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On-Going War In Afghanistan And Spill Over Effects On Central Asia | R G Gidadhubli

Friday 30 July 2021

by R.G.Gidadhubli *

There is on-going war in Afghanistan during the last few months between the State security forces and Taliban fighters. This is primarily subsequent to the declaration by the United States of America to fully withdraw its forces by the end of August 2021 and the process of withdrawal has started a couple of months back. At the beginning of July the U.S. forces vacated their largest base in Afghanistan at Bagram, north of Kabul. Having provided political support and defense security to the Afghan government during the last two decades, withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan has created not only political chaos and instability in the country but also adverse effects in the region. There are even speculations by some analysts that the Western-backed government in Kabul might not last long.

As per reports Taliban has been controlling about more than half of the country. It is a matter of great geo-political significance that as per reports Taliban atrocities have been spilling over the northern states of Afghanistan namely Central Asia. As stated by Bruce Pannier the Taliban fighters have occupied many of the northern Afghan districts bordering Central Asia and have reached the borders of Central Asia. Hence there is a familiar sense of urgency in the three countries of Central Asia on the Afghan frontier namely Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

At the outset it needs to be mentioned that Central Asia has global geographical significance as it is at the crossroads of the Eurasian continent being part of the former Super Power, the Soviet Union. Even as these countries are in the process of transition from the former Communist System to political democracy and market economy, with economic development these states could be important transit hub for shipping goods from east to west and from north to south. Afghanistan has fairly close and cordial relations for decades with the Central Asian States. All are Islamic countries and there are some ethnic commonalities in the border areas. Moreover, equally significant is the fact that Afghanistan links Central Asia and South Asia. But in the present context, the spill-over effects of on-going war in Afghanistan and with Taliban fighters recently seizing control over large swaths of territory creating instability in Afghanistan, linking Central Asia and South Asia via Afghanistan might become problematic. Hence an effort has been made to highlight the impact of conflict in Afghanistan on Central Asia and measures taken by the Central Asian States to contain the consequences.

Firstly, to counter the spill-over effects of Taliban acts in Central Asia in during the last few months in 2021, Uzbekistan conducted tactical military exercises near the Afghan border. Moreover, on the 7th July the Uzbek troops not only conducted joint exercises with Russian troops in the Uzbekistan’s Samarkand Province and Tashkent but also sent additional forces to the Afghan border. Considering the fact that this security threat has been felt during the last couple of decades it needs to be mentioned that in October 1996, Uzbekistan moved elite forces to the Afghan border and sent more troops in August 1998 after the Taliban captured Mazar-e Sharif.

Secondly, considering the fact that Tajikistan has been experiencing violence by some factions of Taliban forces, on the 26th June 2021 Tajikistan decided to put its forces near the Afghan border on heightened alert. On the 5th July the Tajik government called up some 20,000 reservists to strengthen forces along the 1,360 Km frontier with Afghanistan. Central Asia has mixed responses towards Taliban and changes have taken place from time to time. For instance, in the late 1990s, the Tajik and Uzbek governments were openly hostile towards the Taliban, while Turkmenistan, guided by economic interests in exporting its natural gas and brandishing its policy of neutrality, was engaged with the Taliban, even allowing the group to open a representative office in Ashgabat.

Thirdly, considering the fact that political situation in Afghanistan has been changing from time to time, relations of Central Asian States with Taliban have also been undergoing changes depending upon prevailing situation and circumstances. For instance, it is important to note that at present Uzbekistan has also improved ties with Taliban which is evident from the fact that Uzbekistan hosted a Taliban delegation that visited for several days in August 2019. In contrast the Tajik government has the worst relationship with the Taliban of all the Central Asian states and supports the Afghan government and does not want to do anything that could further undercut the Afghan government’s campaign against the Taliban.

