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South Asia

For Afghanistan’s Immediate Neighbours, Cautious Engagement With the Taliban

While the main concern for Afghanistan's immediate neighbours remains the destabilisation of Central Asia by the export of militant groups from Afghan soil, each of these five countries has its own set of reasons for continuing to engage with the Taliban 2.0.

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Five countries that share borders with Afghanistan – Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the north; Iran to the west; and Pakistan to its east and south – are directly impacted by the return of the Taliban at the helm in Kabul. With China, Afghanistan shares a tiny 76 km stretch at the tip of the remote Wakhan corridor, beyond which lies the Xinjiang province.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are currently over two million registered refugees from Afghanistan in these five nations. Pakistan and Iran account for the majority of refugees at 1,282,901 and 780,000, respectively.

After the fall of Kabul, former Vice-President Amrullah Saleh and former defence minister Massoud’s eldest son and namesake, Ahmad, who is now spearheading the resistance against the Taliban, escaped to Tajik capital Dushanbe.

In a gesture that could not have made Tajikistan’s anti-Taliban stance clearer, President Emomali Rahmon conferred the country’s highest civilian award, the ‘Order of Ismoili Somoni’, upon the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, fondly referred to as  the ‘lion of Panjshir.’

Ahmad Massoud, son of the slain hero of the anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban resistance, Ahmad Shah Massoud, speaks during an interview at his house in Bazarak, Panjshir province Afghanistan September 5, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ismail

Also read: Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley Emerges Once Again as a Resistance Focal Point

Tajikistan

Just as for other countries, Tajikistan’s main concern remains the destabilisation of Central Asia by the export of militant groups from Afghan soil. Yet, this is oversimplifying a complex security dilemma; an estimated six million Tajiks live in Afghanistan (approximately 25% of the 23 million Afghans living in Afghanistan). Dari-speaking Tajiks have been targeted by the Taliban for their ethnicity and because they constitute the core of the Northern Alliance, just as the Hazaras, who are Shia, are targeted for their religious beliefs.

A month prior to the fall of Kabul, almost the entire 1,357 km Afghan-Tajik border, bridged by six crossings in total, fell into the Taliban’s hands. As the Taliban gained ground, defeated Afghan troops began to cross over into Tajikistan. Soon, “what started as a trickle became a torrent” and nearly 1,500 fleeing Afghans sought refuge in Tajikistan. Tajik authorities said that the troops were all sent back to Kabul on chartered flights, but details remain unclear.

In September, tensions rose as the Taliban sent reinforcements, including fighters from the Jamaat Ansarullah, formerly the Tajik wing of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), to guard sections of the Tajik border. In retaliation, President Rahmon mobilised 20,000 troops to the border and held military exercises with other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. 

Around the time that the Taliban takeover picked up momentum, many ordinary Afghans crossed over into the Shughnon district in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO), which shares a long border with Afghanistan. Dushanbe has been trying to draw attention to the impact of Afghans trying to enter the country, with the head of the State Committee for National Security, Saimumin Yatimov, saying, “Every day hundreds more try to enter the country,” calling the situation a “threat to the whole post-Soviet region”.

Iran

According to a US congressional investigation, an estimated 3,000 members of Afghan security forces, including a number of high-ranking officers and US-trained Afghan special operators, were effectively forced to flee to Iran after the collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s government. Along the border with Iran, clashes occur every so often between the Iranian forces and the Taliban, each accusing the other of starting the fights.

On the other hand, Iran and Taliban ministers have settled issues related to water and energy cooperation. The Taliban has agreed that water from the Helmand river will no longer be diverted to Godzareh, as it was under the previous US-backed administration, enabling Iran to receive its share of 820 million cubic meters per year. 

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan has been playing a key role in providing the logistics for aid to be delivered to Afghanistan. Although the Taliban is unable to pay for electricity, Uzbekistan, which provides Afghanistan with almost 60% of its electricity, has continued the supply. So have Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, albeit their contributions are much smaller. This is likely a move to appease the armed group.

From Termez to the Friendship Bridge on the Amu Darya River, a rail connection connects Uzbekistan to Mazar-i-Sharif. Tashkent has been engaging in talks with Pakistan to extend the railway line to Peshawar, which will provide access to the Pakistani ports on the Arabian Sea. 

