The Newlines Institute held an event on 7 October, “Central Asia: Emerging Power Vacuums”, which looked at the regional picture after the U.S. and other NATO troops had withdrawn from Afghanistan.
The first speaker was Jen Brick Murtazashvili, the founding director of the Center for Governance and Markets and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment. “Typically we hear of Central Asia as a theatre of the Great Game and the Silk Road”, says Murtazashvili, but now there is “more agency” among these states. The U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban retaking power was not a surprise—President Obama began the U.S.’s strategic withdrawal in 2014—but the pace of the Afghan government’s collapse was a shock, Murtazashvili commented. Chaos had begun to overtake northern Afghanistan since this time, and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, in particular, prepared for this by engaging in diplomacy with the Taliban over the last three or so years.
Since the death of Uzbekistan’s ruler, Islam Karimov, in 2016, Uzbekistan began to reorient its foreign policy and to focus on cross-border trade as a method of taming the problems that were emerging, says Murtazashvili.
Erica Marat, an associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs (NDU), was the second speaker. Marat agreed with all of what Murtazashvili had said, adding that the Central Asian states were now consolidated, unlike in the 1990s, when Tajikistan most notably was in chaos. The Central Asian states have focused on containing radicalism in Afghanistan, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) above all. Their strategy for this was to recognise the Taliban regime, first Uzbekistan, then Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, with only Tajikistan siding with the anti-Taliban resistance.
It is not clear how many Uzbeks or Tajiks are within ISKP, but this has been a serious issue for their domestic situation. The return of the Taliban to power has emboldened Islamists inside these countries to come forth with demands for shari’a as part of the state law, a deeply divisive issue for governments that have inherited an effectively Soviet view of religion—namely an official, harsh secularism.
The third speaker was Daniel Markey, a senior expert on South Asia at the United States Institute of Peace. The collapse at the end of the U.S. withdrawal has left a sense of uncertainty, says Markey, and “I don’t think the region can be that confident”. The primary issue for these states now is border security, and for this they are seeking external help, from Russia above all and from China and even the United States.
Kamran Bokhari, the fourth speaker, is the Director of Analytical Development at the Newlines Institute. The confidence in the U.S. has diminished “pretty sharply”, says Bokhari, and this is a long-term trend, beginning with Obama. Most of these states thought they would be dealing with an Afghanistan that was “fifty or sixty percent controlled by the Taliban”, but with Kabul and the north held by the government. All the preparation, then, was for this two-track policy of dealing with the Taliban and their opponents, but now the Taliban have “for the first time ever” gained not only control but roots in the north, in the Tajik and Uzbek areas, and this presents an obvious danger of cross-border infiltration.
There is little certainty what the Taliban’s “Islamic Emirate” will do, Bokhari goes on: whether it will seek only to run Afghanistan, or try to create sister republics in the neighbours. The Kazakh regime is the most insulated from this, and Kyrgyzstan to a degree, though the Kyrgyz government has changed through revolution three times recently, so its stability cannot be taken for granted.
How or Will Central Asian States “Balance” Relations with External Powers?
Murtazashvili said the Central Asian states try to get the best from each of the outside powers and play them off against each other, but they have their own short-term interests and there are serious vulnerabilities, notably in Tajikistan. For the Tajik regime, a principal political need is to secure the transfer of power smoothly from the president to his son, and this partly explains Dushanbe’s stance, since the sense of national threat by using the Taliban helps stoke sentiments that unite the country around the leadership. Uzbekistan’s immediate priority is “orderly presidential elections” this month, and to foster a sense of “continuity”. And so on. The bottom line is that there is unlikely to be a unified regional response to the return of the Taliban.
Despite the real vulnerabilities, Marat voiced a slightly devil’s advocate view: so far there has been a sense of confidence from the regional states. In Tajikistan, the ruler, Emomali Rahmon, has rather publicly provoked the Taliban, offering support to the resistance. Uzbekistan—which is more powerful, anyway, with a stronger army—has shown no fear of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an Al-Qaeda unit that is embedded with the Taliban. Oddly, the Central Asian governments—Tajikistan excepted—have some cautious optimism in the new situation: like Russia, these states regard the main failing of the previous Afghan government as a lack of centralisation, and they see the Taliban as a possible answer to this. They know it is a risk, but it would allow economic flows to continue if the Central Asian states can reach a modus vivendi with the Taliban. Uzbekistan has staked everything on economically “normalizing” Taliban Afghanistan: the Uzbeks supply the electricity to Kabul and have vowed to continue supplying this—whoever pays them for it—and the Uzbek media has continued highlighting the cross-border trucks supplying Afghanistan, as part of this narrative of Afghanistan as a normal state, despite the jihadist regime. Uzbekistan signing a strategic partnership with Pakistan, the Taliban’s patron, over the summer of 2021 was a key sign that the decks were being cleared for the now-fallen government. In terms of why Tajikistan is the odd-one-out, Marat speculates that Russia’s hand is key in this: Moscow has tilted to the Taliban in the last few years to get NATO out of Afghanistan, but Russia is the historic supporter of the anti-Taliban opposition and by keeping that option open through Tajikistan it allows the Russians levers to push the Taliban if it begins doing things that Moscow doesn’t like.
