Central Asian steppes mutely watch Taliban’s surge

Pamir Highway between Osh and Khorog near Tajik-Afghan border

Compared to the events two decades ago when the Afghan Taliban appeared in the Amu Darya region in northern Afghanistan and Central Asian states and Russia went into feverish tantrums, there is an eerie calm palpable in the steppes today. 

The contrast couldn’t be sharper. In 1997 when Taliban first appeared in Mazar-i-Sharif on the Amu Darya — only to be driven back, whence it returned with a vengeance the next year — the panic-stricken Uzbek government in Tashkent ordered the sealing of the famous motor-rail Friendship Bridge connecting Termez with Afghanistan’s Heiraton with massive concrete boulders. As if Islamism would roll across into Uzbekistan through a bridge. 

Tashkent had kept Afghan Uzbeki warlord Rashid Dostum on its payroll to keep the Amu Darya region free of the pestilence of Islamism. But in 1998 at the first sign of serious trouble, Dostum fled to faraway Turkey, leaving the Friendship Bridge unguarded.  

However, after the initial shock and awe, the Uzbek leadership in Tashkent, typically, began plotting its tryst with the Taliban. Which, to cut a story short, led the then (and present) foreign minister Abdulaziz Kamilov to travel to Taliban-held Afghanistan to discuss the terms of co-habitation. The game plan worked. So much so that Uzbekistan never got involved seriously with the anti-Taliban resistance movement known as the Northern Alliance. 

Similarly, Turkmenistan also found a modus vivendi on its own with the Taliban regime. But the other three Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — were terrified of the Taliban. By coincidence, they were also the regional states closest to Russia. 

Moscow propagated nightmarish scenarios of the Islamists casting an evil eye on the Central Asian region, although the Taliban consistently maintained that it had no agenda toward Central Asia and the Americans scoffed that the Russians were crying ‘wolf’ simply to frighten the Central Asians and bring them under the umbrella of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation. 

But the Russian narrative was effective. The three Central Asian states dutifully signed up for the CSTO and long-term Russian military presence in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan was consolidated. 

Of course, the Russians also had a vengeful mentality toward the Taliban at that point in time. On 16th January 2000, Taliban leader Mullah Omar had met with former Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev in Kandahar and officially announced that the Taliban recognised Chechnya’s independence — the self-declared republic of “Chechnya-Ichkeria”. The Russian Foreign Ministry went ballistic, denouncing Omar’s action as aimed at creating a “bandit international.” 

In fact, Moscow was expecting the Taliban recognition of Chechnya’s independence and was well aware of contacts between Dzhokar Musayevich Dudayev (a former Soviet Air Force general and Chechenleader) and the Taliban. The Russian intelligence kept track of the secret visits of Chechen delegations to Afghanistan, especially the visit circa 1998-99 by self-styled Chechen Foreign Minister Movladi Udugov to Kabul to officially convey the Chechen state’s recognition of the Taliban government. 

These were troubled times for Russia. Moscow even alleged that the Taliban was providing military aid to the Chechens, including Stinger missiles (out of stockpiles supplied by the US to Afghan Mujahideen) and trained Chechen fighters in Taliban-run military training camps. Without doubt, Moscow assessed that the Taliban couldn’t have indulged in such activities without the knowledge and prior approval — even directive — of the Pakistani intelligence and military establishment. 

The Russian military drew a Maginot Line in Tajikistan to prevent any infiltration by the Islamist militants into the restive Fergana valley, the cauldron of radical Islamism traditionally in Soviet Central Asia, from where they could spread wings and move on to the steppes and all the way to the Ural and North Caucasus. Clearly, Moscow’s commitment to the Northern Alliance and anti-Taliban resistance must be put in perspective. 

However, the situation today has phenomenally changed. Russia-Pakistan ties have visibly warmed up and with help from Islamabad, Russian intelligence could make overtures to the Taliban. Russia has reportedly even supplied weapons to the Taliban. Moscow has open dealings with the Taliban today. The Islamists have deputed delegations to visit Moscow and enjoyed Russian hospitality and received by top Russian officials. 

Meanwhile, the New Cold War setting and the ascendancy of the Islamic State – Khorasan have cemented the Russia-Taliban ties. Russia sponsored the format of “intra-Afghan dialogue” to bring about proximity between the Taliban and other Afghan groups. And, incredibly enough, Taliban still continues to be a proscribed group under two decades-old Russian laws dating back to the Chechen wars. 

Similarly, Uzbekistan has also followed Russia’s trajectory to develop direct links to the Taliban. But in this enterprise, it enjoys American approval. Washington sees in Tashkent an ambitious regional player which single-mindedly defines its self-interests, which can be useful for the US regional strategies. It’s a “win-win” game since the US is keen to create space for Afghanistan in the north, while Uzbeks on their part are on the lookout for the business spin-off from Afghan reconstruction funded by the Americans. 

With encouragement from the US, Tashkent hosted an Afghan peace conference that helped take the wind out of the Russians sail. Things have come to a point that last week Tashkent hosted the visit of a Taliban delegation led by Mullah Baradar, its de facto chief negotiator with the Americans in Doha. The visit is expected to lead to an intra-Afghan dialogue event being held in Samarkand in a near future. The Uzbeks are unabashedly flaunting their Islamic heritage to win over the Taliban. No doubt, it is a poignant moment that the Taliban had Friday Prayers last week at the mausoleum of Imam Al-Bukhari in Samarkand.

Imam al-Bukhari Mausoleum in Samarkand 

How times have changed! The headlines coming out of the “frontline states” of Central Asia have nothing to do with a perceived Taliban threat. Kazakhstan is finessing a transition in leadership and getting used to civil groups; Kyrgyzstan is caught up in a violent power struggle; after a protracted absence of several weeks from the media, Turkmen leader just proved that the rumours about his death were exaggerated.

Who is afraid of the Taliban in the steppes anymore? Russia’s change of heart regarding the Taliban has made a big difference in attitudes in the steppes. Besides, a new player has appeared in the steppes — China, which is Pakistan’s iron brother and has close ties with the Taliban. Since Central Asia is a highly strategic theatre of the Belt and Road, China has high stakes in ensuring the region’s security and stability.

This raises the comfort level of the Central Asians vis-a-vis the Taliban. Having said that, radical Islamists are mavericks. They mutate incessantly. A fair number of erstwhile bad Taliban probably provide the backbone of the Islamic State-Khorsan today. Above all, there are Uighur militants who have training camps in Afghanistan. All we have is the Taliban’s word that it is willing to snap links with the assorted terrorist groups based in Afghanistan.  

To be sure, China can be trusted to keep an eagle’s eye on the Islamist threat. China prioritises Xinjiang’s security. Last week, China conducted counter-terrorist exercises with both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the two countries that could be  potential infiltration routes to Xinjiang.