Central Asia’s Taliban surprise

Though aware of the weaknesses of the former Afghan government, none of the Central Asian governments seemed prepared for the rapidity and decisiveness of the Taliban victory. Not unreasonably, Central Asians fear that it will spur the growth of regional terrorism and extremism, either through direct Taliban sponsorship or inspiration. The five Central Asian states backed the anti-Taliban opposition in the 1990s and then the U.S.-led NATO military campaign in Afghanistan after 2001. Presently, the Central Asian governments are eschewing policies that could antagonize the new regime while looking for indications whether the Taliban have genuinely turned over a new leaf and renounced international terrorism. If they have, then some Central Asian countries seem open to economic and perhaps other cooperation. If not, Central Asians will likely rely on Russia for enhanced security support.

During the previous Taliban-ruled government in Afghanistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) used Afghan territory for training and transnational terrorist operations. Over time IMU militants aligned, and often merged, with al-Qaeda and ISIS’s local affiliate, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP). Unlike the original IMU, which focused on regime change in Uzbekistan, al-Qaeda and ISKP have a pan-Islamist Salafist ideology that aims to replace all Central Asia’s secular regimes with an Islamic caliphate that would encompass Central Asia, Afghanistan, and parts of Pakistan and China. Arabs, Afghans, Chechens, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Pashtuns, Syrians, Tajiks, Turks, Uighurs, and other Eurasian ethnic groups have joined these various Islamist movements, including the combat units in Iraq and Syria. Some of these Central Asian fighters are currently present in Afghanistan. Taliban leaders now pledge not to support their transnational terrorist agenda; they have also fought with ISKP as a deadly rival. Yet, it remains uncertain if all Taliban commanders will abstain from rendering overt assistance or, more likely, turning a blind eye to their jihadist activities. In any case, the Taliban victory will likely boost enthusiasm for militant extremist ideologies throughout Eurasia.

Defensive mechanisms

In principle, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) should protect Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, which are full members of the institution, along with Armenia, Belarus, and Russia. Afghanistan is a formal CSTO observer, though its status is presently under question. Yet, of the three Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan — Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan — only Tajikistan is a member of the CSTO. Further, the CSTO has never engaged in an actual combat operation. It has focused on containing Afghan-related threats — such as transnational terrorism and narcotics trafficking — while leaving Western countries, especially the United States, to resolve them. The CSTO was notably absent in the recent crisis in Belarus, while also shunning last year’s conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region as well as this April’s skirmish between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over water management along their disputed border. The Russian government seemingly preferred to deal with each of these issues bilaterally, minimizing the role of third countries even if they were CSTO allies. The recurring confrontations between its members naturally raise doubts about the cohesion of the institution, though Moscow will presumably try to play up the Afghanistan threat to overcome these fissures. At an emergency online summit of the CSTO presidents on Aug. 23, Russian President Vladimir Putin “expressed his deep concern over the developments in Afghanistan and potential threats coming from there.” CSTO Secretary-General Stanislav Zas confirmed that the Organization has since launched a review of how the new situation will affect its members’ security policies.

Tajikistan

Since Russia is the dominant power in the military CSTO, members rely on Moscow to counter external security threats. Tajikistan hosts more Russian military personnel than any other foreign country. These comprise approximately 7,000 soldiers assigned to the various facilities affiliated with Russia’s main 201st Military Base in Tajikistan, whose lease runs at least until 2042. The Russian units are equipped with tanks, artillery, and motor rifle troops, along with planes and helicopters. In April, Russia and Tajikistan established a joint air defense system, potentially expanding the Russian patrols of Tajikistan’s airspace from the planes and helicopters stationed at Ayni Air Base 10 km west of Dushanbe. That same month, the Tajikistani and Russian armed forces engaged in a massive exercise, with more than 50,000 troops, simulating a combined riposte to a threat along the 1,300-km Afghan-Tajikistan border. Since Russian troops withdrew from this boundary in 2005, the Tajikistani government, which has traditionally found securing this lengthy frontier from smugglers and others challenging, has regularly called for increased CSTO support in protecting its southern borders. The CSTO pledged to do so at this August’s emergency presidential meeting, without reinforcing the armed forces along the Tajik-Afghan frontier. During the past year, Tajikistan was the only country neighboring Afghanistan that did not engage in official discourse with the Taliban. Following the Taliban military takeover of Kabul, President Emomali Rahmon broke with a regional taboo on highlighting transnational ethnic issues and demanded the inclusion of ethnic Tajiks, who comprise Afghanistan’s second-largest ethnic group but lack much influence with the Pashtun-dominated Taliban movement, in the new government.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan has been moving closer to Russia as well as its Central Asian neighbors since Shavkat Mirziyoyev became president in 2016. The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan has been accelerating this process. Though Uzbekistan has not rejoined the CSTO, which it left in 2012 due to policy differences, Russia and Uzbekistan have resumed large-scale bilateral military exercises and defense industrial cooperation. The most recent binational exercise occurred in early August 2021, when 1,500 Russian and Uzbek troops drilled in Termez, near the so-called Afghanistan-Uzbekistan Friendship Bridge, the main conduit between those two countries. They then joined with Tajik forces for a trilateral drill at Tajikistan’s Harb-Maidon training ground. When Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Tashkent in April of this year, the two defense ministries announced their first-ever multi-year Strategic Partnership Program, for 2021-25. In an Aug. 15 telephone conversation, Mirziyoyev and Putin agreed “to ensure close ties and cooperation in ensuring regional security and stability.” Under Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan has also expanded economic ties with Afghanistan and its other neighbors, including across its 137-km border with Afghanistan’s Balkh Province. Afghan-Uzbek economic cooperation has expanded to include Uzbekistani firms’ building Afghanistan’s roads, railroads, bridges, telecommunications, and other national infrastructure. For instance, they agreed to extend the existing Hairatan-Mazar-i-Sharif railway to additional Afghan cities as well as construct a new electricity line to the Afghan province of Baghlan, expanding Uzbekistan’s already substantial electricity exports to Afghanistan. Despite these good ties with the previous Afghan government, Uzbekistani officials have been hedging their bets and engaging extensively with Taliban representatives in recent years. In the past few weeks, they have reopened the Friendship Bridge, declined to champion the rights of ethnic Uzbeks in Afghanistan, and taken other measures to restore normal economic ties.
 