Markey says that China views the Central Asian region as one of “threats or concerns”, linking events there to its domestic stability, namely in its Muslim-majority area in Xinjiang. Even so, over the last decade China has seen “opportunities” in the region through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to foster regional integration—sometimes excluding Russia. This has led to some push-back: part of it led by Russia, part of it genuinely local. One factor that has made regional governments hesitant about embracing China is that the Chinese government’s savage repression of its Uyghur Muslim population is deeply unpopular, and since these governments priorities their own survival they can do without inciting mass popular opposition.
China has had to somewhat reassess, says Bokhari, because it designed regional policies when America was keeping the Afghan problem contained. Now, China is already seeing issues with its workers being attacked in Pakistan, potentially disrupting the CPEC program. In some senses, China has taken over the U.S. role: Beijing is asking Pakistan to keep a leash on the Taliban, and the Pakistanis are prevaricating. Iran, the historic supporter of the anti-Taliban forces, has engaged with the Taliban for twenty years and more, like Russia to force NATO out of Afghanistan, but also to shield their own borders, and the Iranians now have several senior officials with close links to them in the Taliban government. “Of all the countries that are stakeholders … Iran is probably in the best position”, says Bokhari; they have arranged to have “the best of both worlds”.
American Strategy Going Forward and Humanitarian Aid
The U.S. is repeating mistakes it has made for a long time, says Marat, regarding the Central Asian states as contingent security partners, rather than states with which to build more durable relationships, leaving Russia to forge such relations and retain its hegemony. The U.S. has tended to go through phases of engaging only the regime (e.g. when it needed cooperation during the surge in 2009) and then focusing on human rights (during quieter periods like the last few years), and this ad hoc approach reduces U.S. leverage. Marat added later that it might be possible, with the security threats now emerging from Afghanistan, that a more comprehensive approach including some more of the “soft” components on education and civil society engagement might be on the table.
Bokhari wrote several months ago in The Wall Street Journal that the U.S. had not even mentioned Central Asia in its strategy documents—neither with respect to terrorism, nor “great power competition”. This is a consistent pattern, says Bokhari, right back to the collapse of the Soviet Union: the U.S. helped denuclearise Kazakhstan, and then walked away. When it comes to China, the U.S. focuses on the Indo-Pacific but at present China is not challenging too harshly “from a maritime point of view”; it’s the BRI. And the U.S. is not looking to counter this. The U.S.’s approach is siloed and framed by things like terrorism, neglecting the broader strategic picture. Bokhari later added that the U.S. is essentially reliant on Central Asia for any measures to deal with China—or Afghanistan. Relations with Pakistan are dire, and Pakistan cannot do most of what the U.S. wants—even if it was willing. Iran is obviously out. And India is a complicated case. The problem is that the U.S. had lost so much credibility with the defeat in Afghanistan, it is unclear that these states will see the U.S. as a viable or reliable partner.
Picking up on this point, Markey says that the U.S.’s one effort so far to push back on BRI, the “Blue Dot Network”, is more a brand in search of a policy. The idea is sound—to impose quality standards, and ensure it benefits populations—but the universalist impulse runs into particularist national priorities. “The United States is not going to be the player in Central Asia”, says Markey, and this has to be accepted. The U.S. also needs to recognise that terrorism is not the priority to regional states that it is to the Americans. If the U.S. wishes to make inroads in repairing its position in Central Asia, says Markey, it should focus on areas where the Central Asians are eager for engagement, like education—something the U.S. is actually good at, and which in the long-term can assist with issues like democracy. “It’s a very asymmetrical strategy”, says Markey, it “doesn’t go head-to-head with Russia and China”, but it can in time pay dividends. That said, Markey adds later in the Q&A, President Biden seems intend on leaving the region—he has made a point of giving a “cold shoulder” to Pakistan, not getting in touch with Pakistan’s leadership since the fall of Kabul.
There are many things to balance in considering what to do about the Afghan funds the Taliban wants, says Murtazashvili, but a broader issue is that the U.S. struggles for credibility in Central Asia—the withdrawal beginning under Obama has left these states sullen and disillusioned. At times when states like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have reached out on things like education and support for reforms, the U.S. was absent. The terrorism concern is likely to be where the U.S. and these states converge, and the types of assistance that entails tend not to promote democracy.