‘A reality to be accepted’: Why Central Asia is increasing engagement with the Taliban

While the Taliban has few fans in the capitals of Central Asia, the region has been increasingly open to diplomatic engagement with the unrecognised rulers of Afghanistan. Geographic proximity, trade, security, and humanitarian concerns are key factors. 

On April 17, Kazakhstan became the latest country in Central Asia to accredit Taliban envoys without recognising the Islamic fundamentalists who seized control of Afghanistan in August 2021 as the country’s legitimate government.  

Diplomats from the previous civilian government of Ashraf Ghani continue to operate Afghan embassies in the West and many other regions. 

“The arrival of representatives of the new administration in Afghanistan does not signify recognition. That remains the prerogative of the United Nations,” said Aibek Smadiyarov, a spokesperson for the Kazakh foreign ministry. “Let me remind you that such missions are already present in a number of countries – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, China, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan.” 

Smadiyarov said that the Taliban will be provided with the premises for an embassy in Astana and that Kazakhstan plans to open a trade liaison office in Kabul. 

Even Tajikistan, which has remained the most resistant Central Asian country to engagement with the Taliban, is beginning to take small steps towards diplomatic relations. Ethnic Tajiks comprise roughly a quarter of Afghanistan’s population, but the Taliban are historically rooted in the Pashtun communities that make-up roughly 40 per cent of the country’s people.  

Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, has stated that ethnic Tajiks—who he claims make up 46 per cent of Afghanistan—must be given a “worthy role” in an ethnically-inclusive government in order for Tajikistan to recognise the Taliban.  

Rahmon has offered sanctuary to Ahmad Massoud, the most prominent leader of armed resistance to the Taliban, and a 2006 ruling by Tajikistan’s Supreme Court designating the Taliban as a terrorist organisation remains in place. 

Nonetheless, even as diplomats from Afghanistan’s previous government continue to operate out of the embassy in Dushanbe, the Taliban have been permitted to take over the consulate in Khorog on the border of the two countries. 

Crisis south of the border 

Three Central Asian countries—Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan—border Afghanistan. Afghanistan has formed a key portion of trade routes between China, South Asia, Central Asia, and what is modern Iran and Russia since ancient times. 

With 41 million people, Afghanistan is also an important market for Central Asia; in comparison, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan each have about a sixth of its population, Tajikistan has less than a quarter, Kazakhstan less than half, and Uzbekistan—the most populous country in Central Asia—has around 35 million people.  

Afghanistan has been plagued by war since the Soviet invasion in 1979, and decades of conflict have prevented the meaningful development of its economy. Over the past two decades the percentage of Afghans living in poverty has climbed from 80 to 97 and the percentage of young children experiencing acute malnutrition has more than quintupled.  

Prior to the Taliban’s return to power in 2021, 80 per cent of the Afghan government’s budget came from international donors. These donations have been halted, and the United States froze 9.5 billion US dollars of the Afghan central bank’s assets. 

The Taliban has banned Afghan women from higher education and from working for the government, non-governmental organisations, and the UN—jeopardising the operation of remaining humanitarian actors in the country. 

The Taliban is nevertheless eager for international recognition and access to the global economy, but Western powers are insistent that the group must first improve women’s rights, form an inclusive government, and provide guarantees it will not harbour terrorist groups. 

Anatoly Sidorov, Chief of Joint Staff of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), estimated that there are 6,500 Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) fighters in Afghanistan. Some 4,000 of these are believed to be in provinces that border Tajikistan, a CSTO member. 

“Instability in the regions is directly linked to the Taliban’s policy to repress religious and ethnic minorities, increasing level of violence and lack of unity,” said Sidorov.  

Afghanistan is a major producer of opium, and drug trafficking also threatens regional stability. While the Taliban officially banned opium cultivation in April 2022, UN findings indicate opium cultivation increased 32 per cent in 2022 over the previous year. In some provinces, one-fifth of arable land is dedicated to opium cultivation, and amid complete economic collapse, the Taliban reported turned a blind eye on farmers planting their fields for the next season. 

To provide for the irrigation needs of Afghan farmers, the Taliban is moving ahead with the 285-kilometre Qosh Tepa canal to divert water from the Amu Darya river. The Amu Darya, which is already dying, forms much of the border between Afghanistan and its northern neighbours of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan and the canal could jeopardise water security for the entire region.  

Balancing needs 

Central Asian countries see no alternative to engaging with the Taliban, but they are wary of angering Western countries still working to isolate the Taliban economically and diplomatically.  

Uzbekistan has taken an active role engaging the Taliban while closely working with the West to distribute humanitarian aid.  

Afghanistan relies on a railroad linking the southern Uzbek city of Termez to its northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif via Hairatan for half of its imports and much of its aid. The railroad was built by Uzbekistan Railways in 2011 and is operated by its subsidiary, Sogdiana Trans. Sogdiana Trans suspended operations in February over a dispute regarding the renewal of its contract but resumed operations after a settlement was reached two weeks later. 

Ismatulla Irgashev, special representative to Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, called the Taliban “a reality that must be accepted,” saying, “Imagine what happens if we don’t engage. More conflict, another civil war, more blood, poverty, suffering, threats to the neighbours and the international community.” 

Uzbekistan has sent officials to Afghanistan to hold talks with the Taliban on the Qosh Tepa canal. Tashkent insists it will not recognise the Taliban until the international community moves to do so, but it cannot wait to engage them until then. 

“We see a common future with immense common interests, no matter who is in power there”, said Irgashev.

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