The spill-over effect: increasing violence in Afghanistan worries Central Asian neighbours 4 min read
The ongoing US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan increases the likelihood of cross-border conflict in Central Asia.
The US-funded bridge across the river Pianj in Shir Khan Bandar was supposed to mark a new beginning for Afghanistan, promising a future of regional integration and commerce by connecting the war-torn country to neighbouring Tajikistan and the rest of Eurasia. However, on 22 June 2021, amidst the US troop withdrawal, Taliban captured Shir Khan Bandar, turning promises of a brighter future into dust.
The Taliban have been gaining ground not only close to the Tajik border but all over the country. UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, recently stated that more than 50 of Afghanistan’s 370 districts have fallen since the beginning of May*. With most of these situated around Afghanistan’s provincial capitals, Lyons’ suggested that the Taliban are positioning themselves to try and capture these capitals once foreign troops have been completely withdrawn.
The events on 22 June are reportedly the most significant gain of the Taliban since they stepped up their operations two months ago. With the capture of Shir Khan Bandar, some of the Afghan government’s troops fled over the border to Tajikistan – joining a substantial population of Afghans displaced by war.
A similar escape was attempted on 23 June, when Afghan soldiers once again crossed the border, this time into Uzbekistan. Less lucky than their comrades a few days before, Uzbek government officials expelled them while expressing concern over the escalation of violence in the region.
Additionally, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service has reported that since 1 June the town of Ankhoi in Faryab Province, 10 kilometres from the Turkmen border, and a major hub for transports between Europe, Turkey and Afghanistan, has become a scene for intense fighting with most of the militants being of Turkmen, Tajik or Uzbek origins.
The escalation of violence on the Central Asian borders over the last 60 days is the worst in two decades, and a worrisome development not only for Afghanistan’s neighbours but for the international community.
Without external forces backing Kabul, the Afghan government is likely to soon fall. Even though the US has said that a limited presence will be maintained, it will be insufficient to radically change the government’s capacity to fight the Taliban. While the continued presence of American soldiers might thwart the imminent takeover by the Taliban and their supporters, this measure will be insufficient to stop them from eventually taking power.
With ongoing fighting in all eight of the Afghan provinces that border Central Asia, fear that Afghanistan’s problems could spill over into the Central Asian republics, is growing. Reportedly, the presidents of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan exchanged words over the phone on 23 June, pledging to continue to cooperate for peace in Afghanistan, but without specifying how.
Another aspect of the Taliban gaining full reign of Afghanistan is that the country stands at great risk of becoming a haven for radicals fleeing their oppressive governments in Central Asia. A new Taliban rule might influence Central Asian extremists and facilitate or encourage incursions, promoting its political agenda by peddling regional peace in exchange for recognition, engaging in de-facto geopolitical blackmail.
With increasing violence and the threat of a full-blown civil war, a tsunami of refugees might spill over into neighbouring countries. In this scenario, Tajikistan will be a plausible point of refuge, given Pakistan’s pledge to not accept refugees from Afghanistan in the case of a military takeover by the Taliban, and Uzbekistan’s refusal to accept fleeing Afghan soldiers. Yodgor Fayzov, leader of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region, already informed regional administrators on 21 June that provisions should be made to receive between 5,000 and 10,000 refugees from Afghanistan.
What is to be done?
The solution to the escalation in Afghanistan should be a more active European presence and a commitment by the US to shore up the government in case it collapses. However, such engagement does not seem probable.
France recent announcement to reduce its military presence in Mali shows a clear, though often dissimulated unwillingness by EU member states to become enmeshed in conflicts, and given the US firm resolve to diminish and eventually discontinue its involvement in the country, it is hard to imagine how a tangible European presence there could be instituted and maintained.
Neither Iran, Pakistan or China nor CSTO-member-states Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan seem willing to host Western military facilities. Few would consider Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan for Western engagement with Afghanistan.
The prospect of conflict escalation close to the Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek borders is alarming not only to the leader of the Central Asian states but to Russia and China, who worry about the possibility of militant infiltration from Afghanistan.
Given that Russia is the main outside guarantor of peace in Central Asia, one response to further escalation in Afghanistan might be closer cooperation between Moscow and the Central Asian republics. This might tip the geopolitical balance at the heart of Eurasia in favour of Moscow, substantiating its role as an agent for peace in a region that the West has been eager to pull away from.
* Editor’s note: As of 12 July, the Taliban have seized 148 districts from the Afghan government