Each month there are incidents on the borders between Afghanistan and the neighbouring republics of Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). Or if not on the borders, in one of the six provinces of northern Afghanistan. In the chaotic torrent of breaking news, often manipulated by one side or the other, the non-specialist has a hard time distinguishing between an attack by ISIS, some of whose fighters have retreated to Afghanistan since 2015, and an offensive by the Taliban, who have recruited a number of local Uzbeks or Tajiks in the North.
However, today’s Taliban are no longer the same as those who took Kabul in 1996. In Tashkent, Dushanbe or Ashgabat, ISIS is the veritable bogeyman. The Afghan central government controls scarcely more than half the national territory, besides which Donald Trump announced at the end of 2018 a “major” withdrawal of the US troops on Afghan soil, seemingly half the expeditionary force of 14,000 without which President Ashraf Ghani’s government would tumble like a house of cards. In short, the situation has completely changed. “In 2014, the departure of the main contingent of US and foreign troops left a vacuum which was quickly filled by the Taliban. The result today is a deadlock, which prompted Ghani to make overtures to the Taliban a year ago”. It is thus that Georgi Asatryan, Afghanistan expert at the Russian State University for the Humanities, summarises the situation.
ISIS, the number one danger
And the situation is still evolving. In the last few weeks the “students of religion” stepped up their attacks against the government’s armed forces. There have been countless casualties. But beyond the Amu Darya river and the Garabil plateau, it is well-known that, “in general, only the Taliban are capable of defeating ISIS” Obaif Ali points out. He works for the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) in Kabul and goes on to explain that “while in 2015, when the first ISIS units showed up and proclaimed the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), it was thought they were going to get the better of the Taliban. But little by little, this was seen not to be the case. In northern Afghanistan, ISIS had to make do with a couple of pockets of resistance, as in the provinces of Jowzjan, where they were defeated last July, Faryab and maybe Sar-e Pol. And this is because the Taliban have changed their organisation and their recruiting policies, opening their ranks to non-Pashtuns, to Uzbeks, Tajiks and ethnic Turkmens”. Some of these even hold positions of authority in the “parallel governments” created by the Taliban in the districts under their control.
The situation is not always clear, even though the Taliban are focusing on the struggle inside Afghanistan and have no wish to extend hostilities to the former Soviet republics. In fact they have scarcely ever wished to do so. Yet border skirmishes are increasingly frequent, in particular with Turkmenistan since 2014, the year in which that country began to increase its military spending. However, holding as it does the planet’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas, Turkmenistan has conducted over the years a real dialogue with the Taliban and has convinced most of them to open their territory to the TAPI pipeline (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India). However, the Taliban movement is not united, it includes fighters spoiling to knock heads with the Turkmen dictatorship, drug traffickers and foreign jihadists with their own agendas. The Russians regularly voice doubts about the country’s capacity, as well as that of Tadjikistan, to control its borders, but it is hard to tell whether this worry is genuine or feigned (allowing Moscow the better to deploy its pawns in the former Soviet republics).
A new modus operandi
“The countries of the region are mostly afraid of ideological spillover from ISIS. They see signs of this in Central Asia as in other parts of the world”, says Kamoliddin Rabbimov, an Uzbek expert on Islam, living in exile in France. On 29 July, for example, four Westerners on a cycling tour were run down and killed in a terrorist attack, responsibility for which was claimed the next day by ISIS. This mode of operation was new to the region.
Despite the basic incompatibility between the Taliban movement and the governments of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, the latter do their best to get along with the former. This is especially true in Uzbekistan where the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), founded in the 1990s, ultimately gave allegiance to ISIS after breaking with the Taliban who had hosted them in Afghanistan. “The IMU’s joining forces with ISIS got the Uzbek government very worried. It more or less hid the news from its people because the subject is so touchy,” a journalist in Tashkent, Yuri Tchernogaiev informed us.
When Shavkat Mirziyoyev became President in 2014, Uzbekistan tried to reassert itself on the regional diplomatic scene by hosting a major international conference on the Afghan question. The Taliban were invited to attend. Some declined the invitation but were appreciative of Tashkent’s approach. “After the conference, Uzbekistan continued helping its Afghan neighbours,” the political scientist Anvar Nazirov tells us. There has been no lack of initiatives: connection to the electric grid, training young Afghans in a centre created especially in Termez, development of rail lines which have attenuated Uzbekistan’s isolation and opened routes to Bandar Abbas and Chabahar, two ports on the South coast of Iran, etc.
“But Tashkent doesn’t have an overall strategy. And continues to rely on Abdul Rashid Dastum, the leader of the Uzbek community in Afghanistan. However, his power is dwindling, for many Uzbeks have joined up with the Taliban. Hence any dialogue with the movement takes place via its office in Qatar, opened in connection with the Doha peace talks sponsored by the UN and still very circumspect,” as Anvar Nazarov points out.
Sher Muhammad, head of the Taliban office in Doha, went to Tashkent last summer. Everything seems to indicate that the Taliban are striving not to affect adversely the interests of Uzbekistan. And the opposite is also true. “President Mirziyoyev is implementing a policy of religious tolerance in Uzbekistan [after the ultra-repressive policies of his predecessor] and this is meant, among other reasons, as a message to the Taliban: Tashkent is no longer an enemy of religion.” In Rabbimov’s opinion, “this could have a significant impact on the dialogue with them.”