Insecurity in Central Asian Region

By: Ali Sajad Mawlaee

Hasht-E Subh The Taliban’s transfer of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) forces to the northern provinces of Afghanistan, as agreed upon with Pakistan, has resulted in numerous national issues and exacerbated ethnic divisions. However, this development also poses a regional alarm for the security of Central Asian countries. With the resurgence of the Taliban, the security in Central Asian nations has become increasingly fragile and unstable, rendering them more vulnerable than ever. Compounding this fragility is the engagement of power-balancing forces in Central Asia in the ongoing war in Ukraine, diverting Russia’s energy and attention away from the escalating threat of fundamentalism and terrorism.

The extension of the war to the borders of Central Asia remains a grave threat due to the region’s potential to become a hub for fundamentalist groups and a volatile area. Over the past three decades, several radicalistic groups have operated in this region, establishing close ties with fundamentalist groups in South Asia (Afghanistan and Pakistan). The re-emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan has had a profound impact on the security landscape of Central Asia, pushing the region dangerously close to chaos. The transfer of TTP fighters to northern Afghanistan is not the sole cause for concern; the presence of the Islamic State for Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and their attempts to expand their influence in Central Asia further complicate the situation.

According to reports from various research institutes on the security of Central Asia, the most serious threat to the region’s security stems from ISIS. This threat has intensified following the Taliban’s reemergence in August 2021. However, the primary concern is not the Taliban or their close ally, Al-Qaeda, but the regional affiliate of the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISS-K), which operates primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although ISIS initially emerged as a Pakistani-dominated network, it soon shifted its focus to Afghanistan, changing its strategy from territorial control to urban warfare. This shift poses a significant security challenge to the former Afghan government and now aims to disrupt the Taliban’s attempts to establish governance.

With the reinstatement of the Taliban, the security situation in Central Asia has become perilous. Countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, which share borders with Afghanistan, have deployed additional troops to secure their borders. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has also convened multiple meetings to address the insecurity in Afghanistan and the risk of the crisis spreading to Central Asia, underscoring the seriousness of the threat.

The primary concern of Central Asian countries lies in the presence and activities of fundamentalist groups in Afghanistan. Despite the Taliban’s consistent promise not to allow any group to use Afghan soil, fulfilling this promise proves arduous due to these groups’ historical contributions to the Taliban and the Taliban’s obligation to provide them with refuge. Present in the northern provinces of Afghanistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Jamaat Ansarullah of Tajikistan are considered significant threats to Central Asia’s security.

Riccardo Valle, a researcher of fundamentalist groups, argues that the Taliban have made progress in exerting control over their allies. However, some of these organizations are solely dedicated to overthrowing Central Asian regimes through armed struggle. Valle further suggests that these groups will eventually need to decide between abandoning jihad against their main enemies in Central Asia and complying with the Taliban or joining the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISS-K), the only other platform that allows them to relentlessly fight against Central Asian governments.

On the other hand, ISS-K has pledged to launch a “great jihad in Central Asia,” seeking to gain control over extensive territories in the ancient region known as Transoxiana. Despite the Taliban’s efforts to suppress ISS-K, this group remains the most active and provocative among the factions taking shelter in Afghanistan, with the objective of toppling Central Asian governments. ISS-K has intensified its recruitment efforts by disseminating advertisements in local languages, aiming to recruit fighters from these countries. Recently, ISS-K issued threats to assassinate the leaders of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as Central Asian clerics who have spoken out against ISIS.

The threat posed by ISS-K, coupled with the transfer of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) fighters to northern Afghanistan, further complicates the situation. Psychologically, fighters who have spent years fighting to establish an Islamic system will not remain idle; they will seek their next objective. Central Asia appears to be an attractive choice for these rebels due to its one-party and secular governments. Moreover, it is unlikely that these forces will surrender and cease their acts of violence. Additionally, ISS-K has a long-standing relationship with TTP, with many members and founders of ISS-K in 2014 having previously served in TTP. The alliance between these old comrades poses significant security concerns for Central Asia, and the northern region of Afghanistan will gradually become a focal point for fundamentalist groups. Over the past 40 years, North Waziristan in Pakistan has served as a sanctuary for international terrorists, and it is now probable that northern Afghanistan will suffer the same fate.

 The Secret of Uzbekistan’s Interaction with the Taliban

By: Shujauddin Amini

Uzbekistan plays an active role as a neighboring country of Afghanistan, displaying greater involvement in Afghanistan’s affairs compared to other Central Asian republics. With a shared border of nearly 144 kilometers, Uzbekistan appears to be one of the countries that does not express dissatisfaction with the continued rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan has maintained a long-standing relationship with the Taliban, and it is known that a representative of the country met with Mullah Muhammad Omar, the late leader of the group, in Kandahar during the initial period of Taliban rule. Even when a republic was in place in Afghanistan, Tashkent sought to keep communication channels open with the Taliban. In 2019, Uzbekistan hosted a Taliban delegation headed by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the current deputy prime minister of the group. However, this welcoming gesture towards the Taliban drew a reaction from the previous Afghan government, despite Tashkent’s view that hosting the Taliban was a contribution to the Afghan peace process.

Rather than diminishing, Uzbekistan’s role in the region has intensified with the reinstatement of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Unlike other Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan has displayed favor towards the Taliban and emphasized the importance of dialogue and continued engagement with the group. On July 25, 2022, Tashkent hosted a two-day international conference addressing the Afghan crisis, with participation from representatives of over twenty countries and international organizations. The Taliban’s Foreign Minister, Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi, was also invited to this meeting.

