Global Governance
The Afghan Threat to Central Asia

Many experts on Afghanistan argue that without the permission of the Taliban, such extremist and terrorist groups will not violate the borders of the CIS member states, but the experience of the 90s suggests otherwise, writes Khudoberdi Kholiknazar, Director of the Center for the Study of Central Asia and China (Tajikistan).

The hasty withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan which began in May 2021 has already created a series of problems for the countries which border it. The first and most acute problem for all of Afghanistan’s neighbours was the influx of Afghan refugees. Starting from June 2021, the Taliban launched an attack on the Afghan-Tajik border zone. Within one month, the Taliban occupied almost the entire Afghan-Tajik border.

On July 7, 2021 Colonel-General Anatoly Sidorov, head of the CSTO special group for the monitoring of the Tajik-Afghan border and chief of the CSTO Joint Staff, said that “the Taliban control almost 100% of the Tajik-Afghan border on the Afghanistan side”.

After the seizure of the border regions of Afghanistan by the Taliban, the influx of internally displaced persons from Afghanistan to Tajikistan is becoming a new threat. After armed clashes, 1,037 fleeing Afghan government forces, as well as more than 1,000 Afghan civilian refugees, including women and children, entered the republic.

Despite the fact that the authorities of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) of Tajikistan announced their readiness to receive more than 10,000 refugees from Afghanistan, in reality there are great difficulties in even accommodating more than one thousand refugees.

Afghanistan After the US Withdrawal: A Security Vacuum Forever?

The second problem facing Tajikistan, which arose after the seizure of the Afghan-Tajik border by the Taliban, has been the threat from radical terrorist groups that, together with the Taliban, seized border crossings in Afghanistan on the Tajik-Afghan border. The most dangerous terrorist group is Ansarollah. Members of this group in Afghanistan are called “Tajik Taliban” because they are all citizens of Tajikistan. The atrocities of this group became known in December 2020, when they brutally killed 23 Afghan soldiers, as well as the head of the district security department and his deputies during an attack on the Afghan district Moimai, bordering the Darvaz region of the Gorno-Badakhshan Region of Tajikistan.

It has now become known that the Taliban have entrusted the Ansarollah terrorist group with managing all border issues on the Afghan-Tajik border in the Darwaz region of the Afghan Badakhshan province. In fact, the Tajik-Afghan border, once considered a “friendly border”, is gradually turning into a “hostile border”, which increases potential threats to Tajikistan. Now, beyond the river 150 meters away, there are angry terrorists; any number of dirty tricks are to be expected: the infiltration of militants, spread of extremist literature, illegal import of weapons, drugs and the creation of “sleeper cells” of terrorist organisations in Tajikistan.

Many experts on Afghanistan argue that without the permission of the Taliban, such extremist and terrorist groups will not violate the borders of the CIS member states, but the experience of the 90s suggests otherwise.

Therefore, the leadership of the Republic of Tajikistan is taking unprecedented measures to protect the Tajik-Afghan border. In particular, it has instructed to send additional troops to the regions adjacent to Afghanistan. The head of state has instructed that in addition to improving the border’s capacity, special attention be paid to preventing any violations of the state border. The President also instructed the Minister of Defence of Tajikistan to mobilise 20 thousand reservists to the border with Afghanistan. Active work is underway within the CSTO and the SCO. Fortunately, in 2021 Tajikistan holds the presidency in both of these international organisations, and from 5 to 10 August 2021 joint exercises with regional allies were held in the immediate vicinity of the Afghan border. Special and peacekeeping units of the Russian Armed Forces will hold nine joint counter-terrorism exercises with the troops of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in late August and September. The large-scale exercises will end with the Peace Mission 2021 strategic manoeuvres of the armed forces of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation countries with the participation of more than 4,000 servicemen.

The third problem for Tajikistan is purely economic. After the Taliban captured, in June 2021, the Shir Khan Bandar-Nizhniy Pyanj checkpoint on the Afghan-Tajik border, which is the main trade point between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the movement of goods, trade and transit practically stopped, and, accordingly, there is practically no trade turnover between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Before the appearance of the Taliban at the Sher Khan Bandar-Nizhniy Pyanj checkpoint, 35 to 40 trucks passed through it daily, but now only two or three vehicles pass through it every day.

The leaders of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have maintained contact with the Taliban since the late 1990s. They held numerous meetings with the political leadership of the Taliban on their territory. Uzbekistan even created a negotiating platform on its territory for inter-Afghan peace talks. Perhaps these relations created the basis for the migration policy of these two countries, which was expressed in restricting the entry of Afghan migrants to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and their immediate expulsion back to Afghanistan.

On the other hand, the activities of the militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) terrorist organisation together with the Taliban on the Afghan-Uzbek and Afghan-Turkmen borders are forcing Uzbekistan to strengthen the Uzbek-Afghan border.

The decision of Uzbekistan to conduct joint military exercises with Russia to ensure the territorial integrity of the states of the Central Asian region, in which about 1,500 servicemen of the Russian Federation and Uzbekistan took part, was very timely.

The Afghan-Uzbek border is the shortest, and at the same time the most guarded of the external borders of Uzbekistan. With a length of 144 kilometres, it runs from the border junction with Turkmenistan to the border junction with Tajikistan along the Amu Darya River. On this border, near the Uzbek city of Termez, there is the main border checkpoint — a bridge across the Amu Darya River, along which in 1989 the Soviet army returned home from Afghanistan. Now this bridge has a railway connecting Uzbekistan with the centre of the Afghan province of Balkh — the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

In early July 2021, the Taliban managed to temporarily seize the Afghan-Uzbek border in the Hairaton area, which was then soon liberated by the militia under the leadership of the former governor of Balkh province, Mohammad Nur.

However, the situation in Afghanistan had a negative impact on the development of economic relations between the two countries. Uzbekistan’s plans to sign an agreement on preferential trade with Afghanistan by the end of 2021, which could increase mutual trade turnover 2.5-fold — up to $2 billion, are now up in the air

The fate of the Uzbek project to build a railway from the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif to the city of Herat also remains unclear.

The length of the state border between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan is 804 km. The main border checkpoint on the Turkmen-Afghan border is the city of Serhetabad (formerly Kushka). On July 9, 2021, the Taliban captured the Afghan border town of Turgundi, and the Afghan military fled to the territory of Turkmenistan. Under the onslaught of the Taliban, Afghan border guards also tried to flee to the neighbouring country.

Many experts on Afghan-Turkmen relations note that over the years of independence, the main instrument of ensuring security for the authorities of Turkmenistan has been to purchase the loyalty of the authorities of the Afghan border provinces. This didn’t mean just the official authorities, but also the real ones, even if they were the Taliban. After the latest incident on the Turkmen-Afghan border, it will be very difficult for Ashgabat to offer itself as a platform for future intra-Afghan negotiations. The fate of the TAPI, Turkmenistan’s largest economic project, is also up in the air, as construction had been planned through the territory of Afghanistan.

The recent events in Afghanistan have clearly shown once again that the post-Soviet countries of Central Asia should closely cooperate within such authoritative international regional organisations as the CSTO and the SCO in order to protect their sovereignty and national independence.

Strategic Vision for the Development of Regional Economic Cooperation in Central Asia
Khudoberdi Kholiknazar
In the medium and long term, industrialisation and urbanisation will determine the dynamics and depth of development processes in the countries of Central Asia. At the same time, the on-going socio-economic and political-administrative reforms in the Central Asian countries are based on different models.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.