Kazakhstan recently removed the Taliban from its list of banned terrorist organizations, signifying a shift in Central Asia’s engagement with Kabul.
The Central Asian states, particularly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, have expanded their cooperation with the Taliban on trade, transit, and energy matters.
Astana will likely take the lead in political cooperation with Kabul, which may eventually result in heightened political legitimacy for the Taliban’s rule.
On December 29, 2023, Kazakhstan officially removed the Taliban from its list of banned terrorist organizations. The Taliban had originally been added to that list in 2005. Commenting on the decision, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Aibek Smadiyarov explained that it was made in accordance with UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, noting that the Taliban is not “on the list of organizations recognized by the UNSC as terrorists” (Kazinform.kz, December 29, 2023). Earlier, in July 2023, the Foreign Ministry had stated that there were no plans to change the Taliban’s status (Kursiv Media, December 29, 2023). It seems that the government’s change of heart may have been motivated by Afghanistan’s increased engagement with the countries of Central Asia. Since the Taliban came back to power in August 2021, the country has increased its cooperation with its neighbors to the north on a number of critical energy and infrastructure projects. Kazakhstan became the first regional state to remove the group from its terrorist list in a move that could mark a new era in relations between Afghanistan and Central Asia. The region’s multilateral ties with the Taliban are expanding, and the group has the very real prospect of acquiring heightened political legitimacy regionally and internationally.
The Central Asian states have been closely following the recent political and security developments in Afghanistan. They played a central mediating role in negotiations between the Taliban and major international stakeholders prior to the downfall of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in 2021. In 2020, the then-foreign minister of Uzbekistan, Abdulaziz Kamilov, attended the peace agreement signing between the United States and the Taliban, highlighting Tashkent’s role in the negotiations (Forbes.kz, August 9, 2023) Although none of the regional states officially recognized the Taliban, all maintained a diplomatic presence in Kabul. Even Tajikistan, which initially criticized the Taliban for not forming an inclusive government, eventually hosted a Taliban delegation in March 2023 (Asiaplus.tj, March 30, 2023).
Diplomatically, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have moved ahead of their neighbors in engaging with the Taliban. In April 2023, Astana handed control of the Afghan embassy building to the Taliban, becoming the first Central Asian country to do so (Orda.kz, April 17, 2023). Uzbekistan has emerged as an initiator of several multilateral dialogue platforms to stabilize Afghanistan. In April 2023, Tashkent hosted the fourth ministerial meeting of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries in Samarkand. Among the participants were the foreign ministers of Uzbekistan, Iran, China, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, as well as high-ranking Taliban officials (Nova24.uz, April 13, 2023). Discussions emphasized strengthening regional measures to fight against terrorism and drug trafficking and called on the West to shoulder the financial burden for restoring Afghanistan.
Central Asia’s economic and trade cooperation with Afghanistan has recorded significant increases since the Taliban came back to power. In the past two years, the trade volume between Kazakhstan and Afghanistan almost doubled, reaching $987.9 million. At the Kazakhstan-Afghanistan Business Forum in Astana in August 2023, the two sides committed to increasing trade volumes to $3 billion. In this regard, the establishment of Kazakhstan’s trade house in the Afghan city of Herat, promises to help achieve this target (Forbes.kz, August 9, 2023). According to the Taliban, in 2023, Uzbekistan’s trade volume increased six-fold from the previous year, reaching $266 million. Tashkent, however, estimates that the trade volume was even higher, reaching at least $784 million by November (Spot.uz, January 10). Additionally, at the end of last year, Turkmenistan and the Taliban agreed to increase their bilateral trade volume to $1 billion (Newscentralasia.net, December 17, 2023).
This growing cooperation seems to be a win for all parties involved. For the Central Asian states, Afghanistan offers a myriad of trade and transit opportunities, opening the door to the vast markets of South Asia and beyond. With a population of over 40 million people, Afghanistan stands as a significant market for wheat- and flour-exporting giants such as Kazakhstan. At the business forum in Astana, Kazakhstan and the Taliban signed deals worth $190 million for the export of various agricultural products, including flour and vegetable oil (News Central Asia, August 4, 2023). For double-landlocked Uzbekistan, Afghanistan offers alternative transport and trading routes that would allow for the shipping Uzbek goods to global markets via Pakistani ports. In 2022, Uzbekistan and India exchanged goods for the first time using this route. Now, a major railway project connecting Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan is underway (Forbes.kz, August 9, 2023). Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan’s engagement with the Taliban has kept the door open for major energy infrastructure projects, such as the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India gas pipeline and the Central Asia–South Asia 1000 project.
For the Taliban, increased cooperation with Central Asia translates into solving the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan by giving the country more options to ensure its food and energy security. More importantly, with every deal made with its Central Asian neighbors, the Taliban moves closer to gaining heightened political legitimacy and cementing its regime in the eyes of the international community.
For major regional and global powers, Central Asia’s engagement with the Taliban falls in line with their interests in stabilizing Afghanistan. For the United States and Europe, a stable Afghanistan achieved through the work of others would represent a big win, especially in opening alternative trade routes. For Russia, which considers Central Asia as part of its sphere of influence, a stable Afghanistan is a priority for maintaining Moscow’s primacy in the region. For China, strengthening the Taliban is a matter of domestic security. The group may be able to better mitigate the threats emanating from the Turkistan Islamic Party, which is based in Afghanistan. Additionally, the success of the Belt and Road Initiative’s flagship project—the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—partially depends on the security situation in Afghanistan, as terrorist organizations within the country pose serious threats to CPEC-related projects.
Overall, it is unlikely that Kazakhstan’s neighbors will follow suit and remove the Taliban from their terrorist lists anytime soon. For Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, which share borders with Afghanistan, such a move would likely have different political and security consequences and thus remains off the table. The region’s cooperation with the Taliban, however, will presumably continue to increase. Astana may emerge as the primary facilitator for political cooperation, which could eventually lend itself to the Taliban achieving widespread legitimacy, not just in Central Asia but internationally as well.