Swept away by Taliban. Will the regimes of C. Asia fall

Temur Umarov

Of course, the crisis in Afghanistan creates new risks for the region, but in general, Central Asia has been living with chaos in the neighborhood for several years, and 20 years ago it had already dealt with the Taliban.

With the arrival of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan and the final withdrawal of the United States from there, more and more questions arise about what now awaits the neighboring countries of Central Asia. The media and social networks are filled with alarming images of the future, where the region is drowning in flows of refugees and drugs, lives under an incessant cannonade of terrorist attacks, and the ruling regimes are crumbling under the blows of the Islamist underground, inspired by the successes of their Afghan colleagues.

Of course, it is still impossible to accurately predict further events in Central Asia – much will depend on which course the Taliban will choose and where the Afghan crisis will generally turn. But even now it is clear that such catastrophic forecasts are usually based on false ideas about the increased fragility of the Central Asian states, and therefore are unlikely to come true.

The region has already lived next door to the Taliban in the past and has long begun to prepare for their return to power. Therefore, even in the worst-case scenario, the situation in Central Asia will be much better than some predict. Which, however, does not negate the fact that the fact of the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan can significantly transform both the Central Asian regimes themselves and their relations with the outside world.

The border

No one – most likely not even the Taliban themselves – expected Kabul to fall so quickly. But on the whole, everyone has long understood that sooner or later the Americans will leave, and the Taliban will remain and come to power again. Central Asia lived with the Taliban on the border in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and even then local leaders spoke fashionable words today about the need for pragmatic interaction with the Taliban.

Considering that the wit-hdrawal from Afghanistan was seriously discussed even under Barack Obama, the region had enough time to prepare for the current events. First of all, the borders were prepared.

Uzbekistan has long fenced itself off from Afghanistan with two rows of fences with live barbed wire, which are also mined for reliability. A monitored road has been laid along the entire 150 km of the border. In fact, the only way to get from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan is the Termez – Hairaton (Friendship Bridge) bridge.

On the border of Tajikistan with Afghanistan, the situation is more complicated. It is almost 10 times longer than the Uzbek one and runs not only along the Pyanj River, but also along the mountains. Defending such a border is difficult, especially given that the Tajik army is considered the weakest in Central Asia (it ranks 99th out of 140 in the Global Firepower ranking ).

True, these problems are largely offset by active international cooperation. There is a large Russian military base in Tajikistan, and the Russian military is guarding the border along with Tajik units. Also in the Wakhan corridor there is a border post of the People’s Armed Militia of China. According to rumors, India has access to the Tajik Farkhor airport – also on the border with Afghanistan.

The border of Turkmenistan with Afghanistan is half the length of the Tajik border – about 800 km, passes mainly through the desert, and it is not easy to control it. However, since the situation in Afghanistan began to deteriorate, Ashgabat has strengthened the border and brought heavy military equipment to it.

Other Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan are also showing their readiness to fight back in the event of a breakthrough. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have conducted a series of military exercises at home, as well as jointly with each other and Russia. And the CSTO countries will also hold joint exercises in Kyrgyz-stan on September 7.

In parallel, the Central Asian states are establishing diplomatic contacts with all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan. Turkmenistan has been conducting unofficial negotiations with the Taliban for a long time. And Uzb-ekistan, back in 2018, at an international conference on Afghanistan in Tashkent, openly announced that it was starting negotiations with the Taliban.

So far, only Tajikistan has not made contact with the new authorities of Afghanistan. There, the aging President Emomali Rahmon uses every opportunity to mobilize nationalist society. In April 2021, this approach led Tajikistan to an armed conflict with neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

Now Rahmon is positioning himself as a defender of Afghan Tajiks, including demanding that the Taliban include their representatives in the new, inclusive government. At the same time, Rahmon claims that ethnic Tajiks make up more than 46% of the population of Afghanistan, although most researchers estimate their share at just over 20%. Nevertheless, even Rahmon does not directly oppose the Taliban and does not refuse to recognize their authority.

Refugees

The scale of threats to Central Asia is also often overestimated. Take the Afghan refugee problem, for example. According to UN forecasts, by the end of this year alone there will be about half a million. Western countries are already asking Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to shelter those Afghans who collaborated with them, whom they did not manage to take out during the evacuation.

However, the massive emigration from Afghanistan has been going on for decades – during this time, its stable routes and clear ideas about the countries most popular among Afghans, which do not include Central Asia, have been formed. Most often, they leave Afghanistan for neighboring Pakistan and Iran, from where many are trying to move to developed countries. In 2020, most Afghan refugees have taken the EU (more than 40,000), Australia (11,000), UK (9000).

But Central Asia and even Russia have never been very popular, because they are very reluctant to accept refugees. For example, under the previous Taliban rule, Uzbekistan completely closed its border altogether and refused to open it even at the request of the UN in 2001. In Russia, despite the long history of ties with Afghanistan, only a few thousand people from this country now live.

Central Asia itself suffers from massive population outflows. The region lacks a burgeoning labor market for new hands, generous social programs, or entrenched Afghan diasporas to facilitate relocation. But there is a clear refusal of the local authorities to host refugees from Afghanistan. This has already been announced by the leadership of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, while in Tajikistan, so far only “temporarily” allowed a thousand refugees to stay at the airport of the city of Kulyab in order to leave for other countries from there.

They are in no hurry to make an exception even for the Afghan military fleeing from the Taliban, although most of them are ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks. As the experience of this summer has shown, they are often returned back to Afghanis-tan, and only those whom the West promises to soon take out, or VIPs, such as t-he informal leader of the A-fghan Uzbeks, Marshal Do-stum, are allowed to stay.

