By Helena Arntz and Michael Kemper
This year the five Central Asian states, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, celebrate 30 years of independence from the Soviet Union. The festivities will not go without keeping a watchful eye on their southern borders. With the exit of the West, Russia and the five “-stans” are facing a new reality that is still difficult to evaluate. How did these states react to the new situation so far, and what are their fears and expectations? Tajikistan in particular is vulnerable to a Taliban threat, and is concerned about the fate of the large Tajik population of Afghanistan. Does this vulnerability offer new opportunities for Russia, as the traditional security partner of the region?
Russia’s man in Afghanistan
In the US and other Western governments, Afghanistan advisers used to be in power only for brief spells, leading to a multitude of policy changes and unfinished diplomatic projects. In contrast, Russia’s man for Afghanistan has been around for a very long time. Zamir Kabulov – born in Uzbekistan in 1954 and trained in Oriental languages at the Moscow Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) – has been working in Russia’s missions in and around Afghanistan since 1979, when the USSR launched its occupation of the country. When the Taliban first came to power in 1996, Kabulov negotiated with them the release of Russian pilots. Since 2004 (with a brief interruption) he has been Vladimir Putin’s ambassador and special representative for Afghanistan.
Kabulov personifies the continuity in Russia’s perspective on regional security in and around post-Soviet Central Asia. Other than the West, Russia’s diplomacy has been emphasizing the security interests of the post-Soviet states of Central Asia directly to the north of Afghanistan. Kremlin diplomacy – unfolding in the shadow of changing US decisions about Afghanistan – since 2016 carefully developed a consultation platform in Moscow to which ever more regional stakeholders were invited – first China and Pakistan, then also Iran and India as well as Afghan officials, and in a third round in April 2017 also the five “-stans”. The Taliban were not included in this series of regional consultations; but in 2018 Moscow first arranged informal meetings between Taliban representatives and warlords of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, mostly ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, with whom Russia had maintained good relations over many years. These consultations yielded the first Taliban promises to include non-Pashtuns into a future government. The consensus was that during a power transition, the state institutions should remain intact – a very important point for Moscow, after the eruption of civil wars and wars in Libya and Syria. With this approach Moscow tried to build trust among major Afghan power holders as well as among Afghanistan’s neighbors – while the US was focused on its direct talks with the Taliban (Stepanova, 2020).
The Collective Security Treaty Organisation
Parallel to this diplomatic effort to foster a common approach among all regional players, Russia also enhances its military presence in Central Asia, in particular via the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO, of which Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are members) and flanked by the Shanghai Treaty Organisation (with more states, including China). Scholars have emphasized that the CSTO is Russia’s instrument to keep a grip on former Soviet republics; according to common wisdom, Russia would barely be able to project global power status if it did now control its own “soft underbelly”. To be sure, so far Russia has had little leverage on its CSTO partners – as is exemplified by CSTO members’ rejection of Russia’s request to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and their hesitance to support Russia’s stances on Ukraine (Silaev, 2021). With a new threat scenario emerging in Afghanistan, Russia might therefore want to get more leverage on the Central Asian states.
In Tajikistan, for instance, the permanent Russian military contingent is already almost equal to Tajikistan’s own army in numerical strength. At any event, the southern CSTO members’ dependence on Russia for controlling the border to Afghanistan gives Russia a forward security belt that includes also Kyrgyzstan and, increasingly, Uzbekistan, so far not an active member of CSTO. Already in July 2021, one of Moscow’s top generals said that Russia would step up its support for nations neighboring Afghanistan, and that this would be done through the CSTO. Since the summer, thousands of Russian, Kyrgyz, Tajik, but also Uzbek troops participated in a series of military trainings called RUBEZH-21. These exercises — carried out in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as well as in Russia – train “repelling external military aggression and conducting joint counter-terrorist operations”. As Putin argued, the situation in Afghanistan is directly linked to Russia’s internal security, as he stated in a party meeting last August. The joint military exercises in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as well as in Russia in August and September will certainly be followed up also by Russian arms sales.
Russia emphasizes that it helps to block the drug trade from Afghanistan (which had skyrocketed over the past years) and also helps to prevent a stream of refugees, which, as all state leaders in the region fear, could lead to a terrorist spill-over – with Russia perhaps as the final destination. The common assumption in both East and West seems to be that a distinction can be made between Taliban militants – who are seen as “traditionalist”, and thereby not inclined to be active north of the Afghan borders – and the internationalist brigades of the Islamic State’s Afghan branch, IS-K (Khorasan), with its expansionist agenda. Originally an offshoot from the Taliban in Pakistan, the Khorasan group has been operating in Northern Afghanistan for several years; both the US-supported Afghan regime and the Taliban launched offensives against them. Whether IS-K is a real threat or a welcome pretext for Russia to impose itself on her Central Asian neighbors is an open question (Lushenko et al. 2019).
