With a great challenge of extremism and terrorism, Central Asia kept a close eye on its security and relationship with neighboring countries. Afghanistan and the issues surrounding the Taliban have become crucial to regional politics, especially after the fall of Kabul in 2021.
The Central Asian countries have previously held hostility towards the Taliban and the new Afghani government. The Taliban and Tajikistan border forces have been in the crossfire in multiple situations. The Dushanbe government even initiated emergency military recruitment immediately after the Taliban took over. Uzbekistan provided refuge to the remnants of the Afghani air force after the takeover. Even today, no Central Asian countries have officially recognized the new government.
However, this hostile commotion towards the Taliban has been shifting. More countries in the region are willing to open up talks with the Taliban. Taliban’s delegation has visited the Tashkent and Dushanbe governments already. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan hosted an economic forum with Afghanistan with a major trade agreement signed. These interactions indicated the improvement of relationships between Central Asia and the Taliban.
The Central Asian countries shifting attitude towards the Taliban comes from the changing political reality in the region. Taliban has gained control over Afghanistan and has been stably governing Afghanistan. Although the Taliban had a sour history with the countries in the area, the Taliban seeks more international cooperation and recognition. Central Asia is an accessible cutting-through point for them. Meanwhile, the prospective collaboration, especially in the fight against terrorism, further unites Kabul and Central Asia.
Although no Central Asian nation has recognized the new Taliban regime, the unavoidable fact is that the Taliban has controlled Afghanistan with a much firm grip on power. The Taliban faced strong opposition in the north during their first time in power. The Northern Alliance became the critical force that toppled the regime.
This time, the Taliban obtained robust control over the northern part of the country even before they entered Kabul. The Tajikistan-Afghanistan border crossing fell earlier than the fall of Kabul. Although there was initial resistance led by the son of Massoud, it only lasted very shortly. Almost two years after its total control, the Taliban managed to maintain a firm grip over the nation and enforce its rules. Whether people like it or not, the Taliban now has become the undisputed ruling power of Afghanistan.
This reluctant acceptance of the reality is clear from the Central Asian governments’ actions. At the beginning of the Taliban aggression in 2021, Central Asian governments were adamant about no recognition of the Taliban regime with no open talks. This attitude shifts as many realize that the Taliban is “a reality that must be accepted.” Uzbekistan hosted an international conference regarding the Afghanistan issue and met with the Taliban leadership in Kabul. Other countries, such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, have recognized the Taliban envoy without recognizing the Talian regime. Even Tajikistan, the most adamant opposition to the Taliban, has allowed the Taliban government to take over the consulate in Khorog. The political reality is on the side of the Kabul government and pushes the nations to work with them.
Meanwhile, the Taliban needed the support of the outside world, and Central Asia was their first step. Besides the existing bilateral political conversations, the Taliban government has also expressed interest in participating in Shanghai Cooperation Organization conferences, which are vital to Central Asian security. Meanwhile, the economic relationship between Central Asia and Afghanistan keeps growing. Kazakh-Afghan trade is nearly 1 billion U.S. dollars. The other countries also share massive trade with Afghanis. The active economic and political relationships make the Taliban interested in maintaining a good connection with Central Asia.
Taliban also wanted to shift from its old image to entice the outside world to collaborate with them. In previous conferences with the Chinese and Pakistani delegations, the Taliban delegates promised their commitment to fighting against international terrorism and to extending their economic relationship with the two countries. Furthermore, the Taliban has also pledged to respect the border between Afghanistan and Central Asia and battle against the spread of drugs. These softened tones indicated the Taliban’s wish to normalize its relationship with foreign nations.
Central Asia and the Afghani government share common interests, especially in the fight against terrorism. The Taliban also faces the challenge of terrorism. The Taliban became successful with the support of many extremist groups, some of them located in Central Asia. However, the Taliban has pledged not to let the extremist groups use Afghanistan as a base to enter Central Asia. Some organizations, like ISIS-K, see the Taliban as an inreconcilable enemy and have been attacking them since. Taliban has pledged to fight against ISIS-K. The Taliban killed the head of ISIS in April this year while the actions towards ISIS kept going.
The Islamic State also puts Central Asia on high alert. Russian speakers have become the largest group of foreign fighters in the Islamic State. According to Russian sources, many ISIS fighters have accumulated near the Afghan-Tajik border. After the takeover of the Taliban, due to the unstable situation, the terrorism risk in Central Asia is on the rise. Uzbekistan is now facing more rocket attacks, while the Tajikistani government have become more active in anti-terrorism actions on the border. Terrorism remains an issue that both the Taliban and Central Asian governments face, which creates space for future collaboration.
Although Central Asia and the Taliban had friction throughout the years, the current political reality pushes Central Asian governments to seek detente from the Kabul government. The stable control of the Taliban government, the Taliban’s desire to end its isolation, and the space for collaboration between Central Asia and Afghanistan in terrorism make Central Asia seek rapprochement with the Taliban.