Central Asia And The Taliban: The Difference Between A Restive Border And A Quiet One
By Bruce Pannier December 14, 2021
The Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan, and one of the biggest differences this time compared to 1996 -- when the Taliban first seized Kabul -- is the attitude toward it from its northerly neighbors.
The reaction by the Central Asian states, and Russia, then was nearly the opposite of how they responded in mid-August of this year when the Taliban again took control of Kabul -- and nearly all of Afghanistan -- after foreign forces ended their two-decade operation and withdrew.
The truce that now exists between most of the Central Asian countries and the Taliban benefits both, but it is fragile.
Ten Days In 1996
On September 26, 1996, the Taliban captured Kabul for the first time.
That same day, the Tajik government and the Russian Border Guards Service that was keeping watch on the Tajik-Afghan frontier voiced their continued support for the internationally recognized government of Burhanuddin Rabbani.
There had been a civil war in Tajikistan for more than four years, and the Tajik government's opponents had sanctuaries in northeastern Afghanistan where they regrouped and rearmed before trying to cross back into Tajikistan and continue their military campaign.
Rabbani was among the mujahedin who fought against Soviet forces less than a decade earlier but it seemed to Dushanbe that his government offered better guarantees than the Taliban of not allowing the Tajik opposition to freely use Afghan territory.
On September 27, 1996, a group of some 300 Tajik opposition fighters tried to cross into Tajikistan near Kalai-Khumb, sparking a battle that lasted into early October and resulted in the deaths of four Russian border guards.
On September 30, the Tajik government expressed concern that the Taliban capture of Kabul would have a negative impact on the situation along the Tajik-Afghan frontier. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (then called Rakhmonov) appealed to the UN and "world powers" to mediate a political settlement in Afghanistan.
The Kazakh Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling on the UN to take measures to end the fighting in Afghanistan, warning that economic collapse and political instability there could threaten the stability of Central Asia.
On October 1, Uzbekistan's Security Council held an emergency session dedicated to the Taliban seizure of Kabul and the evolving situation in Afghanistan.
Also on October 1, Russian Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed warned that the Taliban coveted territory in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, including the ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara.
That same day, the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) in Turkmenistan published the country's military doctrine that stated Turkmenistan was a neutral country and would not enter into any military alliances.
So Turkmenistan sent no representatives to a hastily arranged meeting of Russian officials led by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Central Asian leaders in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on October 4.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev voiced concern that the Afghan conflict was approaching the border of the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States and condemned the rights violations that followed the Taliban's capture of Kabul.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov called for the Central Asian states and Russia to support ethnic Uzbek Afghan field commander Abdul Rashid Dostum.
His Kyrgyz counterpart, Askar Akaev, warned it would be a mistake to repeat the Soviet experience of the 1980s by directly interfering in Afghanistan's internal affairs.
In the end, Karimov's proposal to support Dostum was rejected, but Uzbekistan's stance on the Taliban was clear and, with the exception of Turkmenistan, it was generally the attitude of the other Central Asian countries.
On October 6, the Taliban, via their radio station in Pakistan, sent a message of "brotherly love" to the Central Asian states and the militant group promised not to interfere in the affairs of other countries. It also warned its northern neighbors not to interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs and Russia "not to forget the lesson [it was] taught here."
Ten Days In 2021
The Taliban entered Kabul unopposed on August 15.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin that day and the two leaders vowed to keep in contact with each other about events in Afghanistan.
On August 16, the Russian president's special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said: "We see no direct threat to our allies in Central Asia," and Kabulov was backed in this view by the secretary-general of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Stanislav Zas, who said the situation along the Tajik-Afghan border was stable and there was no reason for Tajikistan to invoke CSTO "mechanisms."
But Zas also said the CSTO would be conducting military exercises in Tajikistan near the Afghan border within one month.
By then, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan had announced their embassies and other diplomatic representations in Afghanistan were still operating and the Taliban also confirmed they were guarding the embassies of the Central Asian countries, all of which -- except for the Kyrgyz Embassy -- are next to each other on Wazir Akbar Khan Street.
