by Giuliano Bifolchi
The Taliban offensive in northern Afghanistan alarms international actors and local players in Central Asia concerned about the future regional destabilisation and the rise of terrorist groups activities.
Last week, the Taliban launched an offensive in several northern provinces bordering the republics of Central Asia.
On June 22nd,2021, the Taliban captured the Sher Khan Bandar checkpoint, located on the border between the Khatlon region of Tajikistan and the Afghan province of Kunduz, and 134 Afghan soldiers fled across the Panj River to the neighbouring country. Sher Khan Bandar is a relevant trade and transhipment point through which Tajikistan imports goods from South and Southeast Asia, including Pakistan and Iran.
On June 23rd, 2021, 53 Afghan soldiers and militias crossed the Uzbek border with weapons in the Shortepa district. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan officially announced that, after carrying out the necessary inquiry and investigative actions, the citizens of Afghanistan were returned to their homeland. The statement did not say what exactly caused the border crossing, but all observers assumed by default that the troops also fled from the Taliban, who launched an offensive in Balkh province, which borders Uzbekistan.
Both incidents have raised serious concerns in Central Asia and Russia. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon discussed the incident with his Uzbek counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the President of Kazakhstan. Dmitry Peskov, press secretary of Russian President Vladimir Putin, also called the development of the situation in Afghanistan “a reason for close attention and concern”.
On June 28th, 2021, Tajik media reported that 17 more Afghan servicemen had crossed into Tajikistan under pressure from the Taliban. The State Committee for National Security of the Republic of Tajikistan (in Tajik Kumitai Davlatii Amnijati Milli, in Russian Gosudarstvennyj Komitet Nacional’noj Bezopasnosti – GKNB) specified that the incident took place at the post of the border detachment “Shahrituz-1” of the Balkh province, and after several hours of fighting the checkpoint came under the control of the Taliban.
The border crossings of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan by the Afghan military caused a wave of publications in the Russian and Central Asian media in which they discussed the threat of invasion by the Taliban or militants of other terrorist organizations and movements with which the Taliban are at enmity or do not want to identify themselves openly. Meanwhile, the Afghan and international media reported that the Taliban continued their offensive and seizing area by area. Fierce battles are being fought in the northern provinces of Baghlan, Balkh, Kunduz, Faryab and Sar-e Pol. Moreover, on the video of the Taliban, recorded in the Faryab province, one can hear that ordinary militants speak to each other in Uzbek. In the video from Kunduz province, however, the Taliban spoke only Pashto.
The northern attacks caused, on the one hand, a great resonance in the Central Asia republics and the Russian Federation, and on the other, provoked the rise of the militia, which became an essential feature of the last week. Meanwhile, Kabul was preparing to repel an attack by the Taliban on one or more provinces, the militants dispersed in small groups in dozens of districts located at a great distance from each other. Nevertheless, it was precisely this tactic that led to the growth of popular resistance units since elders and influential residents reported to have armed hundreds of their men in response to the Taliban’s seizure of area after area.
Recent news of Taliban attacks and military reports from Afghanistan caused the reaction of Central Asian and international leaders who forecasted a pessimistic future for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Last week, China urged its citizens to leave Afghanistan due to the deteriorating security situation. Those Chinese citizens who do decide to stay should take additional precautions and be prepared for emergencies. Earlier the United States and Great Britain urged their citizens to leave the country as soon as possible.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also expressed concern at the 9th Moscow International Security Conference. He said that there is a high likelihood of a resumption of civil war in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of troops and that the region’s countries should closely monitor the situation.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also admitted that a civil war could break out in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the US and NATO and expressed concern that foreign troops would be withdrawn before the signing of a peace agreement between the Taliban and Kabul. At the same time, Imran Khan noted that if the Taliban decide to achieve a total victory by force, this will lead to great bloodshed. In this case, Islamabad will not take any military action against Afghanistan but, on the contrary, will close the border and will not let the refugees come in. However, Pakistan recognizes any government that the people of Afghanistan elect.
The obscure prophecies of Imran Khan and Sergei Shoigu correlate with the publication in The Wall Street Journal (based on data from the American intelligence community) that the Afghan government could collapse within six months after the withdrawal of American troops. The text says that the special services have revised their forecasts, which were previously more optimistic, after the rapid offensive of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai has appealed to major world powers and countries in the region to support his country more actively. Afghanistan was also discussed at a meeting of the UN Security Council. The head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Deborah Lyons, said that the intensive military campaign of the Taliban would lead to continued violence in the country and any attempt to take power in Kabul by force would be contrary to shared interests. According to her, the escalation of the conflict in the IRA will affect the security situation in other countries in the region.
Considering the recent events and updates in Afghanistan, it should be highlighted that the destabilisation of Afghanistan threatens the Central Asia republics and Russia, directly and indirectly, since Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (and Uzbekistan is an observer) and these two countries together with Tajikistan, are part of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the possibility that the country will become a ‘safe heaven’ for other terrorist organisations represent a threat for Moscow’s blizhnee zarubezhe (near abroad) and Lebensraum (vital space) where the Kremlin has tried to impose its military and economic presence, influence local socio-political dynamics and contrast the United States in a strategic region such as Eurasia.
Even China interprets as a threat the Taliban unstoppable offensive considering that Beijing has invested copious financial funds in Afghanistan and Central Asia to support the Belt and Road Initiative. Since the proximity between the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and Afghanistan and the presence of Uyghurs among the rank of the Islamic State, the destabilisation of Afghanistan and the possible affirmation of al-Qaeda of the Islamic State’s Vilayat Khorasan are among the most dangerous menaces for Chinese domestic stability and foreign economic policy in Asia.
Bearing in mind that Central Asia has a vital role in Beijing and Moscow’s strategy, it is possible to predict a significant Russian and Chinese involvement in the Central Asian republics’ defence sector through cooperation agreements and sales of military hardware and weapons and eventually the deployment of private military companies (PMCs) to contrast the spread of terrorist organisations and the diffusion of jihadist propaganda.
For more information, analysis, and risk assessment about Afghanistan and Central Asia, it is possible to contact our team at firstname.lastname@example.org.