The rise to power of the Taliban in 2021 has been a black swan on the geopolitical scene for governments around the globe and a heated subject for debate of security professionals. Unsurprisingly, it had wide repercussions on Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours in Central Asia. One of the looming major concerns of the region has been the contest between the Taliban, the Islamic State, and other terrorist groups for control over northern Afghanistan. This analysis seeks to explore other regional security concerns emanating from this recent major change in the geopolitical security landscape as well as highlighting underlying opportunities associated with it.
Central Asian responses to the rise to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan
One cannot analyse the change of the security environment in Central Asia without first briefly turning to the historical trajectory of events and assessing how the political landscape has changed. Relations between Central Asian states and the Taliban at present are stronger than they were when the Taliban were in power in the late 1990s. The potential economic gains from having Afghanistan as a transit trade route between Central Asia and South Asia together with the shared enemy of the IS-K that continuously exploits Central Asian ethnic minority groups’ kinship sentiments thereby paving the way for extremist sentiments among ethnic Tadjik, Uzbek and Turkmen minorities in the north of Afghanistan are sufficient to make Central Asia interested in diplomatic relations with the new regime in Kabul. Hence, the establishment of relations is based on both economic and security incentives. However, in order for any economic gains to materialize- the predominantly ethnic Pushtun Taliban have to first and foremost establish control over the northern parts of Afghanistan populated by ethnic minorities. However- would that be enough to ensure peace in Central Asia and if so could the Taliban really deliver as promised?
Among all Central Asian countries, only Tajikistan has not openly engaged with the Taliban because President Emomali Rahmon is the only leader who was in power the first time the Taliban controlled Afghanistan and actively worked against the Taliban remaining in power back then. More concretely, his government helped the forces of ethnic Tajik Ahmad Shah Masoud to resist the Taliban in the late 1990s and after the Taliban returned to power in 2021, the Tajik government strengthened its forces along the Afghan border and conducted a series of military drills near the border, including exercises with Russian and Uzbek forces.
Unlike when the Taliban were in power in the 1990s, now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have taken a more pragmatic approach to the Taliban’s return to power and that is partly due to the fact that the region is way more interconnected. During the 20 years the Taliban were not in power in Afghanistan, the connections with Central Asia grew and this economic aspect adds weight to the security concern argument as to why some of the Central Asian governments, and particularly the Uzbek government, are taking a more pragmatic approach to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan that they did in the late 1990s. Afghanistan imports 73% of its power supply- 22% from Iran, 4% from Tajikistan, 17% from Turkmenistan, and 57% from Uzbekistan. Despite the Taliban’s inability to pay for the electricity that they continue to import, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan continue to supply them. Arguably this is done in order to appease the Taliban, but also to prevent galvanising the Afghan population by depriving them of electricity supply and further crippling their economy which is already in dire straits. However, this is clearly not a long- term tenable arrangement and it is bound to cause some friction with those countries in the future should they be in a short supply of electricity.
A possible source of revenue Kabul has that it could attempt to further capitalise on in the future and attain some level of economic stability is its strategic location between energy-rich Central Asian countries and energy-scarce economies in South Asia. For instance, in May this year the first truck traversed the route Karachi- Kabul- Termez-Tashkent in only six days thereby raising hopes for further economic development in the region. This is of significant importance for Uzbekistan since it is a double landlocked country and this access to the sea through Pakistan could give its economy a boost. However, established and safe trade routes between Afghanistan and Central Asia would heavily depend on its relations with Central Asia and it remains to be seen whether the security situation would allow for profitable projects to materialize and generate revenues.
Deteriorating security environment
Since the NATO retrograde from Afghanistan in August 2021, Central Asian countries have generally relied on the Taliban regime to keep non- state actors at bay and prevent any attacks across the border. However, recent events in the region clearly show that the Taliban are unable to provide the security guarantees that Central Asia had hoped to gain through reinstating diplomatic relations with the Taliban regime. In December 2021, Turkmen border guards allegedly killed an ethnic Turkmen civilian and beat another at the Khamab district of the northern province of Jowzjan, Afghanistan, which led to representatives of the Taliban arriving at the scene to investigate the incident and the subsequent conflict with the Turkmen forces that eventually escalated into a shootout. In April this year the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (or IS-K) claimed a series of bombings that targeted Afghanistan’s minority Shia Muslims, while Pakistan issued a warning of IS threats in its eastern Punjab province. The same month there was video footage of alleged rocket fire from the territory of Afghanistan on units of the Armed Forces of Uzbekistan near the city of Termez which both the Uzbek and Afghan governments denied was true. However, later on in an interview with Uzbekistan’s Gazeta.uz news outlet, Taliban deputy spokesman Inamullah Samangani confirmed that the IS-K did fire rockets from Hairaton toward Uzbekistan, but none of the rockets made it across the Amu-Darya river. In July, the IS-K also claimed responsibility for five rockets launched from Afghanistan into Uzbekistan which caused damages, but did not have any casualties. The timing of launching the rockets coincided with an official meeting between the Uzbek and Afghan authorities, which could mean that the IS-K was aiming at intentionally discrediting the Taliban and their hold of the country.
Moreover, Tajik President Rahmon has continuously expressed concern over the increasing presence of Taliban forces along Tajikistan’s southern border and the internecine battles among wings of the Taliban along the Tajik-Afghan border, though the Taliban dismiss those claims. Nonetheless, there have been multiple claims this year of attacks in Kunduz, Takhar and Balkh provinces, as well as the provincial capital of Mazar-e-Sharif which do in fact show an increased activity in the area. These attacks point to the possibility of further cross-border incursions or even the future coordination with networks inside Tajikistan.
