The Taliban gained full power in Afghanistan. How does this threaten the whole of C. Asia?

Dmitry Plotnikov & Sofia Sardzhveladze

Taliban leaders announced the capture of the last outpost of the armed opposition in the Panjshir province and completed the formation of an interim government. This can be considered the formal end of the bloody Afghan war and the beginning of a new stage in the country’s history. Now, in addition to solving internal problems, the Taliban will have to build relations with neighboring countries, including those that are in Russia’s sph-ere of interests. The former Soviet republics – Uz-bekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan – react differently to what is happening in Afghanistan. The authorities of Uzbe-kistan and Turkmenistan have already begun a dialogue with the Taliban, while the Tajik leadership is in no hurry to recognize a government “formed through oppression.” Me-anwhile, in the border re-gions of Afghanistan, terrorist groups have alre-ady declared themselves, ready to spread their ideology to neighboring countries.”Lenta.ru”.

“These guys fought with us in the 1990s”

Having become the official power of Afghanistan, the Taliban decided to pro-ve to the whole world that they do not pose any danger and are focused exclusively on internal affairs – that is, liberating the country from the Western presence and uniting Afghan society around traditional values.

“We assure the world, especially the United States, that Afghan territory will not be used against others. The transformation of the country’s territory into a springboard for threats to other states is categorically unacceptable, “Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in mid-August.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) reported back in July that at the talks in Moscow the Taliban had promised not to attack Central Asia, and also to fight the Islamic State and drug trafficking.

“Assurances were received from the Taliban regarding the non-violation of the borders of the Central Asian states by the grouping, as well as guarantees of the security of diplomatic and consular missions of foreign states on the territory of Afghanistan.” Russian Foreign Ministry.

But the problems of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries began during the summer offensive of the militants.

The Taliban began to seize control of the Afghan provinces during the US withdrawal from the country, which began on May 1. Against this background, as Lenta.ru wrote, the authorities of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan reported a growing flow of refugees from Afghanistan: thousands of soldiers, militias and civilians tried to escape from militants in neighboring countries. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s Commissioner for Human Rights Grigory Lukyantsev noted that the number of potential refugees from Afghanistan could be in the hundreds of thousands.

Many observers are worried about the terrorist threat looming over the region: the success of the Taliban may inspire the “sleeping” cells of the Islamic State ( IS ) and Al-Qaeda in Central Asia. In addition, the “Taliban” militants from the fighting groups, whose goal is to expand into this region – “Al-Qaeda”, ” Dzhebhat en-Nusra ” and ” Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan “. “If the Taliban, who are their allies, finally win – and the Taliban, in principle, allowed them to keep their troops in controlled territories – then these terrorist organizations will use Afghanistan to penetrate into Central Asia,” he said in an interview with Lent-a.ru Nikita Mendkovich, expert of the Russian Coun-cil on International Affairs.

In addition, drug trafficking may grow, which will “merge” with terroris-m: extremist cells will turn into transshipment bases for drug traffickers, and smuggling channels will be used to deliver not only drugs, but also weapons and extremist literature.

As Lenta.ru wrote, after coming to power, the Taliban entrusted the protection of the Afghan-Tajik border to the Jamaat Ansorullah group, which includes hundreds of Tajik citizens. It was founded by Mulla Amriddin, a field commander of the Islamist anti-government forces, during the 1992-1997 Tajik civil war. Now the militants are led by the ethnic Tajik Mahdi Arsalon, who has repeatedly announced his intention to build a caliphate in the post-Soviet republic.

In the area of the Afg-han-Uzbek border, the Isl-amic Movement of Uzbe-kistan is now operating, which has sworn allegiance to IS since 2014. According to the former Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organiz-ation (CSTO) Nikolai Bordyuzha, the Islamic Movement of Turkestan, which includes immigrants from Central Asia, is also active in the region.

