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Taliban victory inflames Central Asian frontline, worries Russia

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The fall of the Afghan government will impact Central Asia (Photo: Google Maps)

The tumultuous events of the past few days in Afghanistan have once again put the spotlight on the Central Asian countries, three of whom share direct borders with Afghanistan - Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Former Vice-president and militia leader Abdul Rasheed Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek himself, has sought asylum in Uzbekistan after his forces were overwhelmed by the Taliban. While Uzbek authorities have maintained silence sources based in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan have confirmed it.

When former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled the country, the immediate reports were that he had flown to Tajikistan.  The Tajik authorities have since refuted this but it underscores that whatever happens in Afghanistan is sure to impact its Muslim majority but greatly secular Central Asian neighbours in one or the other way.

Hundreds of Afghan soldiers and military personnel have arrived in Uzbekistan fleeing the Taliban, mostly in military planes, another hundred arrived in the bordering city of Bokhtar, in Tajikistan, another of Afghanistan's neighbours.  This is the region's worst nightmare coming true - the conflict spilling over with chaotic refugee flows.

For Tajikistan, the poorest of all the Central Asian Republics (CARS) but which shared the longest border with Afghanistan measuring 1357 km , such human flows are particularly dangerous, says the Director of a Tajik media group. Speaking on conditions of anonymity he points out that poverty has pushed many Tajiks towards greater religiosity. The sudden rise of the Taliban, whose foundational ideology is based on one of the most radical strains of Islam, coupled with the strict censorship of religious practices in the country, may actually push people not just to religion but to its more radical version. This would be catastrophic for a country which has fought a protracted civil war between a secular government and islamist insurgents.

His views are echoed by Tashkent based analyst Yuri Sarukhanyan. Writing in Gazeta.Uz he outlines two immediate concerns for Uzbekistan: controlling potential refugee flows which could be a hugely destabilizing factor in the country which has seen its share of religious radicalism and terrorism; and the security of Tashkent's many projects in Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan, with which Afghanistan shares a 144 km border is the region’s most populous and resourceful country. Prioritizing trade and investment, Uzbekistan, under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirzioyev,  has invested greatly in  Afghanistan, especially in infrastructure, which includes Afghanistan's only rail-line from Termez to Mazar-e-Sharif, and capacity building of Afghans. Last month at a high-level connectivity conference in Tashkent Uzbekistan concluded a deal with Pakistan to build a railway from Kabul to Peshawar which could be a gamechanger in terms of trade for the landlocked country. It also signed a quadrilateral agreement with the US, Afghanistan, and Pakistan for connectivity and trade. However, on the sidelines of the conference and after a meeting of CARS and Russia, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Central Asian countries would not host American bases on their territories once the US pulled its troops out from Afghanistan.

It is a tense moment, says a former Turkmen diplomat based in Ashkhabad who has also served in India earlier. Turkmenistan has a 804 km long border with Afghanistan but pursues policies somewhat differently from the others.  An officially "neutral" country, Turkmenistan with the world's fourth largest gas reserves is also an extremely closed country. As such it neither participates in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) headed by Russia in which some of the other CARS participate, nor in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO),  which includes all the other CARS.

But the country has hosted delegations of the Taliban, as recently as in February this year in a bid to push the Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India (TAPI) gas pipeline, for the much-needed  diversification of its export market.

Turkmenistan has completely closed its border with Afghanistan ever since the Taliban began its military offensive.  However, the diplomat says there is no particular threat emanating from Afghanistan, even with the Taliban taking over Kabul as he believes the Taliban are not interested in Central Asia, at least as of now. For one, Afghanistan's northern neighbours represent supply lines of food and commodity. Recently in Doha, Turkmen representatives met with Taliban leader Mullah Baradar on the sidelines of the peace talks and discussed ways to develop trade between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, especially in consumer products and LNG.

The Taliban would also not want to displease the Chinese, on whom they are banking for resources and much required international legitimacy.

The process of legitimizing the Taliban had begun a long time ago with Uzbekistan taking the lead amongst the CARS by hosting an international conference on Afghanistan and the Taliban to kickstart intra-Afghan talks.  Uzbek diplomats have spoken glowingly  about the Taliban for a while now.

Diplomatic sources in Tashkent, however, indicate that Uzbekistan would not rush to recognize the Taliban government. The Director of the Tajik media house concurs. "We would probably just wait and watch at least for the next six months to a year" with a lot of coordination with Russia. Interestingly, of all Afghanistan's neighbours Tajikistan, whose President Emomali Rahmanov is staunchly secular, is the only country which has not yet officially engaged with the Taliban.

Certainly, since the fall of Kabul there seems to be a fair amount of coordination between the Russians and their Central Asian counterparts, all of whom are staying put  in Kabul while western embassies have been evacuating their staff.

Russia has been reaching  out to the Taliban, but after the fall of Kabul has kept a full recognition of a new government on hold, saying it will take a final call based on the group’s conduct on the ground.

Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Dmitry Zhirnov, on Tuesday  will meet  the Taliban’s coordinator to discuss ensuring the security of the Russian embassy, Russian Presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov said in an interview with Echo of Moscow radio station. "Our ambassador is in contact with representatives of the Taliban leadership. Tomorrow, as he told me just ten minutes ago, he will meet with the coordinator from the Taliban leadership for ensuring security, including our embassy," he said, as quoted by the Russian Tass news agency. Kabulov then explained that  "the Russian leadership will make a decision on recognizing the regime of the Taliban movement, depending on how responsibly they will govern the country".

All three Central Asia  states - Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have tightened border controls,  made significant investments in procuring arms from Russia and conducted numerous unilateral, bilateral, and trilateral anti-terror drills. The Taliban remains banned in all of them but all have accepted it presence in Kabul as an unpleasant  reality. However, the lightning speed with which the group has managed to seize power is disconcerting for many.

Uzbek analyst Akram Umarov in a commentary to a TV channel opined that given the many extremist elements within the Taliban gaining legitimacy from neighbouring countries like Uzbekistan would be a long process. 

Sarukhanyan, meanwhile, warns that while it is an imperative to engage with the Taliban, Uzbek authorities should be careful to not convey the idea that engagement with it is an endorsement of the Taliban's ideology and values. For, the most dangerous implication of the Taliban's victory, he warns, is the Talibanization of societies.

Also Read: Pragmatic Russia and Iran ready to truck with Taliban, amid concerns

Also Read: China ready to deepen ties with Taliban as part of great game against West

(Aditi Bhaduri is a columnist specialising in Eurasian geopolitics. Views expressed are personal)