AP Photo/Zabi Karimi

What does the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan mean for Central Asia?

Afghanistan expert Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili on how regional relations could change amid the lack of a U.S. strategy

The Taliban’s rapid march through Afghanistan and its subsequent takeover of the capital city of Kabul is a cause for serious concern in neighboring Central Asian nations.

Over the past months, hundreds of Afghan soldiers have fled next door to Tajikistan. Over the weekend, dozens of military servicemen also escaped to Uzbekistan, desperate for medical assistance.

But, as thousands of Afghans attempt to flee, governments in the five Central Asian nations have not yet made definitive decisions about their approach to an impending refugee crisis. Kyrgyzstan declared on August 16 that it would issue 500 student visas for Afghans, but has not made public any further plans. Despite rumors on social media that Kazakhstan was preparing to receive displaced people, a spokesperson for President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev stated, via Facebook on Monday, that no decision had been reached. Uzbekistan is similarly hesitant, while Turkmenistan has made no announcements since the Taliban takeover.

To make more sense of what the events in Afghanistan means for Central Asia, I spoke to Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, a director of the Center for Governance and Market at the University of Pittsburgh, and the author of two books about the country.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity

Coda Story: What is your assessment of the speed with which the Taliban has managed to regain control of Afghanistan? 

Jennifer Murtazashvili: Afghanistan is a very decentralized society. The former government tried to centralize everything and many of the generals who were in charge of fighting around the country were not from the regions that they were protecting. They made decisions to surrender.  

You have soldiers who haven’t gotten paid, who, due to corruption, had limited ammunition and support. When you’re asking people who have been fighting for 40 years to engage in another huge offensive, you’re asking them to fight for a state they don’t believe in. It’s one thing to fight against something you don’t like. But if you don’t have something to fight for, it’s very difficult.

It has been going on for a very long time. We have seen districts fall throughout the country over the past 10 years. If we look at northern Afghanistan, for example, it was always the home of the opposition to the Taliban. 

What do the Taliban want from Central Asia countries? 

They want normalization. They want to be able to tax customs authorities. If trade stops, that’s a big source of their revenue. So they want that trade to continue. They’ve been skimming off customs for a very long time. So, trade is very important to them. 

Getting narcotics out of the country is also vital. Most of the opiates produced in Afghanistan go out through Pakistan, but there’s a good amount that goes through Central Asia and there’s a pretty well organized scheme. They don’t want those borders to close. 

What are the challenges that Central Asian countries face now — and what lies ahead?

I think the concern from Central Asia is about ISIS fighters, the remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan — a militant group active in the region — and other groups that might be associated with al-Qaida, who might not like the Taliban. 

Central Asian fighters have been going into northern Afghanistan and Pakistan for two decades now. If you remember, there were many Central Asians that went to fight with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Well, imagine, now, that the opportunity to fight is right next door. I think this should be a concern. I don’t want to exaggerate it, but it doesn’t take a lot of people to cause a lot of trouble.

Recently, Uzbekistan’s foreign ministry made an announcement in which the country “firmly declares its commitment to maintaining traditionally friendly and good-neighborly relations with Afghanistan and the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of a neighboring country.” What does that tell us?

They have been talking for many years now. In fact, the Uzbek government has hosted Taliban delegations, so they’re quite familiar with the Taliban leadership. Uzbeks have also been very active in Doha, engaging with the movement’s leadership. This was a very smart strategy, because they understood that, regardless of who would be in power in Kabul, they could do business with the Afghan government. And what is Uzbekistan interested in? It’s interested in infrastructure projects, railways, gas pipelines, things that connect Uzbekistan with lower transport costs. Uzbekistan is a doubly landlocked country. And so economically, the fastest way to a seaport is through Afghanistan and then into Pakistan.

What is the general attitude toward the Taliban among people in Central Asia?

I think there’s a lot of fear. I’ve actually gotten some requests from the Uzbek media to speak, because there’s a lot of uncertainty and people are scared about whether the Taliban are going to come take over their country. There’s just uncertainty about who the Taliban is made up of and the scope that it has. That’s the sense that I’m getting, just fear and uncertainty.  

What kind of role does the U.S. have in the region? If the Biden administration is able to come to some agreement with the Taliban, how significant would that be to Central Asian nations? 

The U.S. doesn’t seem to have a strategy, quite frankly, and Biden has made it very clear that he’s not that interested. The U.S. doesn’t have very much of a strategy or a presence in Central Asia right now, either. I think the big players are China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, which is very interesting. Seeing how these local dynamics are taking place, I think politics in the region will become much more localized and not so much about great power rivalries.

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