Turkmenistan

During the Taliban regime in the 1990s, Turkmenistan was conferred a UN-recognised status as a neutral state. This time, however, Ashgabat has been vocal in support of Afghanistan to become part of the global economy. Turkmenistan’s deputy foreign minister recently argued that reintegrating Afghanistan into the global economy “will have a positive impact on ensuring the security and stability of both the country itself and the region as a whole.”

If ever realised, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline holds the possibility of supplying 33 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen gas to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. While TAPI remains an unlikely proposition, for now, the Taliban government has reached a deal with Turkmenistan to import 1,000 tons of liquefied petroleum gas. 

Pakistan

For Pakistan, the initial sense of jubilation dissipated with the recognition of the dangers posed by the Pakistani Taliban, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The previously Pakistan-linked Haqqani faction of the Taliban is engaging with India, prompting New Delhi to deploy a “technical team” to its shuttered embassy in Kabul to review and restart basic consular diplomacy.

The TTP, which enjoys unprecedented support in Afghanistan, is not budging from its demand on reversal of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) merger. Earlier this year, Pakistan had to launch air strikes targeting TTP hideouts in Afghanistan, using Chinese drones.

Security along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is worse than before and according to Claude Rakisits, a senior strategic analyst at the Australian National University, it has become obvious “that the Taliban’s ideological, organisational, tribal, and personal ties with the TTP, its fellow ideological traveller, would trump any feeling of gratitude it had toward Pakistan for supporting it – diplomatically, militarily, and institutionally – for the last 20 years.”

Also read: Pakistan: An Army-Imposed Deal with the Pakistani Taliban Could Spell Disaster

Differences over the Durand line have become sharper since the return of the Taliban at the helm. Regardless of the deteriorating security relations, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had approved the import of coal from Afghanistan in Pakistani rupees instead of dollars. 

Taliban 2.0

Despite regular pronouncements about banning opium cultivation, the Taliban has continued its narcotics trade, although the exact dimensions of the volume and revenue from it has never been completely uncovered. This week, Iranian Customs officials at Dowqarun seized about 100 kg of sheesha in an Afghan tanker truck. Large amounts of the heroin that reaches Russia first crosses Tajikistan.

David Mansfield of The Economist estimates the group made between $27.5 million and $35 million annually by taxing the drug trade and about $245 million at checkpoints along main roads. According to a Voice of America report, the Taliban have managed to collect $840 million in revenue between December, 2021 and June, 2022, a large share of which (56%) is from customs and the export of coal and fruits to Pakistan.

There is lot of evidence pointing towards the fact that under Taliban 2.0, extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and violations of fundamental freedoms have become the norm. Its senior leaders lack a coherent vision for the country and its emir remains reclusive. The Taliban has proved intransigent and unrealistic in its relations with its neighbouring countries.

All the three central Asian countries – Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – along the northern border of Afghanistan, and Iran in the west, have maintained permanent diplomatic missions in Afghanistan, without formally recognising the Taliban government, maintaining that its recognition would hinge on forming an “inclusive” administration.  However, an international conference on Afghanistan held in Tashkent earlier in July was attended by representatives of over two dozen countries including Iran, India and Pakistan.

Regular reports emerge of Taliban fighters destroying border pillars in the Wakhan corridor, more as a show of strength and nationalism to Pakistan than China. The Taliban has shrewdly manipulated China’s concerns over Uighur separatists to take forward negotiations on economic and developmental support. Not overly concerned about infiltration from the border, Beijing is inclined to deal with the Taliban on its own rather than rely on Islamabad.

Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours face a deadlier threat from a resurgent Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK) that has stepped up attacks across the country, targeting religious and ethnic minorities and recruiting extremists. Even as they cautiously proceed, for the countries in its neighbourhood, further engagement with the Taliban mainly hinges upon its ability to contain the ISK and prevent extremist groups from operating in Afghanistan. 

Vaishali Basu Sharma is an analyst on strategic and economic affairs. She has worked as a consultant with the National Security Council Secretariat for nearly a decade.