A joint military exercise by Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan on the Harb-Maidon military training ground, 20 km from the border with Afghanistan, on Aug.10, 2021. Photo by Nozim KalandarovTASS via Getty Images.

 

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is not a CSTO member and has tried to stay outside Moscow’s and Beijing’s security orbit even as Ashgabat pursues economic ties with these states. The country’s 744-km border with Afghanistan lies distant from Turkmenistan’s main population centers in the east. The Taliban have been present in the border region for years, but have seemingly worked out a modus vivendi with Ashgabat that keeps Taliban forces from occupying Turkmenistani territory. Following the Taliban takeover, the government announced that their frontier trade continues, that Turkmenistan made deliveries of medical assistance to Afghans, and that representatives of neighboring Turkmenistani and Afghan provinces have continued contacts. Besides border security, an Ashgabat priority has been sustaining work on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Pipeline, which will transport large volumes of natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India through Afghan territory. Turkmenistani officials have also joined regional meetings with the other Central Asian states to discuss Afghan-related issues.

Kazakhstan

CSTO member Kazakhstan has been less vulnerable to Afghan-related terrorism due to its substantial economic and security resources as well as its physical distance from Afghanistan. Kazakhstan’s oil and gas revenue has allowed the country to build the most powerful military in Central Asia. Kazakhstan has been the second-largest contributor to the CSTO armed forces. Though not hosting foreign bases, Kazakhstan had provided temporary access to its facilities and other support to the NATO military operations in Afghanistan. Astana has historically sought to play a leading diplomatic role in resolving regional hotspots, such as Ukraine, Syria, and Afghanistan. Kazakhstan had developed good if not close ties with the previous Afghan government. They signed a bilateral defense cooperation agreement, while Kazakhstan had supported various training and education programs for Afghan students and women. The rapid Taliban victory came unexpectedly and generated anxiety among Kazakh leaders. Following the Taliban takeover, the government raised the alert level of the military. Unlike some other CSTO members, Kazakh officials have declined to engage extensively with the new Taliban regime beyond securing the safety of their Kabul embassy and diplomats as well as calling for a more inclusive government. Separately, the Kazakh government acceded to a U.N. request to host the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which relocated some staff to Nur-Sultan in August. Otherwise, the government appears to be waiting for Russia to lead in defanging Afghan threats. When he met with Putin in Moscow on Aug. 21, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said that Russian-Kazakhstan security cooperation has become “increasingly urgent in the context of the current developments in Afghanistan” and spoke of the need “to coordinate and pursue a joint policy.”

Kyrgyzstan

Though not adjoining Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan also has a weak government and a small, underfunded armed forces that depend overwhelmingly on Russian training and equipment. Its porous borders were vulnerable to infiltration by Afghanistan-based militants during the previous Taliban regime. Kyrgyzstan has suffered recurring political coups and revolutions due to elite, ethnic, and regional divisions. Under CSTO and bilateral arrangements, the Russian military employs several facilities in the Kyrgyz Republic. The main one is an airbase at Kant under a 25-year renewable lease. From there, Russian planes can overfly all of Afghanistan without refueling. Kyrgyz and Russian representatives have been discussing for years establishing a second major Russian base in southern Kyrgyzstan, to better defend the frontier with Afghanistan. In early September, the CSTO proceeded with its regular Rubezh (Frontier) exercises to strengthen collective border security. The Kyrgyz authorities have reaffirmed their commitment to allowing Afghans with valid student visas to study at Kyrgyz universities but otherwise also seem poised to follow Russia’s lead.