Central Asia & its two Islams
Islam is the dominant religion in all five post-Soviet states of Central Asia, and is also widely spread among many nationalities of the Russian Federation. State organs in all of these post-Soviet states closely monitor the Islamic movements and groups on their territory, with courts banning many of them as “extremist organizations”. As a bulwark against Islamic extremist groups, the Central Asian states and Russia foster the development of a “traditional” Islam, which is supposed to be home-grown, peaceful, and patriotic, and thereby supporting stability and “traditional values” that are not much different from those of the Russian Orthodox Church.
One of the examples of how the state interferes with what is good and bad Islam happened in Tajikistan. Messages came out in 2019 that Tajikistan would not give international passports to men with beards, as beards were interpreted as a sign of religious extremism and foreign intrusion. Tajikistan’s Islamic Renaissance Party, once a partner of President Rahmon’s government, has long been declared a terrorist organization, and banned from Tajikistan. The Central government also regulates the Islamic education and the curriculum in the Islamic University. Kazakhstan has implemented similar laws, and defined a school of Islam that is traditional and compatible with national identity. As a result, “nontraditional” schools experience great difficulties in getting official registration and dealing with the authorities.
It is difficult to state how serious the threat of radical Islam is in Central Asia. In the past, hundreds of militants from Central Asia (just as from Europe) joined IS in Syria and Iraq, and terrorist attacks on the territory of the Central Asian states were carried out not by foreigners but by co-nationals. Between 2008 and 2018, 19 deadly terrorist attacks have been counted in Central Asia, with the most recent one in 2018, killing 4 foreign tourists in Tajikistan. Most attacks targeted local security services, police, and army personnel.
How do Central Asian states respond to the Taliban take-over?
When the Taliban first came to power in 1996, each Central Asian country individually tried to isolate itself from Afghanistan. Twenty-five years later the securitization of the border seems to benefit from a common CSTO approach; still, the countries have partly diverging interests.
Firstly, Russia and the Central Asian states categorically deny access to refugees from Afghanistan (including pilots of the former Afghan army who flew their small combat aircraft over the Amu Darya river into Uzbekistan), declaring that they fear a spill-over of instability and violence. When the United States asked Central Asian states to host Afghan refugees while they await their visa for other destinations, President Putin replied that this issue should be discussed on CSTO level, adding: “Who are these refugees? How can we tell? There may be thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions, and nobody knows who is among the refugees, and there is no visa regime [between Russia and four of the five Central Asian states],– they will get on everything, a car, even a donkey, and flee across the steppe.” Reportedly on advice by Putin, Turkmenistan (not covered by the CSTO collective defense treaty) is even building a wall along its 800 km border with Afghanistan to prevent Afghans, especially Turkmens from the north, from entering.
Secondly, Central Asian states agree that they want a stable Afghanistan, which can only by achieved through some sort of cooperation with the new Taliban leadership. Turkmen diplomats in Afghanistan met with local Taliban officials, which was supposedly a very warm meeting due to the “fraternal nature” of relations between both states. Uzbekistan has been inviting the Taliban for peace talks over the last years as it has invested in economic cooperation and joint infrastructure projects over the last decades. Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are more restraint in their responses, but both offered that international organizations move their offices from Kabul to Bishkek and Nursultan, respectively – which would turn these cities into hubs for humanitarian aid and development policies regarding Afghanistan. Moscow did not withdraw its diplomatic staff of its Kabul embassy – even though the Taliban are still officially banned as a terrorist organization in Russia. The Taliban even invited Russia (next to Qatar, Pakistan, China, Iran and Turkey) their inauguration ceremony on 11 September 2021 (later cancelling the ceremony, and denying it had been planned for 11 September). Against this trend, Tajikistan is the only country in Central Asia that has openly stated not to cooperate with the Taliban leadership.
Tajikistan and the co-ethnics in Afghanistan
Оn 25 August, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon said that “Tajikistan will not recognize the Taliban’s rule over Afghanistan unless the country’s ethnic Tajik minority is accorded a ‘worthy role’ in the running of the country”. In the latest CSTO meeting in September in Dushanbe, Rahmon reiterated that he does not want any relations with the Taliban. Why does Tajikistan not follow Russia’s line of negotiating with the new regime?
Ethnic Tajiks are the second-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan after the Pashtuns – constituting about 27% of Afghanistan’s population. This weight is not reflected in the new Taliban provisional government, which is almost completely Pashtun – with the exception of one Uzbek (the second vice-minister) and two Tajiks (including the Chief of the Staff who, reportedly, was in charge of the recent Taliban operation against the Panjshir resistance). While public executions in parts of Afghanistan do not inspire much trust in the Taliban, the latter continue to promise that the future government will fully reflect the composition of Afghan society. At the same time, it were the Tajiks of the Afghan National Resistance Front (ANRF) who organized the resistance in the Panjshir valley; the Taliban claim to have defeated this resistance, and rumors go that the resistance leader, Ahmed Masoud jr., fled the country (like other Tajik and Uzbek warlords did before him). No wonder then that Tajik citizens in Tajikistan are concerned about the fate of their co-ethnics in Afghanistan. A “Stand with Panjshir!” hashtag is being shared on social media channels, and some Tajik citizens openly say that they would not hesitate to help their co-ethnics in the fight against the Taliban.
