Two years after the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, countries around the world have begun normalizing ties with the Taliban. Central Asian states are no exception.
But amid fears that the Afghan rulers could destabilize the region or create a water crisis, and with China and Russia heavily influencing regional security, Central Asian countries are proceeding cautiously.
Kazakhstan, the largest country in Central Asia, insists that recognition of the Afghan group is off the table. In 2005, the country’s Supreme Court added the Taliban to its list of terrorist organizations. But this designation hasn’t prevented the energy-rich country from strengthening trade cooperation with the “graveyard of empires.”
Bilateral trade between Afghanistan and Kazakhstan reached US$1 billion in 2022 and Kazakh authorities are reportedly looking to increase this to $3 billion “soon.”
Afghanistan buys about 60% of its imported flour from Kazakh producers; earlier this month, the two sides struck $200 million in new commercial deals, mainly commitments by Kazakhstan to supply Afghanistan with even more of the essential food.
Astana also views Afghanistan as an important transit country, as evidenced by the fact that Kazakhstan recently sent several trucks on a new trade route to Pakistan through Afghanistan.
Neighboring Uzbekistan has similar geo-economic goals. On July 18, representatives from Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan signed a tripartite agreement to connect the countries by rail.
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are looking east to Pakistan as a significant export destination for their goods, a strategy that could help reduce the former Soviet republics’ economic and political dependence on Russia.
Afghanistan’s importance as a trade route to South Asia is a key reason why these countries, along with Kyrgyzstan, want to normalize ties with the Taliban. But doing business with the fundamentalist group won’t be easy, especially for Uzbekistan. One reason is water.
A colossal canal being built by the Taliban could significantly reduce the flow of a regionally-important river, the Amu Darya. This is of great concern to both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which are located downstream.
If the Taliban completes the Qosh Tepa Canal, which is intended to turn Afghanistan’s northern desert into farmland, Uzbek and Turkmen farmers could suffer. There are even fears that the Qosh Tepa could reduce Uzbekistan’s water reserves and cause a crippling drought.
Despite these concerns, Uzbek authorities are unlikely to jeopardize their relations with the Taliban over the project. Policymakers in Tashkent know that if they attempt to prevent the construction of the canal, the Taliban could stop Uzbekistan from using a railway route to Pakistan that enables access to seaports in South Asia.
Tajikistan’s position may be the most difficult to navigate. Dushanbe considers Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to be a threat to Tajik national security, which is why it supports anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan and abroad.
More importantly, Tajikistan has joined Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in signing a statement that stresses “the priority importance of the rational use of the water resources of the Amu Darya river.” It’s a clear message to the Taliban that Tajikistan doesn’t approve of the group’s plans to build the controversial canal.
Central Asian states seem to share Washington’s vision of a post-America Afghanistan, where an inclusive, united, sovereign and self-reliant country “respects the rights of its population, including women and girls, and is at peace with itself and its neighbors.”
The US, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan insist that Afghanistan shouldn’t be used as “a base for hosting, financing, or exporting terrorism and violent extremism to other countries.”
Thus, even though US troops are no longer on the ground in Afghanistan, Central Asian countries are acting as Washington’s partners in their approach to the Taliban government.
Pro-Kremlin media in the region are trying to upset this balance. Mars Sariev, a Kyrgyz political scientist, told a Russia-language newspaper published in Kyrgyzstan that the US will eventually use the Taliban to destabilize Central Asia and weaken Russian and Chinese positions in the strategically important region.
“In Afghanistan, all these radical movements are controlled by Western structures, as well as the Taliban,” Sariev said earlier this month. “Therefore, the threat in northern Afghanistan against our republics is now growing.”
One thing is certain: As the newest iteration of the Taliban government turns two, Central Asian states will continue treading carefully, coordinating their Afghan policy not only with the US, but also with Russia and China.
Washington was able to wash its hands of the troubled country in August 2021. Afghanistan’s neighbors don’t have that luxury.
Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and pipeline politics.