With the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal, there has been increasing speculation over what that will mean for the neighboring countries of Central Asia. Concerns have been expressed that the region will be flooded with refugees and drugs, that it will suffer a constant stream of terrorist attacks, and that the ruling regimes will be defeated by Islamists inspired by the victory of their Afghan counterparts.
Much depends, of course, on the future actions of the Taliban, but it’s already clear that such catastrophic forecasts are generally based on false perceptions of the fragility of the Central Asian states. After all, the region lived with the Taliban on its borders last time they ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and began to prepare for their return long ago. Even in the worst-case scenario, the situation in Central Asia will therefore be far less dire than some are predicting. That does not change the fact, however, that the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan could transform both the Central Asian regimes and their attitudes to the outside world.
The fall of Kabul may have come quicker than everyone expected—including the Taliban themselves—but the region has had plenty of time to prepare for the Taliban returning to power, and those preparations included shoring up borders and holding military exercises, including joint drills with each other, with Russia, and with the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
The UN expects about half a million Afghan refugees to flee their country by the end of this year, but Central Asia has not been a popular destination for them in the past: most go straight to neighboring Pakistan and Iran, from where many try to go on to developed countries. In 2020, the EU took in the most Afghan refugees (over 40,000), followed by Australia (11,000), and the UK (9,000).
Central Asia has its own emigration problem, and has neither a flourishing labor market in need of new workers, nor generous social programs, nor an Afghan diaspora that would ease the transition for refugees. Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have said they are not taking in Afghan refugees, while Tajikistan is “temporarily” allowing thousands to await onward flights from its Kulyab airport.
The Taliban have said at all of their talks with other countries in the region that they pose no threat to the countries of Central Asia. Yet the group’s willingness and, most importantly, its ability to fulfill that promise have been questioned, especially as far as terrorist attacks are concerned.
The most vulnerable country in this respect is Tajikistan, where terrorist attacks occurred while American troops still controlled Afghanistan. An attack on a Tajik border post close to the Uzbek border in November 2019 was blamed by the Tajik authorities on Islamic State militants who had come over from Afghanistan, while the previous year, four foreign cyclists were murdered in the Tajik mountains. Islamic State claimed responsibility for both attacks, but judging by the many inconsistencies in the authorities’ versions of events, those responsible were not Afghans, but local radicals.
There have been terrorist attacks in other Central Asian nations, but most had nothing to do with Afghanistan or the Taliban, and the situation can hardly be described as critical, though it could, of course, get worse—especially if the Taliban, having vanquished their main enemy the United States, lose control over the various groups of their fighters.
The popularity of radical Islam in Central Asia and the threat to the region’s stability from events in Afghanistan should not be exaggerated. The fact that the countries border Afghanistan and that their regimes are neither particularly efficient nor popular does not mean that their inhabitants are ready to take inspiration from the Taliban’s success and build something similar at home. Afghanistan and the Central Asian nations may be close in terms of religion and ethnicity, but they have long been developing under completely different conditions, and have a lot less in common than might appear.
Afghans have been living in a permanent state of warfare for more than four decades now. Given that the median age there is just nineteen, the vast majority of people have never experienced peacetime. In Central Asia, on the other hand, peace has become something of a cult, and people are prepared to sacrifice their rights and freedoms to preserve it.
In Uzbekistan, the late president Islam Karimov is still popular—despite the corruption and abuse of power that marked his rule—because he prevented a war. In Tajikistan, which had a bitter experience of civil war in the early 1990s, President Emomali Rahmon has popular support for the same reason: that he ended the bloodshed. While Afghan children were learning to shoot, and only 55 percent of them were attending school, no fewer than 90 percent of children in Central Asia enjoyed free access to education.
Women in Central Asia, meanwhile, have not worn the parandja (burqa) en masse since the Soviet Hujum campaign of female emancipation there during the 1920s. Women have long held senior positions (in the parliaments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, a third of deputies are women), while only 21 percent of Afghan women have any kind of paid employment.
In other words, the average person in Central Asia has a lot more in common with the average Russian than with Afghans. Unlike in Afghanistan, most people in Central Asia are not particularly religious, drink alcohol, use the internet, don’t wear traditional dress, watch movies and TV shows, and are subject to close monitoring by the state.
This final point is particularly important, because ever since they gained independence, the Central Asian regimes have battled any perceived religious fervor, for which they have frequently been criticized by the West and human rights activists. In Karimov’s Uzbekistan, beards were forbidden, children were not allowed to attend the mosque, and preachers regularly ended up in jail. The rules were eased a little following Karimov’s death, but the distribution of religious materials remains strictly controlled.
Next door, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan—the only legal Islamic party in the post-Soviet space—was shut down by the authorities in 2015, and its leader sentenced to jail in absentia. Dushanbe also keeps a close eye on any Tajiks who have gone abroad for religious training.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that Islam is perceived exclusively as a potential threat in Central Asia, just that people there are not likely to look to Afghanistan’s Taliban for an example. Central Asian leaders are still more than happy to demonstrate religious solidarity with the public by going to the mosque, meeting with muftis, and sending their congratulations on Muslim holidays.
With the exception of Kyrgyzstan, which underwent another revolution just last year, the current regimes in Central Asia still look very stable: their ruling elites are consolidated, the use of violence is the preserve of the state, and there is little potential for protest. The two biggest countries in the region—Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan—have both undergone a transition of power in the not-so-distant past, and are still seeing the positive effect from the first concessions and reforms made by their new rulers.
It goes without saying that the crisis in Afghanistan will create new risks for the region, but Central Asia has long lived with chaos on its borders, and already has twenty years of experience in dealing with the Taliban. During that time, the countries have had time to strengthen their position, and are now far better prepared for the unexpected. Recent events in Afghanistan are, therefore, unlikely to plunge Central Asia into chaos. A more likely consequence is that the ruling regimes will tighten their control of society, and that Russia will increase its role in regional security.