The Taliban are finding friends hard to come by
Months after taking power the Taliban is having difficulty gaining the international recognition it desperately desires. The group has also made no progress at the UN in its attempts to secure Afghanistan’s seat in the General Assembly.
No country in the world has recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and even its relationship with Pakistan is beginning to sour. Taliban relations with the three states that border Afghanistan in the north — Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — are also proving to be challenging. Each of these three states has unique national interests at stake and is developing its approach to the Taliban accordingly.
Turkmenistan has tried pursuing pragmatic engagement with the Taliban and there are two major issues involved in the relationship: Border security and the completion of a long-delayed gas pipeline.
For years, Ashgabat has feared that fighting in Afghanistan could spill over into Turkmenistan. These concerns are not unfounded; it has happened in the past. Last week there was an uprising by ethnic Uzbeks against Pashtuns in Afghanistan’s Faryab province, which borders Turkmenistan. Other than incidents in Panjshir province, this is the first major uprising against the Taliban. There is no doubt that the security situation in Faryab is making Ashgabat nervous.
Another priority for Turkmenistan is getting the long-planned Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline constructed and operational. Ashgabat is desperate to find new export markets for its energy. The plan is for this proposed 1,700km pipeline eventually to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan to India. This would help the former break the Russian and Chinese hegemony over the region’s energy market.
Construction of the TAPI pipeline has been delayed by more than a decade as a result of security concerns in Afghanistan. Even though the Taliban seem to be on board with the project, it remains to be seen whether itcan finally get off the ground.
Uzbekistan has been the most proactive of the three northern neighbors in dealing with the Taliban. Uzbek officials have been meeting informally with members of the Taliban for a few years, so when the group took over in August, Tashkent was ready to engage with them.
Although Uzbekistan does not formally recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government, Tashkent prides itself on what it sees as a pragmatic relationship with the group. Soon after the Taliban took Kabul last year, one senior Uzbek official even told me that Uzbekistan could be seen as a leader and a model to follow in Central Asia when it comes to dealing with the Taliban.
However, Uzbek-Taliban relations are more complicated than they seem. Trade between the two totaled $776 million in 2020 and before the Taliban takeover there were plans to boost this to $2 billion by 2023. With the Taliban in charge of Afghanistan this seems unlikely to happen.
No country in the world has recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and even its relationship with Pakistan is beginning to sour.
One of Afghanistan’s most important links to the outside world is the Hairatan border crossing with Uzbekistan. Most of the companies involved in trade between the two countries use Afghan nationals who have Uzbek visas as drivers. However, these Afghan drivers are now reluctant to cross into Afghanistan out of fear that they will not be allowed to return to Uzbekistan. Therefore, trade has slowed to a trickle.
Tajikistan has been the most critical of the Taliban among the three countries and has given tacit support to the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan. The predominantly ethnically Tajik NRF emerged in the Panjshir Valley in the wake of the Taliban takeover in August.
There is a history of extremist groups emerging from the region to threaten Tajikistan’s security. In recent months, there has been an increase in the presence of Tajik security forces mobilized along the border with Afghanistan.
The Taliban has been accused of allowing Ansarullah, a Tajik extremist group with the stated goal of overthrowing the government in Dushanbe, to patrol the Afghan border with Tajikistan.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently told members of the Russian-backed Collective Security Treaty Organization: “According to the Tajik intelligence services, the number of camps and training centers for terrorists bordering the southern borders of the CSTO in the northeastern provinces of Afghanistan totals more than 40, and their numerical strength is more than 6,000 militants.”
One contentious overlapping issue for Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is the status of aircraft that belonged to the former Afghan Air Force. As the Taliban marched on Kabul, dozens of military planes and helicopters flew hundreds of fleeing Afghans to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The Taliban want those aircraft returned but so far both countries have been reluctant to comply.
Mohammed Yaqoob, Afghanistan’s de facto defense minister and the son of the late Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, recently warned Tajikistan and Uzbekistan “not to test our patience and not to force us to take possible retaliatory steps” to reclaim the aircraft.
Considering that both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan provide free electricity to northern Afghanistan, now is not the time to make threatening statements.
In recent years, the international community has made efforts to strengthen ties between Afghanistan and Central Asian states. Rail links were built to connect Afghanistan with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Trade corridors were created linking Afghanistan to the outside world.
For example, the so-called Lapis Lazuli route connected Afghanistan to European markets via Turkmenistan, the South Caucasus and Turkey. Even further to the north, Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan invested greatly in enhancing economic ties with Afghanistan.
With the Taliban in charge, the situation has drastically changed. At a time when the Taliban is trying to gain international recognition, it should start by trying to improve its relations with neighbors closer to home.
- Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey