Afghanistan is undergoing swift changes and the nearby region of Central Asia seems alarmed by the meltdown of the country's security and political order. There are people in Afghanistan protesting against the Taliban since their takeover of Kabul in mid-August. There are also reports of demonstrations by women in Kabul, Herat and other areas to safeguard their rights, including right to education, employment, in the next government.[i] Besides, the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) continues to oppose the Taliban in Panjshir area. On 6 September 2021, the Taliban spokesman announced the end of war in the country in a news conference in Kabul and hoped that Afghanistan would become a stable country.[ii] Taliban claim that former Vice President Amrullah Saleh has escaped to Tajikistan.[iii] There are conflicting reports about the situation in the area as NRF leaders vow to continue fighting.[iv] Many prominent leaders of the NRF and a sizeable population in Panjshir area are ethnic Tajik. The area has long been a centre of opposition to the Taliban.
Many Afghan servicemen and people are seeking refuge in bordering Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In the prevailing condition, not only Tajikistan and Uzbekistan but all countries of Central Asia are concerned about the fallout of the situation in Afghanistan, particularly about the possible security and humanitarian effects on their region. This paper seeks to understand the responses of Central Asian countries to the unexpected developments in Afghanistan.
Response of Central Asian countries
Central Asian countries share overlapping ethnic linkages with people in Afghanistan, including with Tajiks, Turkmen and Uzbeks living in substantial numbers across their southern borders. The occurrences in Afghanistan are unlikely to remain confined to the country, the spill over can have political, security and humanitarian impact on the Central Asian region. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the US two decades ago, the Central Asian countries were at the forefront in the international coalition’s campaign against the Taliban and combating terrorism. Some Central Asian countries had not only allowed military bases but also provided land access to reach Afghanistan through its north (Northern Distribution Network-NDN) for logistics supply.
This time, however, change in their response towards the developments in Afghanistan is evident. The perception of Central Asian countries towards Afghan problem and the Taliban have evolved over the decades to that of engagement and accommodation. As the international military coalition’s campaign in Afghanistan dragged on for years, unease in Central Asia grew. In 2005 the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), where four republics of Central Asia are members, called to set a deadline for the stay of foreign forces in the region.[v] Uzbekistan closed the US base in 2005 and Kyrgyzstan shut down the American military facility in the country in 2014. There was a change of government in Uzbekistan in 2016 and unlike former President Islam Karimov, the new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev adopted an active approach towards resolving the situation in Afghanistan by engaging Afghan stakeholders, including the Taliban. A major international conference was organized in March 2018 and its declaration called for direct peace talks between the Government of Afghanistan and reconcilable elements of the Taliban ‘without any preconditions.’[vi] The republics of Central Asia want peace and stability to return to Afghanistan.
Map: Afghanistan and its Central Asian Neighbours
Though the Central Asian countries are apprehensive but they seemed prepared to engage with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Due to its location, Afghanistan is critical for the landlocked Central Asia in overcoming its connectivity challenges, which is hampering the region’s international trade and economic development. From the region, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan – the three neighbouring countries – have been developing connectivity and energy linkages with Afghanistan to access wider South Asian markets. Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan signed a roadmap in February 2020 for the construction of a rail line linking Tashkent to Kabul and Peshawar.[viii] In January 2021 Afghanistan and Turkmenistan inaugurated three projects of power transmission, fibre optic line and a railway link to boost bilateral and regional engagement.[ix] Turkmenistan wants to move forward with the long-delayed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline. In February 2021 Turkmenistan hosted a Taliban delegation, which assured ‘full support for the implementation and security of TAPI and other developmental projects’ in the country.[x] Tajikistan and Kyrgyz Republic are involved with Afghanistan and Pakistan in Central Asia-South Asia electricity transmission project from Central Asia to South Asia (CASA-1000). Economy is probably a key driver for the countries of the region to continue their relations with Afghanistan.
Reactions of Central Asian Leaders to Afghan Development
In their speeches marking the 30th anniversary of independence of the republics and statements over the situation in Afghanistan, the leaders of Central Asia referred to threat to security in the region and called for strengthening in their capabilities. The leaders of Afghanistan’s neighbours in Central Asia urged early establishment of peace and emphasized the country’s role in inter-regional connectivity. Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said “In recent days, we have all been watching with concern what is happening in neighboring Afghanistan.” He added that we support ‘the speedy establishment of peace and stability’ in the country and it is important that the transition of power in Afghanistan is peaceful and on the basis of a national agreement. Further, he mentioned that Afghanistan can serve as a ‘bridge’ between Central and South Asia to strengthen connectivity.[xi] Previously, the Uzbekistan government had said that it was maintaining ‘daily contact’ with the Taliban to help ensure Uzbekistan's security.[xii]
Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov hosted the third consultative meeting of the Heads of State of Central Asia at the Caspian Sea shore of Avaza on 6 August 2021. The leaders 'sounded the alarm' over the spiral of war in Afghanistan.[xiii] The joint statement says “The states of Central Asia also support the efforts of all countries and international organizations seeking to promote security and stability in Afghanistan, the restoration of the socio-economic infrastructure of this country and its involvement in world economic relations.”[xiv] Earlier, in July 2021, Ashgabat hosted a Taliban delegation led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai. They discussed bilateral ties and border issues. The Taliban were reportedly urged to ‘eschew’ attacking Turkmenistan’s territory and ‘block’ the possible flow of refugees to Turkmenistan.[xv]
Tajikistan has taken a different approach towards the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was the only neighbour of Afghanistan that did not engage in talks with the Taliban prior to the group’s operation to capture Afghanistan.[xvi] In a meeting with visiting Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on August 25, 2021, President Emomali Rahmon said that Dushanbe wants to see all ethnic groups of Afghanistan represented in the next cabinet along with a ‘worthy role’ of Tajiks in running the country.[xvii] He said Dushanbe will not recognize a government ‘created by humiliation and ignoring the interests of the people of Afghanistan as a whole, including those of ethnic minorities, such as Tajiks, Uzbeks, and others.’[xviii] He added that a referendum should define Afghanistan’s political system. Further, on 30th anniversary of independence, the President awarded former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani and former Afghan Defence Minister Ahmad Shah Massoud the country’s highest award ‘Order of Ismoili Somoni 1st Class’ posthumously.[xix] Both the awardees were strong opponents of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The timing of the award seems significant and possibly seen as ‘a strong message’ to the Taliban on the need for an inclusive government in Kabul.[xx]
President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said “the situation in Afghanistan and the general growth of global tensions has put before us the task of rebooting the military-industrial sector and the Military Doctrine.” He added that “strengthening our defence capability and increasing the responsiveness to threats should also become priorities of national importance. We must prepare for external shocks and worst-case scenarios.”[xxi] Similar sentiments were echoed by President of Kyrgyz Republic Sadyr Japarov. He said that “The recent events in Afghanistan... are of great concern throughout the world. We are sincerely interested in the soonest possible stabilization of the internal political situation in Afghanistan.” He further added that “The main goal now is to strengthen our border areas, strengthen control, replenish the Kyrgyz army with weapons and military equipment, and increase the effectiveness of our Armed Forces.”[xxii]
Security Implications for Central Asia
From the reactions it is evident that Central Asian leaders want a stable and peaceful Afghanistan where rights of all sections of population are protected. They are also concerned about security and humanitarian impact on the region. Central Asia countries are keenly observing the developments and bracing for any fluid situation in Afghanistan. The takeover of Kabul by the Taliban has brought new challenges to the security in Central Asia. A recent UN report says fighters from a variety of countries and militant groups continue to operate in Afghanistan, though it has been denied by the Taliban. It estimates that the number of foreign terrorist fighters is between 8,000 and 10,000 persons. They are mainly from Central Asia, the north Caucasus region of the Russian Federation, Pakistan and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China, among others.[xxiii] Further, the report says that though the majority of them are affiliated with the Taliban, many also support the al-Qaida. The report underlines continued links between the Taliban and the al-Qaida. Da'ish (ISIS/ISIL/ISIL-Khorasan) has emerged as another threat to security in Central Asia. Many from the region went to Syria to join the terror group. The group has a foothold in Afghanistan. The UN report says that the ISIL-Khorasan though is ‘diminished’, it still remains active and dangerous with its capability to attract ‘disaffected’ Taliban and other militants to its ranks.
How the Taliban will keep their promise of not hosting in Afghanistan terrorists aiming to harm other countries and control these elements from carrying out destructive activities in Central Asia is to be tested in future. Nevertheless, the republics of the region are already preparing to deal with security scenario. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan held military exercises with Russia near Afghan borders. The joint exercise, which concluded on 10 August 2021, simulated combined response to attack by militants from across the border.[xxiv] A two-day joint anti-terrorism drill was held by Tajikistan and China near Tajik capital Dushanbe on 18-19 August 2021.[xxv]
Refugees from Afghanistan to Central Asia
Afghans have been migrating for many years in search of security and better livelihood to countries in Asia and Europe. Neighbouring countries in Central Asia have seldom been a preferred choice as their destination despite linguistic and ethnic affinities.[xxvi] As the Taliban launched military offensive to takeover whole of Afghanistan, many in Afghan security forces crossed over to the neighbouring Central Asian countries in search of safety. About 5,000 Afghan troops had crossed to Tajikistan, they were later sent back to Afghanistan.[xxvii]
Prominent Afghan figures Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Muhammad Noor, have also reportedly escaped to Uzbekistan along with their fighters and family members.[xxviii] Over 580 Afghan soldiers fled to Uzbekistan with 22 military planes and 24 helicopters while many crossed the border on foot.[xxix] There were reports of Uzbekistan shooting down on 16 August 2021 a military plane of Afghanistan violating its air space, though its pilots survived.[xxx] Uzbekistan has sent 150 Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan under agreement with the Taliban and the request of refugees.[xxxi]
Bother Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is also coordinating with other countries, including the US and from Europe, in the evacuation of foreign citizens from Afghanistan.[xxxii] These countries neither have the capacity nor willingness to host large number of refugees from Afghanistan. The Interior Minister of Tajikistan Ramazon Rahimzoda citing the lack of infrastructure said his country is unable to host many refugees from Afghanistan. He sought assistance of UN and other international organizations to create such infrastructure.[xxxiii] Further, hosting a large number of Afghan refugees can complicate the region's relations with the Taliban in Kabul.[xxxiv] Repatriation of Afghan servicemen and aircraft can become a contentious issue between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The Taliban have already demanded them back to the country. Uzbekistan has urged the US to take the pilots to a third country so that its interactions with the Taliban remain unaffected.[xxxv]
Central Asian economies are also already strained due to the global economic slowdown, lower hydrocarbon energy prices and the COVID-19 impact. They can hardly sustain the influx of refugees. Apart from political and economic exigencies, the Central Asian countries are also concerned about security as they could be exposed to threats of radicalism and extremism with the arrival of large number of refugees. In a press conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Kremlin on 20 August 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin had also mentioned the importance of preventing ‘terrorists’ from Afghanistan entering neighbouring countries ‘under the guise of refugees’.[xxxvi]
Seemingly, driven mostly by humanitarian, economic and connectivity considerations, Central Asian countries are expected to continue their engagement with Afghanistan. There has been instability across their southern borders for many years and these countries have largely been able to deal with it. They have been taking security and other measures to secure their frontiers from any eventuality and spill over. However, the current developments with no government in place in Afghanistan are a matter of great concern for them. Though the Central Asian countries are unlikely to interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan, they will insist on an inclusive government, strict control over extremist elements and production of narcotics and trade in Afghanistan. It is reported that there are ethnic members from Central Asian countries among the ranks of the Taliban. Their settlement in Afghanistan or repatriation could become a major irritant between the future government of Afghanistan and Central Asian countries. It is to be seen how the Taliban are able to keep these elements under control. The current Afghan crisis has once again highlighted the necessity of a regional framework in Central Asia to jointly deal with the emergency situations on its borders. The countries in Central Asia seem to wait and watch and will formulate their responses according to the actions and decisions made by the Taliban.
* Dr Athar Zafar is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views are of the author.
[i] آمنه حکیمی،, "اعتراض خبرنگاران و فعالان مدنی در کابل به خشونت گرایید." 5 September 2021, Tolo News, https://tolonews.com/fa/afghanistan-174508
[ii] Tolo News, “ذبیح الله مجاهد از ختم جنگ در کشور خبر داد,” 6 September 2021, https://tolonews.com/fa/afghanistan-174531
[iii] ANI, "Amrullah Saleh fled to Tajikistan, according to Taliban," 6 September 2021,
[iv] Meenakshi Ray, “Taliban claim Panjshir captured, resistance forces vow to carry on fighting,” Hindustan Times, 6 September 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/taliban-claim-panjshir-captured-resistance-forces-vow-to-carry-on-fighting-101630903029859.html
[v] Shanghai Cooperation Organization, "DECLARATION by the Heads of the Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization," 5 July 2005, Astana, file:///C:/Users/Athar/Downloads/Declaration_by_the_heads_of_the_member_states_of_the_SCO.pdf
[vi] Government of Uzbekistan, "The Permanent Mission of the Republic of Uzbekistan to the United Nations," The Permanent Mission of the Republic of Uzbekistan to the United Nations, 30 March 2018, https://www.un.int/uzbekistan/news/declaration-tashkent-conference-afghanistan-peace-process-security-cooperation-regional
[viii] Railway Technology, “Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan sign roadmap for rail project,” 5 February 2021, https://www.railway-technology.com/news/pakistan-afghanistan-uzbekistan-rail-project/
[ix] Shadi Khan Saif, “Afghanistan, Turkmenistan launch connectivity projects,” Anadolu Agency, 14 Janurary 2021, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/afghanistan-turkmenistan-launch-connectivity-projects/2109837
[x] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan, “THE MEETING WITH THE DELEGATION OF POLITICAL OFFICE OF TALIBAN MOVEMENT WAS HELD IN THE MFA OF TURKMENISTAN,” 6 February 2021, https://www.mfa.gov.tm/en/news/2470
[xi] kun.uz, “Shavkat Mirziyoyev speaks about relations with Afghanistan,” 31 August 2021, https://kun.uz/en/news/2021/08/31/shavkat-mirziyoyev-speaks-about-relations-with-afghanistan
[xii] Reporting by Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov Writing by Olzhas Auyezov Editing by Mark Heinrich, “Uzbek leader says in daily contact with Taliban to ensure security,” Reuters, 27 August 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/uzbek-leader-says-daily-contact-with-taliban-ensure-security-2021-08-27/
[xiii] France 24, "Central Asian leaders warn on Afghan chaos as Taliban advances," 6 August 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210806-central-asian-leaders-warn-on-afghan-chaos-as-taliban-advances
[xiv] Nebit-Gaz, “Taliban is interested in the implementation of the TAPI gas pipeline and other infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, -representative,” 20 August 2021, https://www.oilgas.gov.tm/en/posts/news/2750/taliban-is-interested-in-the-implementation-of-the-tapi-gas-pipeline-and-other-infrastructure-projects-in-afghanistan-representative
[xv] Pajhwok Monitor, " Taliban delegation meets Turkmen officials in Ashgabat," 12 July 2021, https://pajhwok.com/2021/07/12/taliban-delegation-meets-turkmen-officials-in-ashgabat/
[xvi] Bruce Pannier & Muhammad Tahir, " Majlis Podcast: Tajikistan Takes A Hard Line On The Taliban," Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, https://www.rferl.org/a/majlis-podcast-tajikistan-taliban/31433669.html
[xvii] Asia-Plus, "President Rahmon calls for formation of inclusive government in Afghanistan," 26 August 2021,
[xviii]Asia-Plus, "President Rahmon calls for formation of inclusive government in Afghanistan," 26 August 2021,
[xx] Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “In a message to Taliban, Tajikistan honours Ahmed Shah Massoud,” The Economic Times, 4 September 2021, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/in-a-message-to-taliban-tajikistan-honours-ahmed-shah-massoud/articleshow/85916501.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst
[xxi] The Astana Times, “Unity Of The People And Systemic Reforms Are A Solid Foundation For The Nation’s Prosperity,” 6 September 2021, https://astanatimes.com/2021/09/unity-of-the-people-and-systemic-reforms-are-a-solid-foundation-for-the-nations-prosperity/
[xxii] Baktygul Osmonalieva, “Situation in Afghanistan to entail strengthening of Kyrgyzstan’s borders,” 30 August 2021, https://24.kg/english/205569_Situation_in_Afghanistan_to_entail_strengthening_of_Kyrgyzstans_borders_/
[xxiii] UN Security Council, " Letter dated 20 May 2021 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1988 (2011) addressed to the President of the Security Council," 1 June 2021, https://www.undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/486
[xxiv] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, "Russia Wraps Up Drills With Uzbek And Tajik Troops Near Afghan Border," 11 August 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-tajikistan-uzbekistan-military-drills-afghanistan-/31403841.html
[xxv] Yang Zekun, “China, Tajikistan complete two-day anti-terrorism drill,” 19 August 2021, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202108/19/WS611e5956a310efa1bd669e83.html
[xxvi] Temur Umarov, “Do the Taliban Pose a Threat to Stability in Central Asia?,” Carnegie Moscow Center, 3 September 2021, https://carnegiemoscow.org/commentary/85271
[xxvii] Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, "Interior Minister Says Tajikistan Unable To Host Many Afghan Refugees," 2 September 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-no-refugees-afghanistan/31440251.html
[xxviii] Ummid.com, " Abdul Rashid Dostum, Atta Muhammad Noor flee to Uzbekistan," 15 August 2021, https://ummid.com/news/2021/august/15.08.2021/abdul-rashid-dostum-atta-muhammad-noor-flee-to-uzbekistan.html
[xxix] The Economic Times, "Uzbekistan says hundreds of Afghan soldiers flee over border with dozens of aircraft," 16 August 2021. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/uzbekistan-says-hundreds-of-afghan-soldiers-flee-over-border-with-dozens-of-aircraft/articleshow/85376488.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst
[xxx] Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh; writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Hugh Lawson, "Afghan military jet was shot down by Uzbek air defences – RIA," Reuters, 16 August 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/afghan-military-jet-was-shot-down-by-uzbek-air-defences-ria-2021-08-16/
[xxxi] Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, "Interior Minister Says Tajikistan Unable To Host Many Afghan Refugees," 2 September 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-no-refugees-afghanistan/31440251.html
[xxxii] Catherine Putz, " Uzbekistan and Tajikistan Hedge on Afghan Refugees," The Diplomat, 31 August 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/08/uzbekistan-and-tajikistan-hedge-on-afghan-refugees/
[xxxiii] Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, "Interior Minister Says Tajikistan Unable To Host Many Afghan Refugees," 2 September 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-no-refugees-afghanistan/31440251.html
[xxxiv] Catherine Putz, " Uzbekistan and Tajikistan Hedge on Afghan Refugees," The Diplomat, 31 August 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/08/uzbekistan-and-tajikistan-hedge-on-afghan-refugees/
[xxxv] Siobhan Hughes & Jessica Donati, " Uzbekistan Warns U.S. That Afghan Pilots and Their Families Can’t Stay," The Wall Street Journal, 30 August 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/uzbekistan-warns-u-s-that-afghan-pilots-and-their-families-cant-stay-11630315800
[xxxvi] NDTV, “Vladimir Putin Says World Must Prevent "Collapse" Of Afghanistan,” 20 August 2021, https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/vladimir-putin-says-world-must-prevent-collapse-of-afghanistan-2515185