Terrorism

In all negotiations with the countries of the region, the Taliban declares that they are not going to expand to the north and threaten the countries of Central Asia. However, his readiness and, most importantly, his ability to fulfill these promises raises many questions – especially with regard to possible terrorist attacks.

Tajikistan is the most vulnerable in this regard. There, terrorist attacks happened even when the US military was still in control of Afghanistan. For example, on Constitution Day on November 6, 2019, according to the Tajik authorities, ISIS fighters broke through from Afghanistan into the country and, having driven almost 300 km, attacked the Ishkobod border post on the border with Uzbekistan. A year earlier, in 2018, four foreign tourists were killed in the Tajik mountains. In both cases, ISIS claimed responsibility, but judging by the numerous inconsistencies in the versions of the authorities, it was not Afghans who were behind these attacks, but local radicals.

In other countries of Central Asia, terrorist attacks also took place. For example, in June 2016, in Aktobe, Kazakhstan, a group of terrorists opened fire on passers-by and attacked a police station – then 25 people died. Or a high-profile terrorist attack in Bishkek, where in August 2016 a suicide bomber rammed the gates of the Chinese embassy and blew himself up.

Nevertheless, most of the Central Asian terrorist attacks in recent years had nothing to do with Afghanistan in general or the Taliban in particular. In general, the situation in this area in the region cannot be called critical, although a certain deterioration is quite possible here – especially if the Taliban, having lost their common enemy in the person of the United States, loses control over their militant groups.

Stability

In general, the demand for the ideas of radical Islam in Central Asia should not be exaggerated. The fact that these countries border on Afghanistan, and their regimes are not very effective and popular, does not mean that local societies are ready to be inspired by the success of the Taliban and arrange something similar in their countries. Despite the religious and ethnic affinity, Afghanistan and the Central Asian states have long been developing in completely different conditions and have much less in common with each other than you might think.

Afghans have been living in continuous war for over four decades. With an average age of 19, the vast majority of them do not remember peacetime at all. And in Central Asia, on the contrary, the cult of a peaceful sky has been elevated to an absolute, for the sake of which societies are ready to sacrifice their rights and freedoms.

In today’s Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov, who died in his post five years ago, is still popular primarily for not allowing war. Against this background, any problems with corruption and arbitrariness fade away. In Tajikistan, with his experience of the civil war in the early 1990s, Rahmon’s popularity rests on the same thing – that he stopped the bloodshed. This is even recorded in his title, which the Tajik media are obliged to repeat at any mention of the president – “the founder of peace and national unity.”

While Afghan children were learning to shoot with a machine gun, they went to affordable schools in Central Asia. And this is not an exaggeration: according to 2017 data, about 10% of the population in Afgha-nistan has firearms; in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan – 0.003%, in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan – 0.02%. It is clear that the official statistics may be missing a lot, but the difference of several orders of magnitude in the number of firearms is most likely true. But with the indicators of school enrollment, the situation is the opposite: in Afghanistan – only 55% of the population, in the countries of Central Asia – not less than 90%, and in Kazakhstan – all 100%.

The last time women in Central Asia wore the veil en masse was before the hujum emancipation campaign in the 1920s. Of course, discrimination persists in the region even now (for example, the custom of bride kidnapping is still widespread in Kyrgyzstan), but at the same time it has long become the norm that women occupy high positions (in the parliaments of Kazakhstan and Uzbeki-stan, a third of the deputies are women) and they simply work (less in total in Tajikistan – 29%, most of all in Kazakhstan – 62%, in Afghanistan – 21%).

In other words, the average Central Asians are much more like the average Russian than Afghanistan. These are mainly secular citizens who, on average, drink from 1 to 6 liters of ethyl alcohol per year (in Afghanistan – 0.1), use the Internet (from 21% of the population of Turkmenistan to 81% of Kazakhstan, compared with 11% in Afghanistan), do not wear traditional clothes, watch movies and TV shows and are at the same time under close state control.

The latter circumstance is especially important, because since gaining independence, the Central Asian regimes have been practicing in the fight against the Islamist threat, for which they are constantly criticized by the West and human rights activists.

In Uzbekistan, under Karimov, any religious zeal was harshly punished: men were forbidden to wear beards (the police still conduct raids and detain bearded men), children were not allowed to attend mosques, and preachers were regularly imprisoned. After Karimov’s death, the order softened somewhat – for example, the ban on wearing the hijab in public places was lifted – but control over the distribution of religious materials remains very strict.

In 2015, the authorities in Tajikistan defeated the only legal Islamist party in the post-Soviet space, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, and its leader, Mukhiddin Kabiri, was sentenced in absentia to prison. In addition, Dushanbe closely monitors those who received religious education abroad, and Rahmon himself has repeatedly called on fellow citizens to ignore religious prohibitions.

Of course, this does not mean that Islam in Central Asia is perceived solely as a source of threats. Rather, in this matter, people are guided by the examples of Turkey or the Persian Gulf countries, and not by the Afghanistan of the Taliban. And Central Asian rulers are always ready to demonstrate religious solidarity with society – they go to mosques, communicate with muftis, congratulate people on Muslim holidays.

With the exception of Kyrgyzstan, Central Asian regimes still appear to be quite resilient – their ruling elites are united, the state retains a monopoly on violence, and the potential for protests is low. In addition, the two largest countries in the region – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – have recently experienced a transition of power, and there is still a positive effect from the first relaxation and reforms of the new rulers.

Of course, the crisis in Afghanistan creates new risks for the region, but in general, Central Asia has been living with chaos in the neighborhood for several years, and 20 years ago it had already dealt with the Taliban. During this time, the states managed to get stronger and now they are much better prepared for unforeseen turns. So the Afghan events are unlikely to plunge Central Asia into chaos – they will rather pu-sh the local regimes to stre-ngthen control over society, and Russia to increase its role in regional security.

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