administration appears to have adopted a strategy from Turkmenistan’s 1990s foreign policy and sees Afghanistan as an essential transit nation in pursuit of a more promising economic future. As long as there isn’t any threat against Uzbekistan that originates from Afghanistan, it feels compelled to deal with whoever is in charge there. The development of the railway connecting Mazar-e-Sharif and Peshawar is particularly appealing to Uzbekistan. Imran Khan (the former Prime Minister of Pakistan), visited Tashkent in July 2021 for a conference on connectivity in South and Central Asia. Viewpoints were exchanged between Pakistani Prime Minister and Uzbek President Mirziyoyev on building a 570 km railway project. On the eve of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Dushanbe, the two continued their conversation. In February 2022, representatives from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan endorsed a project schedule.

In short, since their independence in 1991, the governments of Central Asia have had to deal with Afghanistan’s changing political environment. The escalated insecurity in Afghanistan acts as an obstacle to future developments and prosperity. Central Asian States and Afghanistan under the Taliban should establish coordinated regional responses towards diverse crises, diplomatic ties, economic and political opportunities, and platforms for regional development and economic stabilization of nations that will work out in the long run.

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