“These guys who fought with us in the 1990s in Central Asia, including with Russian border guards in Tajikistan, are also in Afghanistan. It is not yet clear how the situation will develop, whether the Taliban will be able to keep it or Afghanistan will be divided into zones, ”Bordyuzha noted.

“For the peace of the people”

In mid-August, the Taliban announced the capture of all of Afghanistan, and on September 7, they announced the creation of an interim government. At the same time, most countries took a wait-and-see attitude, not trying to recognize the new government at the same moment. Thus, the press secretary of the Russian President Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow first intends to assess to what extent the statements of the Taliban representatives will coincide with their real actions.

Against this background, the countries of Central Asia are already trying to build relations with the new government in Afghanistan, and they are acting in this direction in different ways.

For example, the authorities of Uzbekistan from the very beginning of the offensive of the Taliban declared that what is happening in Afghanistan is an internal affair of the neighboring country, in which it is not worth interfering. Afghan soldiers who fled to the post-Soviet republic were expelled back beyond the border. After the militants came to power, the flow of refugees did not diminish. Local media, citing sources, reported that Uzbekistan has temporarily placed about 650 Afghan army personnel in the COVID center. About 150 Afghan refugees, including women and children, were housed in a tent camp in the country.

Later, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry reported that they all received medical assistance, after which they were sent home. The country’s authorities claim to have received security gua-rantees from the Taliban for these people, and Afghans who returned home have already reported that no illegal actions have been taken against them. A little later, Uzbekistan refused to accept refugees on its territory at all and closed the border with Afghanistan.

Against this background, President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev said that the situation in the neighboring country “makes everyone think” and assured that the Armed Forces of Uzbekistan are ready for any development of events. At the same time, he said that Uzbekistan has long been negotiating with the Taliban “for the sake of the peace of the people.”

“We negotiated with the Taliban for two months. At that time, not a single state did this, but I gave instructions to negotiate with them. Their leader in Doha, Baradar, promised that not a single bullet would be fired in the direction of Uzbekistan.” Shavkat Mirziyoyev, President of Uzbekistan.

Indeed, the Uzbek authorities have been in contact with the Taliban since 2018, for which they were repeatedly criticized by the previous Afghan government, Temur Umarov, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, reminded Lente.ru. At the same time, back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the first president of the republic, Islam Karimov, said that it was necessary to conduct a dialogue with the Taliban. The current authorities continue this model of relations with the movement – on September 8, Uzbekistan welcomed the creation of an interim government.

This is due to the fact that Uzbekistan has a plan to resolve the situation in a neighboring country, which it regularly presents at international conferences, says Umarov. According to this plan, Afghanistan is viewed as a part of the Central Asian region, which should be involved in every possible way in economic processes. “Everyone remembers what the Taliban did in the 1990s, everyone knows everyone about them. But in Uzbekistan they believe that this is an internal affair of Afghanistan, it is necessary to proceed from what is, ”the expert notes. “Uzbekistan positions itself as a regional leader and seeks to become one of the important participants in the peace process on Afghanistan.” Temur Umarov, expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

In addition, as Stanislav Pritchin, senior researcher at the Center for Post-So-viet Studies at IMEMO, no-ted in a conversation with Lenta.ru, Uzbekistan has a lot to lose in Afghanistan – the country was a serious market for Tashkent. In 20-20, the foreign trade turno-ver between the two countries amounted to $ 779 mi-llion, and in January-June of this year – $ 351.9 million.

At the same time, Afghanistan is one of the countries with which Uzb-ekistan has an active foreign trade balance, that is, exports exceed imports. Of the 20 large economic partners of Tashkent, there are only four such countries: Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkey.

The militants, in response, promise that they intend to develop economic relations with Tashkent. “We confirm our interest in continuing the implementation of infrastructure projects in Afghanistan with the participation of Uzbekistan, in particular, the construction of a railway and power lines. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will provide all the necessary assistance to our Uzbek partners in this direction, ”the message of the Taliban says.