Future scenarios

Central Asian officials seem open to dealing with the new Taliban regime on a pragmatic basis rather than repeat their policy of the 1990s of trying to seal off Taliban-ruled Afghanistan through a cordon sanitaire. Provided the Taliban curtailed transnational terrorist threats, criminal organization, and mass migration flows, Central Asian leaders might welcome an Afghan regime that could maintain secure trade routes and protect foreign investment and critical infrastructure like power lines. Decades of fighting have disrupted Afghanistan’s internal development and numerous schemes to integrate Afghanistan into Eurasia’s east-west and north-south transportation routes. Now that NATO troops have departed Afghanistan and the Taliban rule the country, Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics face sharp cutbacks in Western aid and investment. These challenges, along with the opportunity provided by the war’s end, give them an additional incentive to remove trade barriers, complete infrastructure projects, and promote further integration to offer investors a larger market with fewer hassles. Many of the landlocked Central Asian countries would welcome an opportunity to reach Indian Ocean ports via Afghanistan.

Conversely, all the Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan have declined to accept large numbers of Afghan refugees. Citing security concerns, COVID, improper entry documents, and other reasons, their border guards have either refused entry or deported most Afghan nationals who have recently tried to flee across their frontiers. The main exceptions have been U.N. staff and foreign nationals whose governments intend to repatriate them. These countries’ limited resources, desire to avoid establishing long-term migrant camps (Tajikistan had to deal with more than 1 million Afghan refugees in the 1990s), and reluctance to antagonize the new Taliban government largely explain their adamant stance. Putin has also warned Central Asians against acceding to Western pressure to accept refugees from Afghanistan, even temporarily pending their relocation to the United States, claiming that this could allow “militants under the guise of refugees” to enter Russia and its Central Asian neighbors.

If a malign scenario develops, Russia could provide CSTO members with more military assistance, reinforce the Russian forces in Central Asia, align with the Taliban against ISKP, or intervene militarily in northern Afghanistan with Russian-led CSTO forces. Whatever their concerns about the CSTO’s effectiveness, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have little choice but to rely on the Russian military for their protection. Even non-CSTO members Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan seem likely to deepen their security ties with Moscow, which might exploit the situation to elevate the CSTO’s influence, improve its effectiveness, and perhaps expand its membership. After the Taliban victory, Russian Defense Minister Shoigu said that the increased risk of regional terrorism and narcotics trafficking meant that “interaction within CSTO should be strengthened.”

The United States and its NATO allies will probably not offer much of an alternative security provider. Both Russian and Taliban representatives have warned against the Pentagon’s establishing military bases in Central Asia to support “over-the-horizon” counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan. Though conducting operations from neighboring Central Asian states would be easier logistically than launching drone strikes from distant Middle Eastern bases, the Pentagon has had a bad experience with Central Asian bases. The United States established several regional military facilities after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, but the Uzbek government expelled U.S. forces from its territory in 2005; Kyrgyzstan followed in 2014. Neither country nor any other Central Asian state has openly advocated for new U.S. bases on their territories. Moscow claims the CSTO gives Russia the right to veto foreign bases on members’ territories.

Turkey has expanded its role in the South Caucasus due to its decisive assistance to Azerbaijan in its recent war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, but Ankara thus far has developed minimal security presence in Central Asia, notwithstanding Turkey’s substantial humanitarian and economic ties throughout the region. The Chinese government appears disinclined to assume a major military role in Central Asia. Though welcoming Chinese trade and investment, Central Asians are wary of China’s long-term aspirations to dominate the region. That said, the Taliban seem interested in developing at least economic ties with China, which has the resources to develop Afghanistan’s potential mineral wealth as well as envelop Afghanistan in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

For this reason, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is de facto led by Beijing along with Moscow, could assume a greater role in organizing the regional response to the developments in Afghanistan. The Organization’s membership roster — China, Russia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are full members while Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia are formal observers — includes all the major regional stakeholders of the Afghanistan question, which was a main driver for the Organization’s formation. In 2005, the SCO set up an Afghanistan Contact Group. In 2009, though it suspended the Contact Group’s activities, the SCO adopted an action plan for improving Afghanistan’s counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism capabilities. In 2012, Afghanistan became a formal observer of the SCO. Three years later, Afghanistan signed the protocol on counter-terrorism with the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure and applied for full membership. This July, the Contact Group met in Dushanbe, where the members’ foreign ministers committed to coordinate their policies regarding Afghanistan. Thus far, the Organization’s activities have been limited essentially to issuing declarations and sharing information about Afghan-related trafficking and terrorism. Depending on whether the Taliban refrain from sponsoring international terrorism, the SCO could provide a coordination mechanism for confronting the more serious extremist threats or, in a more benign scenario, for integrating the new Afghan regime into regional socioeconomic structures.

 

Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. The views expressed here are his own. 

Photo by AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images

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