With the ongoing withdrawal of the United States’ military forces and the consequent weakening of the Afghan government, the Taliban now controls much of the territory of Afghanistan and most of its northern borders, posing a threat to its three immediate northern neighbors (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), other countries in the region (Kazakhstan and China), and even the Russian Federation. The buffer zone these countries had enjoyed is gone. Despite Taliban promises about respecting borders and the difficulties the militant group still faces in establishing total control domestically, the governments and experts in other regional states are worried. Indeed, those nearby are already taking military moves, and those further away are issuing warnings or seeking to advance their own interests in Central Asia by playing up the Taliban threat; whereas, some argue that only an alliance with the Taliban can provide protection.
Even the voices in these countries discounting the possibility that the Taliban will move north, into former Soviet territory, say that the Islamist movement’s success in Afghanistan is driving others from that country to move to Central Asian states as far afield as Kazakhstan as well as to Russia and China, where there is the danger that they will destabilize the situation just by their presence or by linking up with home-grown radicals (Russian Monitor, July 7). Given the weaknesses of the three immediate neighbors and the fears of Islamism in both Russia and China, such concerns are understandable. However, they may be overblown in some commentaries, especially as both Moscow and Beijing have long presented themselves as guarantors of Central Asian security and are again doing so now, particularly after Washington asked Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to take in some 9,000 anti-Taliban refugees (Informburo, July 2).
The situation remains fluid and unpredictable, not only because the fall of northern Afghanistan to the Taliban was so unexpected and quick but additionally because ethnic Tajiks, Turkmens and Uzbeks live on both sides of the border (Yandex Zen, May 11). For the last 20 years, Kabul-based journalist Fakhim Sabir points out, “the Afghan North was always the center of resistance to the Taliban.” Its peoples played a key role in overthrowing earlier Taliban rule, and Western forces have seldom fought there, battling in the south instead, the traditional base of the Taliban (Afganistan.ru, July 7). But precisely because of cross-border links between members of Central Asian nationalities and the readiness of many of them in Afghanistan to change sides now or to flee, governments to the north are concerned that what looks like stability in their own countries could change quickly if hundreds of refugees, including some Taliban fighters among them, enter their countries. Conflicts between the ethnic groups in northern Afghanistan are another worry for the Central Asian governments. They fear that these, too, could be transplanted to their countries and lead to both domestic and international clashes.
Curiously, the Israeli analyst Yakov Kedmi, who now works as a Russian commentator, argues that the clashes in northern Afghanistan could have a different outcome entirely and lead to the secession of that region and the joining of parts of it to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. That seems unlikely; and yet fears about that possibility may explain the Taliban’s commitment in recent weeks to gain control of a region they seldom had much success in earlier (Vecherniy Bishkek, July 5).
The three frontline states in Central Asia, along with Kazakhstan, China and Russia, have taken divergent approaches in this fast-moving situation. Tajikistan, the weakest of the three frontline countries, has already accepted many refugees and tried to play down its earlier anti-Taliban position in the hopes that the Afghan group will not exploit the situation. It has negotiated with Taliban representatives, and its media outlets have played down the sometimes violent clashes on the Afghan-Tajikistani border that have already occurred (EurasiaNet, July 9). In turn, Turkmenistan has moved up its army to the Afghan border in the hopes of blocking any refugee flows or advance by the Taliban. But its military is small and unreliable. Thus, Ashgabat has also sought to negotiate with the Taliban in the hopes of preventing a disaster (Izvestia, July 10; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 11). Uzbekistan appears more confident that it can counter any threat. Still, it too has been beefing up its security forces on the border and considering expanding security cooperation with Russia (Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 8).
China and Russia are, if anything, more focused on these dangers—both as threats to themselves and as occasions for expanding their influence in Central Asia. China and Afghanistan share only a 76-kilometer-long border in the Wakhan Corridor, far shorter than those of the three frontline states. However, Beijing is not reassured by the Taliban’s promises of friendship; it worries that the victory of the Taliban will simultaneously interfere with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and link up with alleged Islamists in Xinjiang, among whom China’s government (almost indiscriminately) counts the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities there. While so far restrained in its comments, it seems clear that Beijing is worried less that any Taliban members will cross directly into China than that Islamist fighters may first pass through Central Asia. And because of that, China has sent its foreign minister to regional capitals to discuss common resistance to that possibility (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, EA Daily, July 12).
Russian officials stress they do not want instability in Afghanistan or Central Asia and that they are prepared to help the Central Asian countries counter any threat (Izvestia, July 11). But Russian commentators are less restrained and see the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan not only as a threat to Russia’s regional interests but to Russia itself. Moscow fears that some Muslim nations will take heart from what is happening in Afghanistan and restart or expand their attacks on the Russian state (Kommersant, July 10). Given how fast the situation is changing, all of these positions may shift as well; but at a minimum, all regional countries have been unsettled by the events in Afghanistan.