“Devastated the Tajik lands”

Tajikistan takes a completely different position: they openly oppose the Tal-iban authorities, fearing thr-eats emanating from them. The fears look unfounded, because Tajikistan, unlike other Central Asian countries, cannot rely on Turkey in the fight against the Taliban. In fact, Moscow is the only external sponsor of Emomali Rahmon. At the same time, his regime has neither a project nor an ideology that could compete with the ideas of the Taliban, which have gained popularity among the Uzbek and Tajik population of Afghanistan.

That is why Rahmon demanded an “inclusive” government of Afghanistan, with the participation of all national minorities, including Afghan Tajiks, who make up more than 46 percent of the country’s population. He explained the need for this by further economic relations. At the same time, he promised that he would not recognize any other government “formed by means of oppression.”

At the end of August, Rahmon discussed the situation with the head of the European Council Charles Michel, warning that Afghanistan would turn into a springboard for training international terrorists.

“The facts clearly show that the Taliban are abando-ning their previous promises to form an interim transitional government with the broad participation of other political forces in the country and are preparing to create an Islamic emirate. Tajikistan strongly condemns all forms of lawlessness, murder, robbery and persecution of the Afghan people.” official website of the President of Tajikistan.

Tajikistan also called on the international community to take urgent measures to ensure peace and stability in Afghanistan, as indifference can lead to a protracted civil war.

It’s not just the president who comes out with harsh rhetoric. Even the opposition Democratic Party has declared that the Taliban are carrying out genocide of non-Pashtun peoples, “d-evastated Tajik lands, houses, cities and villages”, kidnap girls, kill men and rape their wives. The party wonders why the UN, international human rights organizations and “states that call themselves defenders of democracy” are silent.

The party called on Rahmon to create all conditions for receiving refugees and promised Afghan Tajiks that it would fight with them for victory. After that, more than two thousand people in southern Tajikistan asked the authorities to allow them to go to Panjshir to help the Taliban resistance forces, which are based on local Tajiks.

The leader of the Democratic Party, Saidjafar Usmonzoda, explained that volunteers cannot cross the state border without permission, since it is a criminal offense. “They have no other way but to join the ranks of the Armed Forces of Tajikistan and go to Afghanistan. And then only if the Afghan authorities officially ask Dushanbe for military assistance, ”he added.

The authorities did not officially react to the appeal. However, the media reported that weapons, ammunition and materials necessary for the troops were delivered from Tajikistan to Panjshir. Both the Tajik Foreign Ministry and the Panjshir resistance denied this.

“Tajikistan does not have a transport corridor with Panjshir. There is no physical ability to support the resistance. There is a public statement about the desire to become volunteers, but it’s hard to imagine. Stanislav Pritchin, Senior Researcher, Center for Post-Soviet Studies, IMEMO.

According to Stanislav Pritchin, a senior researcher at the IMEMO Center for Post-Soviet Studies, if repression begins against Afghan Tajiks, Dushanbe will accept refugees. In the meantime, Tajikistan has taken a wait-and-see attitude, does not recognize the Taliban as an official power and does not agree to negotiations.

Political scientist Temur Umarov believes that Rahmon is in defense of Afghan Tajiks to raise his own popularity within the country: the politician positions himself as the main protector of his people.

For example, in the spring, Rakhmon specially came to Vorukh – a Tajik exclave surrounded by the territory of Kyrgyzstan – after the chairman of the Kyrgyz National Security Committee proposed to Dushanbe to exchange the settlement for other lands. The President assured that no one would give Vorukh. Rakhmon is acting in a similar way now – such rhetoric is useful for his internal popularity, Umarov said.

At the same time, in the future, Tajikistan will have to negotiate with the Taliban, since they control the border with a length of 1.3 thousand kilometers. “Someday it will be necessary to open it. It is impossible to keep it closed all the time, so they will be forced to negotiate. Most likely, it’s just a matter of time, ”says Umarov.

