Troubled times for the Taliban and their neighbors
The Taliban’s relationship with Afghanistan’s neighbors received a lot of attention on the international stagein the past week. A high-level meeting between the foreign ministers of Russia, China, Pakistan, and Iran, along with their de facto Taliban counterpart, took place in the Uzbek city of Samarkand. A readout from the meeting highlighted concerns that several terrorist groups in Afghanistan “continue to pose a serious threat to regional and global security.”
Meanwhile, the communique issued after last week’s G7 foreign ministers’ meeting in Japan contained a whole section about Central Asia containing a strong emphasis on “the destabilizing effect the situation in Afghanistan” is having on the region. While a G7 statement on Central Asia is not unprecedented, it is certainly unusual, and illustrates how precarious the situation is in the region.
Ever since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in August 2021, relations between Kabul and the Central Asian republics have been a mix of pragmatism, complexity, and difficulty. The three Central Asian republics that share a land border with Afghanistan — Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan — have taken a slightly differing approach to engaging with the Taliban.
The most enthusiastic country out of that group has been Uzbekistan. Although Tashkent maintained cordial relations with the Afghan governments of Presidents Karzai and Ghani after 2001, its informal engagement with the Taliban started years before Kabul fell. Uzbekistan and Afghanistan share an important land border. Both countries have a history of trade. In recent years Uzbekistan has been one of Afghanistan’s most important transit gateways to global markets. Therefore, Uzbekistan’s approach to engaging with the Taliban has been based more on pragmatism than ideology. The secular government in Tashkent has little in common with the fundamentalist regime in Kabul.
At the other end of the spectrum, Tajikistan has taken a more standoffish approach when dealing with the Taliban. Statements from senior officials in Tajikistan have repeatedly expressed concern over the proliferation of international terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Since coming to power, the Taliban have placed Jamaat Ansarullah, a Tajik extremist group with the stated goal of overthrowing the government in Dushanbe, in charge of patrolling the Afghan border with Tajikistan. Dushanbe has also expressed concern about the targeting of Tajik minority groups in Afghanistan since the Taliban took power. During Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s, Tajikistan played an important role supporting the Northern Alliance, the main opposition group to the Taliban. Today, Tajikistan plays a similar role in supporting the National Resistance Front, the modern-day successor to the Northern Alliance.
Even for those countries that have gone out of their way to have good relations with the Taliban, strains are starting to emerge.
Even for those countries that have gone out of their way to have good relations with the Taliban, strains are starting to emerge. For example, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have raised concerns about the Taliban’s construction of the so-called Qosh Tepa canal in Afghanistan. This canal, expected to be 100 meters wide and 285 kilometers long, will divert a significant amount of water from the Amu Darya River upstream from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource in Central Asia. There are concerns that the Taliban’s canal project will harm the already fragile agriculture situation and exacerbate the water crisis in Central Asia.
There is also an ongoing dispute between the Taliban and both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over the status of planes and helicopters that previously belonged to the Afghan military. 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.
Even the Uzbek-Taliban relationship is having problems. Afghanistan imports 60 percent of its electricity from Uzbekistan. This year, Uzbekistan temporarily cut off electrical supply to Afghanistan because of alleged nonpayment by the Taliban. Although this was a temporary move by the Uzbeks, it came at the coldest time of winter during an acute humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Clearly this was a sign of Tashkent’s growing frustration with the Taliban.
In the same way that the Taliban are realizing it’s far easier being an insurgency movement than it is governing a country, the countries of Central Asia are realizing that relations with the Taliban are far more complicated than they had originally hoped. While the situation in Afghanistan before the Taliban’s reemergence was not perfect, it was predominantly a security problem that Central Asia could contain. Now, Central Asia must deal with on-going security issues, which in the context of transnational terrorism are arguably worse under the Taliban, and a major humanitarian crisis.
This combination of a severe humanitarian crisis and the proliferation of transitional terrorist groups in Afghanistan has the potential to spill over into Central Asia. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the countries of the G7 along with Russia, Iran, and China have all expressed their concerns about the situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Considering that this group of countries can rarely agree on any single issue, this common ground on the deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan should be a wakeup call for the Taliban — not to mention the international community.
• Luke Coffey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.