Russia and allies seek damage limitation with Taliban

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Significance

Since May the Taliban have taken control of almost all areas adjoining Central Asian borders. A remaining stretch between Turkmenistan and north-western Afghanistan is likely to follow soon. Disrupted trade and a possible refugee influx are not the only worries for regional governments; the presence of Central Asian jihadists in areas captured by the Taliban is cause for concern.

Impacts

  • Uzbekistan and Tajikistan may review their refusal to host a US military base, but have many reasons to avoid going ahead.
  • The Uzbek presidency says there are no plans to join Russia's Collective Security Treaty Organisation.
  • Even the most reluctant Central Asian policymakers will have to engage with the Taliban to press them to keep other jihadists in check.

            Afghan security forces personnel after fleeing into Tajikistan (Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock)

Event

Russia and Central Asian governments are watching with concern as conflict unfolds swiftly along the frontier with Afghanistan.

Significance

Since May the Taliban have taken control of almost all areas adjoining Central Asian borders. A remaining stretch between Turkmenistan and north-western Afghanistan is likely to follow soon. Disrupted trade and a possible refugee influx are not the only worries for regional governments; the presence of Central Asian jihadists in areas captured by the Taliban is cause for concern.

Analysis

The Central Asian and Russian governments have expressed concern but not overt hostility to the rapid Taliban takeover of territory in Afghanistan as the NATO-led coalition withdraws its troops.

Russian President Vladimir Putin consulted with his Uzbekistan and Tajikistan counterparts on July 5, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov promised two days later that Moscow would help defend Central Asian "allies" if need be.

The word "allies" depends on how loosely it is interpreted. Of the border states, only Tajikistan can technically seek assistance as a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation; Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are not members (see RUSSIA/AFGHANISTAN: Moscow can only help Tajik allies - July 7, 2021 and see AFGHANISTAN/CENTRAL ASIA: Taliban advance everywhere - June 23, 2021).

Promises and fears

After a Taliban delegation visited Moscow on July 9, the Russian foreign ministry's read-out was all about setting ground rules. It said the Taliban promised:

  1. not to breach Central Asian borders;

  2. to ensure all foreign diplomatic missions in Afghanistan are unharmed;

  3. to fight against the "Islamic State threat"; and

  4. to eradicate narcotic production (once the conflict is over).

Assuming the Taliban do not pose a direct threat, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are worried about Central Asian jihadists in northern Afghanistan.

The Taliban have pledged not to threaten Russian interests

The Taliban's bilateral agreement with the United States in February 2020 included a commitment to expel global jihadist groups. This works for Islamic State (IS), to which the Taliban is hostile, but is less clear-cut for some smaller groups, especially as the Taliban say foreign militants can stay as long as they sign a pledge to abandon global jihad (see AFGHANISTAN/US: Taliban claims will not derail accord - June 2, 2020).

The Imam Bukhari Jamaat, a mainly Uzbek group that has also operated in Syria as Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (affiliated with Idlib-based jihadists rather than IS), has refused to sign the agreement.

Nevertheless, Imam Bukhari units were reportedly seen helping the Taliban secure territory in north-west Afghanistan, suggesting that link persists.

Another concern for Central Asian governments is a potential refugee influx. Uzbekistan has responded by closing its border for now, while Tajikistan has allowed some 1,500 Afghan government combatants to seek refuge there, flying them to Kabul subsequently.

In reality, the main refugee destinations will be Pakistan and Iran, where borders are easier to negotiate and offer possible routes to Europe.

Tajikistan

The Tajik authorities are concerned about their border and are mobilising 20,000 reservists. The Sher Khan Bandar border crossing was shut for some days after the Taliban captured the Afghan side, but then reopened.

The Tajik authorities have not previously had direct contacts with the Taliban, but have not adopted a hostile stance as events unfold.

They are well-connected with Afghan Tajik politicians and will be aware of the deal-making going on between Jamiat-e Islami party leader Salahuddin Rabbani and the Taliban.

The apparently managed takeover of Badakhshan and Takhar provinces, both Jamiat-e Islami heartlands, may be accepted by Tajikistan in the hope that the Taliban will honour any power-sharing deal with Rabbani (see AFGHANISTAN: Taliban advance swiftly as US forces exit - July 5, 2021).