Reportedly, the Pakistani foreign minister traveled to Tajikistan to convince the Tajik government to change their stance towards the Taliban, but to no avail. Faredun Hodizoda, a Dushanbe-based expert on security, terrorism and religion, explained to us that prior to the CSTO meeting in Dushanbe, the Russian ministers of foreign affairs (Lavrov) and defence (Shoigu) met with Tajikistan’s leaders to discuss Tajikistan’s position vis-à-vis the Taliban; Tajikistan’s harsh position is thus most likely coordinated with Russia, in a kind of “good cop, bad cop” scenario.
Other experts state that Tajikistan’s anti-Taliban channel could be useful for Russia in the long run, all the while the foreign threat scenario helps Rahmon to distract from the difficult socio-economic situation at home. While the scope of the threat from Afghanistan is a matter of speculation, Dushanbe keeps on warning that on the Afghan side of the border, pro-Taliban Tajik Islamists (reportedly a group called “Ansor Allah, the “Helpers of God””) are preparing an incursion into Tajikistan.
Changing power configurations?
How do the events affect the relationship of Central Asian states with Russia? Over the past decades, Uzbekistan has been leaving Russia’s orbit; and under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev it has positioned itself as a regional leader who engages the other states of Central Asia in an active diplomacy network. Mirziyoyev’s policy of regional economic integration includes good relations with Afghanistan. Uzbekistan has hosted the Taliban already in 2019 and stated that they are willing to do business with Afghanistan over the next decade, regardless of who is in power. At the same time, Uzbekistan is also keen to enhance its security. While the country is not a member of CSTO, Russia included Uzbekistan in the CSTO talks of August to discuss the protection of the Uzbek-Afghan border. Newspapers speculated that Uzbekistan would resume its CSTO full membership, but this did not happen; as an official source from Uzbekistan emphasized, the Uzbeks are “perfectly able to control the border themselves”.
Much depends now on the behavior of the Taliban. The composition of their new provisionary government demonstrates the Taliban are only paying lip-service to agreements made before they rose to power. Neither the West nor Russia or the states of Central Asia have much leverage on them. The Taliban might be able to fight down all Afghan competitors, but we do not know whether they are capable, or willing, to establish a functioning state, and to ensure that IS-K does not use Afghanistan’s north for terrorist attacks in post-Soviet Central Asia. While the strength of IS-K and other groups is difficult to assess, they are perceived as a serious threat, allowing Russia to increase its role as the protector of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and potentially also to entice Uzbekistan to re-enter the Moscow-led CSTO. Tajikistan, in this view, intends to play the Tajik card to push the Taliban to compromises. What can safely be said is that all parties – from China over Russia and Central Asia to Europe and the US – now have no other option than to hope that the Taliban will prevail. For the West, this is a bitter pill to swallow; for Russia, it not the worst outcome.
1; E. Stepanova (2021), “Russia and the Search for a Negotiated Solution in Afghanistan”, Europe-Asia Studies, 73:5, 928-952.
2: N. Silaev (2021), “Russia and its Allies in Three Strategic Environments”, Europe-Asia Studies, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2021.1887087
3. P. Lushenko, L. Van Auken & G. Stebbins (2019), “ISIS-K: Deadly Nuisance or Strategic Threat?”, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 30:2, 265-278.
4; M. Kholiqzod, “No Country For Bearded Young Men: Only ‘Well-Groomed’ Tajiks Getting Passports” (19.01.2019), Rferl
5. E. Lemmon, “Talking up terrorism in Central Asia” (December 2018), Wilson Center
6. V. Panfilova, Туркменистан отгораживается бетонной стеной от Афганистана, (6-09-2021), Nezavisimaya Gazeta
7. “Turkmenistan: Taliban of brothers”, (24.08.2021) Eurasianet.
8. Editorial staff, “Политика недели: Кто вошел в правительство талибов” (13.09.2021), Afghanstan.ru.
9. Digital interview with Faredun Hodizoda, 22 September, 2021.
10. V. Panfilova, “В Центральной Азии присматриваются к новому правительству Афганистана” (08.09.2021) Nezavisimaya Gazeta
11. V. Panfilova, “Эмомали Рахмон чувствует угрозу с другого берега Пянджа”, (27.09.2021), Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
 Of the 31 million or so Afghan residents, 42% are Pashtun, 27% Tajik, 9% Hazara, 9% Uzbek, 4% Aimak, 3% Turkmen, 2% Baloch and 4% fall into an unspecified “other” group. The Afghan government recently began issuing ID cards that state the ethnicity of each citizen, which should eventually reveal more precise numbers about the many ethnic groups in the country. https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/afghanistan-population