Fourthly, the Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, was able to deal with the Taliban and the Afghan group was undoubtedly pleased to have one Central Asian neighbor staying out of Afghan internal politics. As per reports Turkmenistan still touts its policy of neutrality towards Taliban. Since 2014 situation has changed and recently there were cases when Turkmen soldiers were killed by some factions of Taliban fighters. Hence as per reports the Turkmen authorities called up reservists in January 2019 to fortify positions along Afghan border and at the start of July 2021, the present President Berdymukhammedov reportedly ordered more forces sent to the border area including warplanes, tanks and artillery to enhance security of the country. Turkmenistan sharing an 800-kilometer border with Afghanistan, situation has changed at present and improved between Turkmenistan and Taliban which is evident from the statement of the Turkmen Foreign Ministry "Thanks to the brotherly ties between the two neighboring countries and their peoples, the Turkmen-Afghan border is a border of friendship and cooperation". Thus the Turkmen government and the Taliban leaders seem to be interested in reviving cordial ties and continuity of supply of oil and natural gas. Hence the Taliban’s spokesman in Qatar, Mohammad Nayeem, stated on the 11th July 2021 that the Taliban delegation comprising of Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai visited Ashgabat at Turkmenistan’s invitation.

Fifth, Russia has been extending security support to the Central Asian countries. Russian border guards — with some help from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) peacekeeping force that included troops from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan — were tasked with defending the Afghan border. Apart from that mention may be made that on the 6th July representatives of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) visited the Tajik-Afghan border area. To support Central Asian Countries, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov assured that the Russian troops based in Tajikistan and the CSTO would prevent any aggressive encroachment by Taliban. In fact Russian troops have been regularly conducting joint military exercises with all the Central Asian countries except Turkmenistan in Russia and Central Asia. Russia and Shanghai Cooperation Organization have been extending security support to Central Asian countries.

Sixth, refugee problem between Afghanistan and Central Asian countries has assumed significance again. It needs to be mentioned that a large number of civilians in Afghanistan and Central Asia have been crossing over during the last couple of decades for security and jobs creating refugee problems for these countries. For instance, when Central Asian States were experiencing civil war in the 1990,s about 50,000 Tajik citizens had fled the fighting and crossed into Afghanistan. This issue was mentioned by the President of Tajikistan Rahmon who mentioned that among those 100,000 refugees from Central Asia several thousand citizens were from Tajikistan. At present there is reverse migration of refugees from Afghanistan to Central Asia. As per reports, during the last few months a large number of civilians from Afghanistan have been crossing over to Central Asian States

to save themselves from war. In fact on the 7th July the independent Tajik news agency Asia-Plus reported more than 1,000 Afghan refugees had crossed into Tajikistan’s eastern Gorno-Badakhshan region, to save themselves from the fight between the Taliban forces and the government troops in Afghanistan’s neighboring Badakhshan Province. In fact realizing the consequences of war Yodgor Fayzov, the head of that sprawling Tajik region ordered local officials to prepare for the arrival of up to 10,000 refugees and even warned that the number of refugees could be about 30,000

Seventh, apart from civilians even Afghan soldiers have been crossing over to Central Asia for safety. On the 5th July 2021 the Tajik authorities said 1,037 Afghan soldiers had crossed into Tajikistan and were being allowed to stay “for humanitarian reasons". But on 7th July the Afghanistan’s National Security Council stated that about 2,300 Afghan soldiers had been sent from Tajikistan back to Afghanistan by plane to Kabul. Afghan soldiers were also crossing over to Uzbekistan to save their lives. As per reports on 23rd June the Uzbek military forces stopped 53 Afghan soldiers and members of paramilitary forces who attempted to cross over into Uzbekistan and who were sent back. This process has been going on between Central Asia and Afghanistan.

Lastly, the issue of Afghanistan has relevance to South Asia and India in particular. It needs to be mentioned that the recently held conference in Tashkent highlighted that great interest remains in realizing a Central Asia-South Asia trade corridor
network as it has added incentive for countries in both regions to work on bringing stability to Afghanistan and reaping the benefits of trade connectivity.

In lieu of conclusion it may be stated that due to on-going war, political situation in Afghanistan might remain highly chaotic and unstable. Hence adverse effects of these conditions are bound to be felt on the Central Asian countries for the near future.

30th July 2021

(Author: Dr R.G.Gidadhubli, Professor And Former Director, Center For Central Eurasian Studies, University Of Mumbai, Maharashtra State, India)

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