Like most people, I watched in horror the events unfolding in Afghanistan during the US-led withdrawal in August. Twenty years of bloody fighting, attempted democracy, improved human rights and renewed education prospects for women were over in a matter of days as the Taliban enforced a new order with relative ease and surprisingly minimal military conflict.
Unlike the West, the nations of Central Asia have prepared to some extent for the return of the Taliban. They have built diplomatic relationships and enhanced their own domestic security arrangements. But the ignominy of the US-led withdrawal, the uncertainty that the Taliban will keep its security guarantees to suppress the export of extremism and the general uncertain economic and political outcome of the region’s close neighbour mean that significant challenges remain – and not just inside Afghanistan. Whether the Central Asian governments want it or not, external actors, including Russia and China, will continue to make their presence felt in the region.
Regional security is likely to be the biggest watchpoint. The crisis in Afghanistan makes the development of extremist forms of Islam very likely, especially as it is also unlikely that the Taliban can genuinely unite a nation that has been disunited for decades. As such the Central Asian nations have been cautious in allowing refugees to cross the borders for fear of importing militant extremists alongside, therefore they have largely only permitted brief transits for refugees to third countries.
Part of the Taliban’s victory is down to the fact that disenfranchised ethnic minorities, including Tajiks and Uzbeks, have joined the Taliban’s cause. The Ashraf Ghani government fell for reasons that are also acknowledged to exist in Central Asia – corruption, legitimacy and a marginalised population. That a generation of young people lacking opportunity and finding religion can so swiftly topple a government backed by the world’s leading powers so quickly might cause a few sleepless nights in other regimes in the region. The Taliban response to those ethnic minorities who hail from Central Asia will also impact the willingness of neighbours to recognise and co-operate with the new government, or against them.
Trade with and through Afghanistan will also be a hot topic and opportunity – Afghanistan is a central part of trade routes linking Europe, the Middle East and is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Meanwhile, the long-heralded Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan pipeline remains in the balance. Russia and China are key economic partners for the region and will be seen by some, including Kazakhstan who doesn’t share a border with Afghanistan, as the only ones who can help with a co-ordinated response and plan for the future of trade with the country. That response will undoubtedly use the security threat to broaden military presence for the required security that is needed to enable trade. But ultimately, as in the days of the Silk Road, it may only be trade, of the legitimate and structured kind, that can help Afghanistan to get out of its cycle of turmoil and regional partition. And freer, more transparent trade is something perhaps worth fighting hard for – the question now is whether that will be by diplomatic or further military means?
Enjoy the issue.
Open Central Asia Magazine
Photos: View of Afghanistan across the river border from the Wakhan Corridor in Tajikistan (2011)