Tashkent continues to warily watch the developments on the Afghanistan-Uzbekistan border. The Taliban had swept through the northern parts of Afghanistan in June to claim control of all border checkpoints, and now the group is attempting to consolidate its power by force instead of negotiating with the other power centers in the country. Although no Central Asian country faces an imminent military threat from Afghanistan at the moment, Uzbekistan has multiple concerns regarding the events developing on the other side of its southern border. Tashkent’s immediate worry is to avoid becoming the recipient of refugees from the war-torn country. But its longer-term concern is the type of government Afghanistan will organize itself into and whether this will lead to a peaceful coexistence or protracted clashes between the Taliban and other indigenous groups that include ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and other minorities.
For now, Uzbekistan’s government is focused on preventing the entrance of people from Afghanistan and ensuring the security of the border between both countries—in fact, an enduring topic in Tashkent’s negotiations with the Taliban soon after it entered into backdoor negotiations with the militant group in 2019 (Kun.uz, August 27, 2021). Tashkent has made clear that it would not welcome refugees from Afghanistan no matter how desperate their situation might be. The Uzbekistani government is considering any attempt to cross its border a legal violation rather than a humanitarian issue. From the earliest instance, when a group of 53 people, mainly military personnel, crossed into Uzbekistan on June 23, as fighting in northern Afghanistan began, to the present, following the departure of the international coalition, Tashkent has been consistent about turning Afghan nationals back at the border (Kun.uz, June 23).
In total, in June, 100 people were interdicted at the Afghanistan-Uzbekistan border and returned the same month (Kun.uz, June 28). On July 12, Uzbekistan reported the return of another 150 detained Afghan nationals back to their home country (Gazeta.uz, July 12). On August 15, the day of the fall of the Afghan government, 84 people were intercepted as they tried to cross the Afghanistan-Uzbekistan border, but no reports of their return to Afghanistan were announced (Daryo.uz, August 15). On August 16, in the largest and most daring escape attempt, 585 United States–trained Afghan Air Force personnel, along with their crews and families, flew into Uzbekistan aboard military helicopters and airplanes. Despite the certain threat these individuals faced of retaliation by the Taliban, Tashkent requested that Washington speedily removal them from Uzbekistani territory, so as to prevent the Taliban from associating their stay with Tashkent actively providing them shelter and hospitality (Wall Street Journal, August 30).
In the long term, Uzbekistan is anxious about the type of government Afghanistan will organize itself and whether the different ethnic groups and political forces in the latter country will be able to continue to peacefully coexist. For Tashkent, a prerequisite for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is an inclusive government where the Taliban, the Afghan National government, and other groups share power through negotiations. In other words, a state run solely by the Taliban or only by the Afghan National government will not lead to long enduring peace in Afghanistan in Tashkent’s view (Gazeta.uz, August 26).
Uzbekistan’s official position aside, clearly the authorities are not going to rigidly lock themselves into only supporting a coalition government for Afghanistan. Indeed, Uzbekistani President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s latest speech implied that Tashkent is willing to accept any outcome and will not be taking one side over another in Kabul (Kun.uz, August 27)—so long as Uzbekistan’s territory in not threatened by whatever political outcome materializes in Afghanistan. That shift is different from Mirziyoyev’s predecessor, Islam Karimov, who had supported the Northern Alliance in the previous standoff between the Taliban and the national government. Tashkent constantly repeats that the events taking place in Afghanistan are the latter’s internal business, while assuring that the Uzbekistani military is strong and ready to handle any threat—together these clearly underscore Uzbekistan’s wait-and-see attitude (Kun.uz, August 27; Gazeta.uz, July 12; Mfa.uz, June 24).
Uzbekistan’s neighbor Tajikistan, on the contrary, has been more forceful regarding its position on the composition of Afghanistan’s future government (see EDM, September 10). Namely, Tajikistani President Emomali Rakhmon stated that he would not recognize an Afghan government created through the use of force without accounting for the needs of its minorities, in particular “46 percent of Tajiks” (Khovar.tj, August 25).
Tashkent views any border crossing from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan (no matter its size) as an issue that could cause long-term challenges for the latter country. Under President Mirziyoyev, unlike under Karimov, Uzbekistan has accepted the Taliban as an unconquerable force and an equal political power. And so, Tashkent is now doing everything possible not to be viewed as a supporter of any particular side in Afghanistan. Although Tashkent has been clear that it wants the new government in Kabul to include all major power factions, asserting that the opposite would result in more uncertainty and civil strife that would affect Uzbekistan’s and the broader region’s security and economy, it is ready to accept any outcome in Afghanistan.