Be that as it may, the thr-eats exist. And even if there are no visible signs of the spread of Taliban ideas in Tajikistan right now, just as there is no direct expansion of the Taliban, sentiments exist regardless of borders. And if the domestic dema-nd for a change of power coincides with the weakening of Rahmon’s regime, it is highly likely to see the sudden birth of a new Tajik revolution, which is so feared in Central Asia.

Firm adherents of peace

A different situation is developing with Turkmenistan, the authorities of which fear the expansion of the Taliban and the seizure of the richest gas fields. At the same time, the country has the weakest army in the region – it is not included in military blocs (unlike Tajikistan) and is quite far from Russia (unlike Uzbekistan). The danger is also added by the fact that due to the closed nature of the authoritarian regime, the Turkmen have no opportunity to freely travel to Russia to work. And among the country’s poor, Taliban ideas of justice can quickly become popular.

That is why, immediately after the Taliban came to power, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry began to actively establish contacts with them. The Foreign Ministry assured that Turkmenistan is interested in the stability and security of Afghanistan, remains a firm adherent of the peaceful resolution of conflicts and is ready to help the Afghan people achieve peace and civil accord. The Turkmen regularly contact the Taliban on issues of border protection and mov-ement of goods through it, checkpoints are operating as usual.

Taliban spokesman Mohammad Sohail Shahin, in turn, assured that the movement is interested in completing the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. The construction of the facility, which will take place from the largest field in Turkmenistan, “Galkynysh”, was planned to be completed in 2019. Now the object will be commissioned no earlier than 2023. 1735 kilometers, the length of the gas pipeline Turkmenistan – Afghan-istan – Pakistan – India.

President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov in a telephone conversation with the head of the European Council Charles Michel stressed that Ashgabat’s position in relation to the situation in Afghanistan is based, among other things, on the need to build TAPI.

In mid-August, Turkmen diplomats met with Taliban leaders in Herat and Balkh provinces and discussed the work of their consulates. The Foreign Ministry of Turkmenistan stressed that the meetings were held in a friendly atmosphere, and the Taliban took under the protection of the embassy and consulates of the republic, which continue to work as usual.

According to Turkmenportal, many ethnic Turkmen live in Herat, the third largest city in Afghanistan. Ashgabat built social facilities there, supplied humanitarian aid and electricity at discounted prices.

At the same time, according to radio Azatlyk, the Turkmen authorities do not allow ethnic Turkmen and military personnel from Afghanistan who tried to escape across the border into their territory.

Berdymukhamedov explained that “in the current difficult epidemiological conditions, it is necessary to make sensible decisions on the admission of refugees” and, first of all, to assess the risks of the spread of coronavirus (which, according to official data, has not been detected in Turkmenistan).

Turkmenistan has always been a neutral country and did not interfere in anything, Umarov notes. But now Ashgabat is forced to negotiate with the Taliban, since there is no one else to talk to in the country. At the same time, the Turkmen authorities are well aware that the ideas of the Taliban can resonate with the poor population of the country. That is why they try to stay ahead of the curve.

To help?

In the light of recent events, the question arose about a possible change in the role of Russia in the region. It has been said for a long time that the events in Afghanistan are a problem for Moscow as well.

“The Americans planted a time bomb in the underbelly of Russia, endangering all countries bordering Afghanistan and provoking an unprecedented flow of refugees.” Peter Tolstoy, vice speaker of the State Duma.

As noted by the deputy chairman of the Federation Council, Konstantin Kosa-chev, at the borders of the Central Asian countries there are various groupings, which include immigrants from the post-Soviet space. “In addition, the growing interest of ISIS in Afgh-anistan and Central Asia is already noticeable in connection with the defeat of the militants in Syria and Iraq. Regardless of whether ISIS eventually reaches an agreement with the Taliban (and such a scenario cannot be ruled out), the threat to Russia and its allies will objectively increase, ”Kosachev warned.

