Taliban Victory Unsettles Geopolitics in Central Asia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 131

Taliban fighters take over the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul (Source: RFI)

The suddenness of the Taliban’s victory amidst the final departure of United States forces from Afghanistan has intensified fears in Central Asia about the threat that movement poses to them. Consequently, it has sparked discussions across Central Asian capital about how they should respond—both in terms of their own policies at home and through the alliances they have with others. At the same time, what has happened in Afghanistan has led outside powers like Russia and China to beef up their current positions in some regional countries and, intriguingly, to use the current crisis to expand security cooperation with Turkmenistan, which has been reluctant to cooperate in this way in the past. In this rapidly changing situation, both Moscow and Beijing have a common interest in stability; but their larger goals may well put them at odds in the future. At a minimum, their differences in focus and approach are certain to be exploited by the Central Asian governments themselves, including Turkmenistan’s.

Even before the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan’s three northern neighbors (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), the two other countries in the region (Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan), as well as the two outside powers most directly involved (China and the Russian Federation) all sought to calculate how large a threat a Taliban victory would represent. Relatedly, they all attempted to figure out how to respond to it militarily and in other ways. And finally, each of these governments considered what forms of inter-state cooperation might become necessary or desirable if the Taliban won to the south and began posing an ideological and even military challenge to the region and beyond (see EDM, July 13, 15).

Now that the Taliban is effectively back in power, these concerns have radically intensified both in the region and beyond (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 15). All the countries in the region recognize that the external threat of a Taliban-run Afghanistan means they have to put aside some of their traditional conflicts with each other and focus instead on the common security challenge. Thus, since the beginning of August, they have dramatically expanded conversations about how to work together to cope with the Taliban (Ritmeurasia.org, August 8; Ia-centr.ru, August 9). At the same time, widespread awareness is growing that they all face challenges from internal Islamist groups that may be inspired to become more active now that the Taliban has won (Kloop.kg, August 13; Ia-centr.ru, August 15; Kabar.kg, August 16).

The two most important outside players are also evaluating the nature of the Taliban threat to Central Asia and how best to respond. China fears the Taliban may threaten its trade routes through Central Asia as well as motivate further Muslim resistance to Beijing’s repressive action in Xinjiang. It has issued stern warnings about how it will react should that prove to be the case, although it has not yet taken any decisive public steps (Fergana.News, August 2). Meanwhile, Russia, for its part, has moved to upgrade its bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, conducted military maneuvers with its four Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) allies (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), provided additional assistance for border security, and made clear that it will use the CSTO as its primary vehicle for organizing the defense of Central Asia against any threat from a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan (Sputnik News, August 5, 11; Central Asia. Media, August 15; ASIA-Plus, August 16).

Moscow’s approach, however, suffers from two limiting factors. On the one hand, it is almost exclusively focused on having the military capacity to resist a direct invasion of the region by Taliban forces. The latter are unlikely to carry out any such attack—not only because it would invite a Russian reprisal but also because the Taliban is far more likely to engage in partisan warfare in border regions and rely on sympathizers who are already numerous throughout Central Asia. And on the other hand, Moscow’s reliance on the CSTO highlights a serious problem: Turkmenistan, which has a 700-kilometer-long border with Afghanistan, is not a member. The country is known for its longstanding insistence on remaining neutral in all things—its major newspaper is called Neutral Turkmenistan—and it had sought to maintain good relations with both the Taliban and the now-fallen Afghan government.

The Russian government is unlikely to change from its military-first focus; but it is increasingly clear that Moscow would like to see Turkmenistan more firmly part of regional cooperation efforts and even to drop its neutrality and become a member of the Russian-led CSTO. That is the clear message of Mikhail Katkov’s extensive article recently published in Moskovsky Komsomolets (Moskovsky Komsomolets, August 15). And a comparable argument was offered earlier by Fabio Indeo of the NATO Defense College Foundation in Italy, in an essay for the Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting (Cabar.asia, August 2).

Katkov makes the point baldly: Russia is able to help defend the Central Asian countries that are members of the CSTO; but Turkmenistan, because of its stand-alone policies, cannot count on such protection. He suggests that Ashgabat may have to rethink its position given the Taliban victory. According to some reports, Turkmenistan has already moved its military up to the border and launched a significant propaganda effort to counter what it sees as the Taliban ideological threat. But given the weakness of the Turkmenistani army, which continues to use Soviet-era equipment and is riven by tribal and clan divisions, this is hardly likely to be sufficient.

Daniil Kislov, the editor-in-chief of the Fergana News Agency, tells Katkov that “the border between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan is now the weak link in the entire Central Asian direction from the point of view of a terrorist threat.” However, he concedes that just how serious it may be is difficult to say because little is known about the Turkmenistani military establishment or Taliban plans. Still, it is worrisome. And Stanislav Pritchin, a senior researcher at Moscow’s Center for Post-Soviet Research, seconds that view, pointing out that the entire Afghan-Turkmenistani border passes through a desert and is “very difficult to defend.” Cooperation with other countries is increasingly needed (Moskovsky Komsomolets, August 15). The fact that some in the West, like Indeo, think the same way may force Ashgabat to change positions Cabar.asia, August 2).

If so, that may be the most unsettling development in Central Asia following the Taliban victory, one that will force not only China but also the West to rethink their policies toward that region.