A brief scrutiny of Afghanistan’s other neighbours- Iran and Pakistan- also sheds light on the further instability of the wider region and how that could compromise the possible trade routes to South Asia that would benefit Central Asia economically. Iran spreads its political influence in Afghan civil society through donations and commercial exchange while forming military alliances with minority groups such as Shia Hazaras and Sunni Tajiks. Despite the fact that the Taliban are not showing any willingness to share power with the ethnic and religious minorities in Afghanistan, Tehran has continued to try to facilitate some inclusion. In January, Iran arranged a meeting between the Taliban Foreign Minister and Tajik leaders Amir Ismail Khan and Ahmad Massoud in Tehran. However, the Taliban have so far shunned the international community’s demands for an inclusive government, even if it would give them greater recognition. Moreover, the leading Taliban commanders have specifically refused to share power with Tajik and Hazara political leaders that worked under the former governments during the last 20 years. As a result, Tehran’s efforts in promoting ethnic power-sharing could potentially trigger a hostile reaction from the Taliban commanders.
In relation to Pakistan- the Durand Line has always been a matter of confrontation between Pakistan and Afghanistan, because it is inhabited by Pashtun tribes. The Taliban are also providing a haven to the anti-Pakistan insurgent group the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, which has killed thousands of Pakistanis and seeks to establish a Taliban-style, Shariah-compliant state in Pakistan. On April 21, a Pakistani military aircraft carried out airstrikes inside Afghanistan at suspected TTP locations, but ended up killing civilians. This clearly shows that further escalations are likely and that the Taliban could possibly even push their borders inside Pakistani territory claiming those areas as part of Afghanistan.
These recent incidents and slowly deteriorating security situation in the region shed light on the limits of Central Asian states’ security strategies, and poses the question what alternatives, if any, Central Asian states have in dealing with the rise of IS-K, other than relying on the Taliban to reel them in.
Why is the IS-K pervasive in Northern Afghanistan?
Shortly after the Taliban gained power in August 2021, ethnic Pushtun Taliban forcibly evicted more than 1,000 people from farm lands which were in the possession of ethnic Uzbeks and Turkmens. In January 2022, the Taliban arrested Makhdum Alem, an ethnic Uzbek Afghan Taliban commander in the northern Faryab Province, on the grounds of his alleged involvement in a kidnapping. The arrest came despite his role in securing support for the Taliban from local leaders and elders while foreign forces were still present in Afghanistan. The following day, hundreds of mostly ethnic Uzbeks surrounded the security headquarters in Maimana in protest, demanding his release and following skirmishes and shooting where four people died, the Taliban fighters were forced to surrender their weapons and marched out of the city. Similarly, the Taliban arrested Qori Wakil, an influential local ethnic Tajik leader in northern Afghanistan without even stating what the charges were. In light of such events, the IS-K is left unhindered to capitalize on the growing anger of ethnic minorities in northern Afghanistan.
Many experts focus on the far right as the key driver of the terrorist threat, but this only underestimates the networks that the IS has built and consequently relies on. Citizens from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan had previously gone to fight for the IS in Syria and Iraq. The IS recruitment strategy in 2014 was largely successful in attracting and integrating people from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in their fight and making them “the new face of the IS”. Moreover, the IS-K runs most of its propaganda efforts in Central Asia through its official branch media organ- al-Azaim, which was available only in Pashto and Urdu but now has publications in Tajik, Uzbek, and other regional languages. Consequently, we can assume that their new strategy is again focused on involving Central Asians. This is further facilitated by the fact that the Taliban are ethnically Pushtun and have clearly demonstrated their neglect for minorities in northern Afghanistan, as exemplified already in the rampant arrests of ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkmens in northern Afghanistan.
Reports show that the IS-K are looking to recruit regional Tajiks and incite militant violence against the Tajik government, particularly targeting the Tajik President. The new IS-K expanded media campaign seeks to recruit ethnic Tajik and nationals as well as incite militant violence against Tajikistan with the purpose of discrediting the Taliban as a governing and a religious authority. Moreover, a scrutiny of the latest data shows that ethnic Tajiks living in Afghanistan ( 11,108 million as of 2022) largely outnumber the Tajiks in Tajikistan (9,983 million as of 2020). This fact further illustrates the wide pool for recruitment that the IS-K can take advantage of since the Taliban have not proven effective in countering the security concerns in northern Afghanistan.
Following NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan on 31 August 2021, there was widespread speculation that China or Russia could fill in the remaining vacuum. Already at the beginning of August 2021, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan conducted joint military exercises with Russia and in mid-August, Tajikistani and Chinese security forces conducted anti-terrorism drills. However, it appears that, in an indirect way, Central Asia has outsourced some of its security concerns to the Taliban. Their common security concerns in the face of the IS-K as well as the economic gains that transit routes through Afghanistan, connecting Central and South Asia would bring, could result in an unprecedented level of cooperation between Afghanistan and Central Asia. However, the question about ethnic minorities from Central Asia in northern Afghanistan remains an open- ended one, with barely any political will from the Taliban to address it. If the Taliban fail to curtail the growing influence of the IS-K in the region, this could result in further attacks launched from Afghan soil towards Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, the spread of fundamentalist ideology and give rise to terrorist activity in the region. Therefore, despite the shared security and economic incentives for cooperation, it is the Taliban’s ability to curtail the IS-K’s undermining activities and their supporters in northern Afghanistan’s activities that would further shape the relations between Afghanistan and Central Asia and hence the overall security regional dynamics.