Farzad Ramezani Bonesh, researcher and analyst of international affairs
Ever since US President Joe Biden came to power, the Taliban has been on the offensive, and just over a week ago it completed its conquest of Afghanistan, bringing the jihadist group’s “Emirate” into border contact with Central Asia.
When Afghanistan was almost completely under the Taliban’s control in 1990s, Tajikistan — a country that sits on its northeastern border — did not recognize the Taliban and fully supported the official Afghan president at the time, Burhanuddin Rabbani. Tajikistan supported groups that resisted the terrorist group, such as the Jamiat-e-Islami, Rabbani’s party and the most powerful military organization and trans-ethnic political party inside Afghanistan, as well as the political faction of Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, an Afghan politician who led the High Council for National Reconciliation in the now-fallen government.
In recent years, Tajikistan has been involved in negotiations with the Taliban in order to protect its shared border with Afghanistan from the terrorist group’s control. To this end, it has also boosted its support to Afghan Tajiks — the main and rival ethnic group to the Pashtuns, among whom the Taliban is powerful. Tajikistan had hoped to play a critical role in the composition of a future Afghan government to be arrived at by negotiation; it will now have to influence events by other means.
Turkmenistan, which sits on Afghanistan’s northwestern border, also has interests in the country. There is a small Turkmen minority in Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan largely uses soft power tactics to exercise influence. Since the withdrawal of foreign troops began earlier this year, Turkmenistan pushed for a peaceful and diplomatic solution through the so-called Afghan peace process. To that end, it hosted the Taliban and held several consultations with the terrorist group, including the C5 + 1 talks involving Afghanistan and Central Asian foreign ministers in Ashgabat.
In the last two decades, trade between Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan has increased considerably. Several projects have been undertaken, including the CASA 1000 project, the construction of power transmission lines, and a Turkmenistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan railway. The countries have also signed several Memorandums of Understanding to boost cooperation in various areas. Turkmenistan, in particular, has been looking for areas to expand trade and boost economic ties, such as the Lapis Lazuli corridor — a transit route that had been set to emerge as an economic corridor by which Afghanistan could connect to Europe via Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey — and the construction of the Tapi gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, all the way to Pakistan and India. It is unclear how or if these projects will proceed now the Taliban has completely taken over.
Narcotics and Refugees
The national security of any country is closely tied to the national security of its neighbors. Therefore, it is no surprise that Afghan security is an important component of the foreign policies of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan shares an 800-kilometer border with Afghanistan, mostly comprising desert terrain, while Tajikistan shares a 1,350-kilometer mountainous border with Afghanistan. Since Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of narcotics — producing more than 90 percent of the world’s heroin — this poses a significant threat to neighboring countries.
Apart from the narcotics threat, there is the refugee issue. This has been a problem for months as the Taliban made its violent advances, and the fall of the whole country to the jihadists could spark a new flood of millions of refugees into neighboring countries, a source of instability in the region.
Taliban Boosts Foreign Recruitment
In recent years, Turkmenistan has accelerated talks with the Taliban, but Tajik officials have not invited Taliban representatives to visit or sent any other officials to meet with Taliban representatives in a third country. With the help of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban has recruited into its ranks several Uzbek and Tajik jihadist groups, such as the former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union, Kaitbat Imam Bukhari, and Jamaat Ansarullah. The Taliban has been trying to establish a base in northern Afghanistan with the help of foreign fighters for years, and this paid off — it now controls the area.
The Taliban was also increasingly its recruitment of other Central Asian nationals, notably Tajiks and Turkmen, in the lead-up to taking over the country, and was actively spreading the Taliban ideology and culture in the rural communities of northern Afghanistan by inter alia setting up religious schools.
These developments had heightened Turkmenistan’s and Tajikistan’s interest in Afghanistan’s security, as had the growing instability in northern Afghanistan as militias from Iran and elsewhere intervened against the Taliban, worsening the security situation in the Fergana Valley. The dangers from the jihadi conglomerate — the Taliban, the Tajik fighters, and even the illegal Islamic Movement of Tajikistan — are significant and will have to be managed.
An Opportunity for ISIS
Although many Taliban leaders have disclaimed plans to expand the war to Central Asia, the Islamic State (ISIS) is another matter. ISIS has a branch in Afghanistan, the Khorasan “province” (ISKP), and it has sympathizers in the ranks of the Taliban. Moreover, ISIS has used the “new Taliban” messaging of the group since it captured Kabul to criticize the Taliban and call for jihadists to abandon it. This might work, increasing the threat to the security of neighboring countries.
ISIS sees northern Afghanistan as a base for expanding its presence in Central Asia, and various signs in recent years — such as clashes on the Turkmen-Tajik border — have demonstrated that ISIS has had some success
Still, northern Afghanistan was home to militant groups from various countries long before ISIS emerged. It is the return of terrorist activity on the other side of the borders, in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan themselves, that is more worrying. It increases the danger that the white flag of the Taliban may turn into the black flag of ISIS.
The intelligence prediction from Brown University in July was that the Afghan government could fall six months after the withdrawal of NATO troops was completed. As it turned out, the Taliban was able to overthrow the government in a nine-day offensive before NATO left. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan should be very worried about this development.
Tajikistan and Turkmenistan had already sent thousands of heavily armed troops to the borders, increased intelligence cooperation, and sought help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Other preparations were surely underway, such as military exercises on the border with Afghanistan, strengthening border controls, and reinforcing political and security cooperation with global and regional actors. All of them are needed much more urgently now.
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