The Uzbek Foreign Ministry released a statement on August 17 saying Tashkent supported "the statement of domestic Afghan forces on the readiness to form an inclusive government," and confirmed authorities were in "close contact" with the Taliban.
Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry released a statement on August 19 saying Afghanistan "is experiencing another crucial moment in its history. The long-standing conflict should be resolved by the Afghan people themselves."
The CSTO held a virtual summit on August 23, with Afghanistan as the main topic. The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all attended, as did Uzbek President Mirziyoev even though his country is not a CSTO member.
Russian officials continued to say there was no threat to Central Asia from the Taliban though there could be from other militant groups operating in Afghanistan -- something the governments in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have been well aware of for some time.
On August 17, there was a report that the head of Uzbekistan's Termez Cargo Center, located near the Afghan border, was waiting for the resumption of trade with Afghanistan.
Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan continued to export electricity to Afghanistan despite the change of government and despite doubts that the Taliban would be able to pay for that electricity anytime soon.
Tajik President Rahmon was the sole dissenter among the Central Asian leaders in response to Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
The pro-government Democratic Party of Tajikistan issued a statement on August 25 calling on the government not to recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan because "this group has devastated Tajik lands, homes, towns, and villages [in Afghanistan] in recent years [and even today] the cruel activities of this group have reached the level of genocide, especially in Tajik-speaking regions."
Zahir Aghbar, the Afghan ambassador in Tajikistan appointed by the ousted Afghan government, stayed on at his post and briefly became something of a spokesman for the anti-Taliban resistance inside Afghanistan.
By Year's End
In the remaining three months of 1996, Uzbekistan reinforced its roughly 160-kilometer border with Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan ordered all religious groups to immediately register with authorities, hundreds of Afghans from Badghis Province fled into Turkmenistan, and Tajik President Rahmon met with United Tajik Opposition leader Said Abdullo Nuri as the warring parties accelerated efforts to reach a peace deal in light of the new situation in Afghanistan.
Interestingly, the meeting between Rahmon and Nuri took place in northeastern Afghanistan, on December 10, 1996, one day later than scheduled. Nuri's plane had been rerouted by the Taliban on its way to the meeting, and Taliban leader Mullah Omar was waiting to speak with Nuri.
The positions of the five Central Asian states had been established 25 years ago.
Turkmenistan remained neutral and engaged with Taliban representatives while the other four countries were opposed to the militants. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan even helped ethnic Tajik and Uzbek groups inside Afghanistan to fight the Taliban.
As 2021 comes to a close, all of the Central Asian countries except Tajikistan have sent delegations to meet with top Taliban members in Kabul. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan sent their foreign ministers.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have also all sent humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.
Tajikistan continues to avoid contact with Taliban representatives, but it has recently allowed the UN World Food Program to ship aid through Tajikistan to Afghanistan.
Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan continue to supply electricity to Afghanistan, and the Taliban continues to promise it will pay for it when it can.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan continue to trade across the border by road and rail, and both those countries are also in talks with Taliban representatives about future projects connecting Central Asia to South Asia through Afghanistan.
But none of the Central Asian governments has signaled it is ready to officially recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan.
Official statements from Central Asian officials rarely use the name "Taliban," preferring to use constructions such as the "interim government" or the "new authorities" in Afghanistan.
All except Turkmenistan have increased military exercises, individually and jointly, including with Russia or the CSTO.
The Taliban appears to be the big winner from this arrangement.
The movement held power in Afghanistan for five years with hostile neighbors to the north that were aiding the forces fighting the Taliban and in 2001 provided vital logistics aid to the foreign forces that chased the Taliban from power.
For now, it appears the Central Asian states are neither friend nor foe of the Taliban.
The Central Asian governments are even looking beyond Afghanistan, to the subcontinent, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean, while the Taliban has its attention fixed on Afghanistan's internal affairs.
At the moment, it appears both sides are getting what they want.
Copyright (c) 2021. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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