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The Dynamics of Central Asian Engagement with the Taliban Government

Dr Jason Wahlang is a Research Analyst in the Europe and Eurasia Centre at MP-IDSA, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 19, 2024

    On 29 December 2023, Kazakhstan announced the removal of the Taliban from its list of terror organisations. This was the latest step taken by a Central Asian country in attempting to accommodate the regime in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Apart from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan have engaged diplomatically with the Taliban. The realignment in their approach marks a stark contrast to their acrimonious attitude towards the first Taliban regime during the 1990s. However, Tajikistan continues to take a hostile stance toward the Taliban regime. Geopolitical and geo-economic considerations have ensured that these nations, barring Tajikistan, maintain a multi-vector approach towards the Afghan Taliban regime so as to create space for cooperation and collaboration.

    In the 1990s, the regional countries, excluding Turkmenistan, had adopted a hostile approach towards the Taliban, fearing spill over of radicalised Deobandi ideology spreading from a destabilised Afghanistan. This was despite their shared socio-cultural connect. Tajikistan, by then, served as a cautionary tale of the impact of radicalisation, having experienced a civil war between the Islamists and the first post-Soviet government under Emomali Rahmon.

    Post the collapse of the first Taliban regime in the 2001, the major concern of the Central Asian states was on the home-grown terror groups who were engaged in jihad in Afghanistan such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihadi Union. These groups had pledged allegiance to the Taliban for decades until the rise of Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP).

    Central Asian countries, though, have refrained from bestowing official diplomatic recognition on the Taliban. Nonetheless, frequent engagement between representatives at various levels has been established since 2021 after Taliban took over Kabul. Turkmenistan, owing to its neutrality policy, has maintained continuity in its approach towards the regime as it did in the 1990s. Along with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, it has also maintained trade relations with Afghanistan and assisted in the reintegration of the Afghan economy into the regional economy.1

    One of the first countries to establish direct talks with the Afghan regime was Uzbekistan. It has maintained its ties with the Taliban for over two years to shield the country from attacks launched from the bordering areas of Northern Afghanistan (Hairatan town in Balkh Province) near Termez, Uzbekistan and also to safeguard its projects within Afghanistan such as the Termez-Mazar-I-Sharif-Peshawar Railroad.2 With the Uzbeks following a more open foreign policy3 under the leadership of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, it suits them to interact with the Islamic Emirate. Recently, a temporary new chief was appointed in the Afghanistan embassy in Uzbekistan who belonged to the Taliban after Ahmed Khalid Eli, appointed by the previous Afghan government completed his tenure.4

    The Kazakh government has taken initiatives to stabilise Afghanistan and develop the country's infrastructure to integrate Afghanistan into the regional economy. Kazakhstan participates in cross border transport development projects, energy and agriculture.5 Furthermore, it has provided much-needed humanitarian aid (approximately $472 million)6 and has delivered 70 per cent of total flour exported to Afghanistan to overcome food insecurity.7 During his visit to Kabul on 3 August 2023, the Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister Serik Zhumangarin invited the Taliban to open a trade mission in Astana. The economic ties have persevered even after the Taliban take over, with joint trade totalling an approximate $ 987.9 million in 2022.8

    The lack of a contiguous border has allowed the Kyrgyz government to adopt a more calculated approach. The conveyance of caution about the security situation in Afghanistan at various intervals has been accompanied by an extension of humanitarian aid and a reiteration of the need to maintain trade ties. One such example was the visit of the Taalatbek Masarykov, Kyrgyz President’s Special Representative to Kabul, where he held discussion on avenues of cooperation and pledged to provide assistance in various sectors.9 Bishkek recently provided 111 tons of aid to Afghanistan as part of its humanitarian aid assistance.10 Another important diplomatic visit has been that of the Kyrgyz Minister of Economy and Commerce to Kabul in January 2024 to discuss improving trade relations and enhancing the import and export capacity.11

    The Turkmen government, retaining its earlier stance (based on positive neutrality) on the Taliban, was one of the first countries to establish communication with the new Afghan regime. The Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India (TAPI) project is vital to their relationship, and the Taliban has provided a security guarantee for the pipeline.12 Moreover, there is also a delegation-level visit from Ashgabat to discuss the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan electricity project.13

    Despite being the first regional country to welcome a Taliban envoy to the Afghan embassy in Ashgabat, the Turkmen-Afghan relationship has experienced some tension recently. Clashes between the border guards on both sides in the Khamab border in Jawzjan province resulted in the alleged loss of lives of one Afghan civilian and four Turkmen soldiers.14 However, their ties continue to have some space for negotiations, with projects being prioritised.