The fourth meeting of foreign ministers from Afghanistan’s neighboring countries took place on April 13, 2023, in the city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Competent representatives from Pakistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, China, Russia, and Uzbekistan attended the meeting. While Mawlawi Muttaqi, as a Taliban representative, had traveled to Tashkent, he was unable to attend the main meeting. Nevertheless, Tashkent officials clarified that inviting the Taliban to regional meetings did not necessarily imply recognition of the group.

On August 23, 2022, a border clash occurred between Uzbek border guards and the Taliban, resulting in casualties. Additionally, on July 5 of the same year, several rockets were fired from Afghanistan into Uzbekistan’s territory, causing financial damage. The Tashkent embassy remains open in Kabul, facilitating regular meetings between officials from both sides.

Uzbekistan’s warm interaction with the Taliban can be attributed to two main reasons:

1- Economic Factors

Uzbekistan is actively involved in the economic field, aiming to enhance trade not only with Afghanistan but also with neighboring countries. The country boasts significant oil and gas reserves in Central Asia, and its engagement in economic and trade matters intensified when Shavkat Mirziyoyev assumed office as president at the end of 2016. Previously, Uzbekistan showed less enthusiasm for participating in international affairs and maintaining warm relations with its neighbors. However, under Mirziyoyev’s leadership, the slogan “If your neighbor is prosperous, you will be prosperous too” became the cornerstone of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy. This slogan was even emphasized in Mirziyoyev’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly, highlighting Tashkent’s regional role and efforts to expand trade relations.

Trade plays a crucial role in Uzbekistan’s efforts to secure its relationship with the Taliban. Uzbekistan seeks to expand its business reach to South Asia, particularly in Pakistan and India. Afghanistan provides the closest and most cost-effective pathway to assist Uzbekistan in achieving this goal, provided there is political stability and the absence of war or insecurity.

The “Afghan-Trans” railway is a significant project that Uzbekistan has undertaken to access the South Asian market, but its implementation has been delayed. This project aims to connect Termez in Uzbekistan to Peshawar in Pakistan, passing through the provinces of Balkh, Baghlan, Kabul, and Nangarhar. Originally planned to be completed within five years at a cost of $4.6 billion, the project was suspended due to insecurity in Afghanistan and, more significantly, the fall of the previous government.

Another important project Uzbekistan has initiated in Afghanistan is the construction of the 500 KV Surkhan-Puli-Khumri transmission line, which would meet the electricity needs of Kabul and other provinces. This project was agreed upon during the previous government’s tenure, with work scheduled to commence in 2021. However, it was put on hold following the Taliban’s return to power. In 2020, the Asian Development Bank provided $110 million in assistance to support this project under the previous Afghan government.

In January 2022, Uzbekistan announced progress in establishing a “shared market” between the two countries. This market’s development began in 2011, and it was initially expected to become operational by 2022. However, due to various factors, including the collapse of the previous government, progress was halted. The Uzbek authorities stated that the first part of the market had been completed, allowing Afghan businesspeople to continue their activities there. The joint market, located between Balkh Province and Surkhandaria Province in Uzbekistan, is being built at a cost of $75 million, demonstrating Uzbekistan’s commitment to maintaining a thriving business environment under any circumstances.

Governments driven by economic concerns often adopt strategies that aim to achieve their goals smoothly and discreetly. They avoid conflict, threats, and isolation, opting instead to engage with events and maintain open communication channels with all factions. Uzbekistan plays a similar role in the context of Afghanistan’s neighborhood. By hosting international meetings and striving to establish peace among warring groups, Uzbekistan aims to present itself as a peace-loving country while facilitating the growth of its trade market. The active diplomacy shown by Uzbekistan regarding the current situation in Afghanistan has garnered praise, as exemplified by the recent commendation from Thomas West, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Affairs. Uzbekistan’s future economic prosperity is closely tied to the realization of the aforementioned projects, leading the country to pursue the minimum economic benefit by accommodating the power in Kabul.

2-Insecurity Factor

Uzbekistan shares security concerns with other Central Asian republics, but unlike its neighbors, it expresses apprehension about the current situation in Afghanistan. Tashkent is particularly concerned about the presence and activities of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in northern Afghanistan. The IMU was established in 1998 by Juma Namangani and Tohir Yoldosh, with the aim of overthrowing the existing system in Uzbekistan and establishing an Islamic regime.

The movement has strong ties with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and has been engaged in fighting alongside these groups for many years. There is a possibility that under the Taliban’s rule, the IMU may form alliances with the Islamic State Khorasan (ISS-K), which could further escalate concerns in Uzbekistan.

One of Uzbekistan’s primary requests to the Taliban is to ensure that its territory is not threatened by Afghanistan. Tashkent prefers to convey this message through diplomatic and cordial discussions rather than in international forums. In contrast, Tajikistan, which does not have as extensive economic interests in Afghanistan as Uzbekistan, expresses its security concerns in international meetings using strong and explicit language. In September 2021, President Mirziyoyev stated that the Taliban had promised that not a single bullet would be fired on Uzbek soil, expressing his belief that they would fulfill their promise. This showcases the level of optimism held by the Uzbekistan government towards the Taliban. However, in contradiction to these statements, during a two-day trip to Germany on May 2, Mirziyoyev expressed concern about the security situation in Afghanistan, specifically warning against the activities of ISS-K. In response to border security concerns, Uzbekistan has conducted two military exercises along its shared border with Afghanistan: the first, in collaboration with Kazakhstan on November 24, 2021, and the second, with Tajikistan on August 6, 2022.

Uzbekistan does not engage in any form of trade with opposing forces to the Taliban. The only action taken was the temporary opening of its land and air routes for officials from the previous Afghan government on August 14 and 15, 2021. None of these officials sought refuge in Uzbekistan and instead sought asylum in other countries.

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