Can we expect the European Union to contribute to safeguarding regional security in Central Asia now that Afghanistan is back in the hands of the Taliban? One thing is for sure, it is in the interest of the EU to have a stable, secure and prosperous Central Asia. As security concerns eminating from the crisis in Afghanistan have multiplied over night following the Taliban’s return to power, the region has made a dramatic resurfacing on the EU’s radar. In particular, the situation has set off alarm bells across European capitals about the possibility of a new refugee crisis emerging, as many Afghans are desperate to leave the country and go to Europe.
Central Asia’s location next to Afghanistan has always been the primary driving force behind the EU’s involvement of the EU in Central Asia, which continues to be strongly security-driven. Indeed, the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in the US and the subsequent launch of the military campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan were turning points in how the EU viewed Central Asia. In suddenly granting a geostrategic importance to the Central Asian states, these events mobilised the political will in the EU to increase funding for enhanced engagement with the region, including in fields related to the EU’s security. Ever since, security concerns linked to the continued instability in neighbouring Afghanistan have kept Central Asia on the EU’s agenda. Concerns about possible spill-over of instability into Central Asia, along with drugs trafficking from Afghanistan to Europe via Central Asia, have fuelled the EU’s interest in upgrading relations with the Central Asian countries and offering funding to contribute to the sustainable development of the region.
Given the limited capabilities of the EU in the security sphere, the EU has sought to contribute to security in the region mostly indirectly, namely through a comprehensive set of programmes and instruments aimed at supporting political and economic reforms undertaken by the Central Asian governments. Yet, the EU has also actively sought to carve out an explicit security role for itself in the region. Already since the early 2000s, the EU has had two large-scale security-focused programmes in place in Central Asia, namely the Central Asia Drugs Action Programme (CADAP), aimed at supporting the Central Asian states at fighting drugs trafficking from Afghanistan, and the Border Management in Central Asia programme (BOMCA), designed to strengthen border management.
In the mid-2000s, the EU also launched an annual meeting at foreign ministerial level between the EU and the five Central Asian republics. This regional political dialogue setting was quite unique, in that it long remained the only regional forum where all five Central Asian states were formally reunited at such a high political level. Originally, the aim was to reunite the five countries around one table and to contribute to building confidence and mutual trust between them. Today, the annual EU-Central Asia Ministerial Meeting serves more to take stock of the implementation of the EU’s strategy for Central Asia.
Since 2013, the EU has also held annual meetings dedicated specifically to security issues in the format of the “EU-Central Asia High Level Security Dialogue”. The aim of these meetings is to address security issues of shared concern, such as terrorism, drug trafficking, border control and extremism. This high-level dialogue was established following the announcement that NATO would start withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan. At the time, EU member states felt that the EU needed to increase its security engagement with the Central Asian states as concerns emerged about the potential security challenges following the withdrawal of NATO forces.
Partly upon the request of the Central Asian countries themselves, the last few years have seen attempts by the EU to involve Afghanistan directly into its engagement with the Central Asian states. Most notably, this involved the step to include Afghanistan as an additional participant in the EU-Central Asia High Level Security Dialogue. Moreover, in 2021, Afghanistan became a beneficiary of the BOMCA programme, with the explicit goal of improving border management, enhancing the fight against drug trafficking, as well as facilitating trade across the borders between Afghanistan and Central Asia. This move was part of the broader aim of the EU to increase connectivity between Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbours and to foster regional dialogue and ensure peace and security in the region. However, since the Taliban has taken back control in Afghanistan, most of these EU-backed cooperation schemes involving Afghanistan have been temporarily frozen.
Despite the EU’s efforts to carve out an explicit security role for itself in Central Asia, the Central Asian countries do not consider the EU to be a prominent actor in this field. Overall, the EU’s leverage in the sphere of security in Central Asia remains low. Russia is still considered the leading actor when it comes to security, and this is unlikely to change any time soon, even if China is now slowly also entering this field. Through the CSTO, Russia maintains an important foothold in the region in the sphere of security, and it is eager to rely on the CSTO to contribute to security in Central Asia in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Moreover, while the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has fastforwarded the EU’s efforts to move towards “strategic autonomy” from the US, for the time being, the EU does not yet have a full-fledged military branch that has sufficient capacity to act independently from either the US or NATO. In fact, the question remains whether this will ever be the case. Not only are EU member states from Central and Eastern Europe reluctant to give up their security dependence on the US, but there remains also a lot of uncertainty about the organisational and financial basis that is needed to enable real strategic autonomy for the EU.
The EU’s leverage in the security field in Central Asia is also thwarted by the lack of a common understanding of certain security issues, especially when it comes to terrorism and extremism. On these issues, the EU and the Central Asian states have a divergent understanding of both the causes and the solutions. Russia and China’s understanding of these issues is much closer to that of the Central Asian countries than that of the EU.
In sum, even if the EU will try to further increase its security engagement with Central Asia in the coming years in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, it seems unlikely that this will have a significant impact. Of course, a lot depends on how the Taliban will govern Afghanistan and on how the relations between the EU and the Taliban will evolve. If the EU were to recognise the Taliban government, or at least engage in a dialogue with them, this might open up opportunities for further integration of Afghanistan into the EU-funded programmes in Central Asia. However, it also depends on how the relations between the Central Asian countries themselves and Afghanstan will develop. At the moment, of the three Central Asian neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, only Uzbekistan is maintaining an active dialogue with the Taliban government. While Uzbekistan is keen to act as a power broker in the region and help construct Central Asia’s ties with the Taliban government, Tajikistan remains reluctant to openly talk to the Taliban and Turkmenistan maintains its neutrality position. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are currently also cautious in their relationship with Afghanistan, as they share concerns about possible insecurity spill-over into their territorities.