    Tajikistan has emerged as the only regional actor that has refused to parlay with the Taliban owing to historical complexities and the latter’s treatment of ethnic Tajiks. Like other countries of Central Asia, it has expressed concern regarding the spill over of terrorism and security threats that could recreate the conflict-ridden situation that was discernible during the civil war.

    The presence of Tehrik-e Taliban Tajikistan in the bordering areas (Kuf Ab, Khawan, Maimay, Nusay and Shekay in the Northern Province of Badakhshan) has further hindered cooperation between the two.15

    Tajikistan has historically been the most vocal opponent of the Taliban regime. In the past, it had supported the anti-Taliban resistance forces led by fellow Tajik Ahmed Shah Masood and later the National Resistance Front led by Masood’s son. The Taliban recruitment of Ismaili Shias from Gorno Badakhshan as part of its cohorts has added to the animosity. The main reason for such inclusion has been the conflict between the Gorno Badakhshan population and the Tajik government which has seen major protests in the past year.

    Central Asian Concerns

    As mentioned earlier, security serves as a key driver behind Central Asian countries’ engagement with the Taliban. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, mainly, have suffered from terrorism emanating from Afghanistan in the past. For example, groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Islamic Jihadi Union (IJU), and Tehrik-e- Taliban Tajikistan (TTT) have sought support from groups based in Afghanistan. TTT’s presence near the border in the hostile Gorno Badakhshan district of Tajikistan is a significant security concern for the Emomali Rahmon government.

    For Uzbekistan, the strong linkages between the ISKP and the IMU are greatly concerning. The IMU has remained one of the primary security threats for the Uzbek nation since the first Taliban period. Despite the group’s apparent weakened status, it has received support from the ISKP, with the IMU shifting its allegiance from the Taliban to the ISKP in 2015. This has also pitted IMU against the Taliban. The ISKP also sees the Taliban as an organisation that has shifted from its objective to create an Islamic State and has been interested to establish network with the ‘Kafirs’(infields). The recent attacks on Uzbekistan are seen as one important reason for engaging the Taliban with the hope that it would neutralise threats to Uzbekistan’s aspirations in Afghanistan. The same can be said for Turkmenistan, with threats of regime change being given by the ISKP from the across the border.

    The expulsion of Afghan refugees from Pakistan could contribute to escalating socio-economic instability in Central Asia, a region undergoing challenges such as surging housing prices and inflation due to the influx of Russians amid mobilisation drives. Earlier, refugee movement from Afghanistan toward Central Asia after August 2021 was restricted by the Central Asian leadership, fearing that it could lead to instability in the region.

    Regardless of the assurances extended by the Taliban’s Defence Ministry on the TAPI pipeline and projects linked to the Belt and Road Initiative, ISKP challenge to these projects remain. Currently, the ISKP has just used its media channels (Al-Azaim, Voice of Khorasan, Movaraunnaha, Khurasan Wilayah News, Tor Bairghuna, Al-Millat Media, and Khurasan Ghag Radio) to highlight the projects and has vowed to destroy any foreign projects on Afghan soil.

    Additionally, the discriminatory treatment faced by Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities has been a concerning issue even for those Central Asian regimes engaging the Taliban who recall how the Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek minorities were mistreated and persecuted by Taliban 1.0. The equitable treatment of minorities remains one of the primary conditions required to be fulfilled by the Afghan leaders to gain diplomatic recognition from the international community, including the Central Asian countries.


    Central Asian nations, barring Tajikistan, have established a limited and calculated relationship with the Taliban. The Central Asian nations have taken into consideration the crucial dynamics of security and economy while accommodating the Taliban in the current geopolitical complexities that are plaguing the region.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.