In his opinion, in this situation, it is necessary to “b-uild up regional diplomatic efforts” in order to develop a consolidated position of Afghanistan’s neighbors. In addition, the CSTO defense forces need to be strengthened. Work in this direction is indeed underway. Back in July, Tajikistan applied for help to the Organi-zation, where it is together with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Belarus. The CSTO said that the Afghan-Tajik border is securely guarded, but if the situation worsens, Dushanbe will receive the necessary assistance.

In parallel, a program for the supply of equipment and weapons is being developed. At the same time, a set of measures has already been developed to minimize threats from Afghanistan: drug trafficking, terrorism and illegal migration, said the organization’s secretary general Stanislav Zas. The CSTO admits that hotbeds of resistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan may turn into a long-term civil war with unpredictable consequences, but there is no talk of military intervention.

“Will Afghanistan not become a trap, will we not have to send our sons there again? Of course not. These are completely unfounded fears.” Stanislav Zas, Secretary General of the CSTO.

In addition, in August, Russia held several exercises near the Afghan border, one with Uzbekistan, and the other jointly with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. At the same time, the 201st military base operates in Tajikistan – the largest Russian military facility outside of Russia. The base was reinforced with new weapons; on August 17, its servicemen began maneuvers that will last a month. Exercises of Russian troops in Kyrgyzstan are scheduled for September. In the fall, the CSTO will conduct maneuvers in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

In addition, at the end of August, information appeared that Russia was considering the possibility of deploying specialists from a private military company (PMC) on the border between Afghanist-an and Tajikistan, since the 201st base performs other tasks that cannot be combined with border protection, and for the return of Russian border guards need to conclude and ratify a number of interstate agreements, which takes time.

According to political scientist Stanislav Pritchin, the level of Russia’s presence in the region is sufficient, and it is impossible to strengthen it. Political scientist Umarov disagrees with him, who believes that Russia’s influence in Central Asia in military-political and strategic terms may increase, since “there is no other country that could help these countries.”

As for Uzbekistan, as long as the situation there is safe, the border is completely under control, so it is premature to talk about what the country thinks about joining the CSTO. But President Shavkat Mirziyoyev participated in the organization’s meeting, “which already speaks of a certain change in favor of Russia,” says Umarov.

“The issue with Taj-ikistan is more serious, be-cause the border is large a-nd difficult to guard. Ear-lier, even with the Americ-ans, there were incidents w-hen there were breakthr-oughs across the border, and terrorist attacks were in Tajikistan. Therefore, Taji-kistan has no other choice but to turn to Russia, ”the s-ource of Lenta.ru concluded.

Andrei Kazantsev, HSE professor and chief researcher at the MGIMO Institute for International Studies, stressed that Russia is actively involved in maintaining security in the region. Many maneuvers have been carried out recently, the Central Asian republics have received weapons from Moscow at subsidized prices, and the officer corps is being trained in Russia.

In an interview with Lenta.ru, the expert also said that within the framework of the CSTO, Moscow seeks not only to prevent a direct military attack, but also to fight the accompanying threats. The special services of Russia and Central Asian countries are conducting joint operations to combat drug trafficking, illegal migration and the spread of religious extremism.

In an effort to protect its allies from attacks by the T-aliban or other Afghan gro-ups, Moscow must remember to monitor the mood within these countries. Yes, now the CSTO can ideally work out the mechanisms of combating the invasion of terrorist groups from Afghanistan, take tight control of the border, and seriously hit drug trafficking.

However, in parallel with this, local religious extremists can be inspired by the successes of the Taliban and start a fight with their own governments, in which they will be helped by both Afghan neighbors and the worsening socio-economic situation. And this can provoke a crisis that will easily overshadow the one that happened in Afghanistan.

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