Uzbekistan

The Uzbek authorities are in a better position than their Tajik counterparts as their border with Afghanistan is lower-lying and easier to manage.

They have closed the border crossing at Termez/Hairatan after clashes on the Afghan side. The Taliban now control the border but not Hairatan, which was recaptured by Afghan government special forces. Fleeing Afghan soldiers have been swiftly deported (see UZBEKISTAN/AFGHANISTAN: Tashkent to insulate itself - June 30, 2021).

There is fighting around the main northern city, Mazar-e Sharif, now under a tightening Taliban siege.

The Uzbek authorities have developed contacts with the Taliban in recent years, enquiring about a railway project to link Termez to Iran.

The prospect of northern and north-western Afghanistan under complete Taliban domination places Uzbekistan in an uncomfortable position. It has little leverage: its traditional ally, the ethnic Uzbek commander Abdul Rashid Dostum, has fled to Turkey and his militias have been defeated by the Taliban (see AFGHANISTAN: Taliban war outpaces political efforts - June 25, 2021).

Despite talk of Uzbekistan hosting a US base, Tashkent will be wary of agreeing to this, for fear of angering Russia, China and the Taliban.

Turkmenistan

The Turkmen authorities appear unconcerned, though the closed nature of the state means policy thinking is hidden from view.

The Taliban reportedly control 13 of the 14 districts of Faryab province neighbouring Turkmenistan. A border crossing at Imamnazar (also a rail route) has closed because of Taliban offensives around Aqina on the Afghan side, and the Serhetabat-Turghundi crossing is under threat.

Afghan Turkmen militias sponsored by Turkmenistan appear to have collapsed. Turkmenistan has moved tanks, artillery and other military hardware into the Serhetabat area.

The Turkmen government has a long history of accommodation with the Taliban. It kept the border open and traded with the Taliban administration in 1996-2001, and has been in negotiations with the insurgents to guarantee the safety of the planned Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline (see CENTRAL ASIA/AFGHANISTAN: Multiple projects planned - February 18, 2021).

A Taliban delegation visited Ashgabat secretly on July 10 and discussed border security and refugees.

Russia's IS concerns

The Kremlin says it is not considering a new ground troop deployment and will instead use the 201st Division, based in Tajikistan since the end of the Soviet Union and Russia's largest permanent military presence abroad (the others are in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Syria).

Russia has plenty of firepower at its Tajik and Kyrgyz bases

The division has some ground-attack jets and helicopters, and Russia could bring in Sukhoi Su-27 fighters and other aircraft from its Kyrgyz base at Kant without this counting as an external deployment.

The Kremlin seems to have resigned itself to Taliban domination in northern Afghanistan. Instead, it has expressed concern that IS may fill the vacuum created by the collapse of state structures in Badakhshan, where the Taliban are struggling to gain full control. Some districts were left ungoverned for days after the security forces fled and before the Taliban arrived.

IS has its local headquarters in a remote valley in Badakhshan's Jurm district and is well positioned to fill some of this vacuum, although Russian claims that it is already doing so have not been confirmed by other sources (see AFGHANISTAN: Islamic State will struggle to regroup - December 20, 2019).

For Russia, Tajikistan, Iran and Uzbekistan, the least bad scenario would be for Jamiat-e Islami militia forces to take on a governance role in Badakhshan alongside the Taliban, providing a blueprint for future power-sharing nationally.

Conclusion

The immediate question is whether Central Asian states can avoid being sucked into expanding border chaos, rather than cross-border insurgency. The Taliban promise not to advance northwards is probably genuine. Frontiers are likely to be more open than during Afghan civil conflict in the 1990s.

© Oxford Analytica 2021. All rights reserved. This content contains general information about geopolitical, macroeconomic and social developments or (where stated) other matters. It does not contain advice or recommendations that may be relied on. Where links to external websites are provided, this does not indicate that Oxford Analytica or Emerald Group agree with, endorse or have checked for accuracy the contents of said sites.

Expert Briefings powered by Oxford Analytica
Stay up to date
Sign up to the Expert Daily Briefings email alert and receive up-to-the-minute analysis of global events as they happen.
*If your university does not have access to Expert Briefings, visit our information page to find out more.