Bringing the Taliban to the table

Bringing the Taliban to the table
Comment: With the threat of Islamic State looming on the horizon, the Central Asian republics have begun working with the Taliban on a political solution for Afghanistan, writes Regis Gente.
6 min read
13 Mar, 2019
Taliban representatives at Moscow consultations on Afghanistan in 2018 [Getty]
Each month there are new incidents on the border between Afghanistan and the neighbouring Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. If not on the borders, these clashes often occur in one of northern Afghanistan's six provinces. 

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 Islamic State group [IS], 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 is no longer the same as the group who took Kabul in 1996.

In the capitals of Tashkent, Dushanbe or Ashgabat, IS is now the veritable bogeyman. The Afghan central government controls scarcely more than half the national territory, and Donald Trump announced at the end of 2018 a "major" withdrawal of the US troops from Afghan soil. This equates to about 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," summarises Georgi Asatryan, Afghanistan expert at the Russian State University for the Humanities.

IS, 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, and 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 IS", Obaif Ali points out.

Today's Taliban is no longer the same as the group who took Kabul in 1996

He works for the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) in Kabul, and goes on to explain that "while in 2015, when the first IS 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, IS 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.

'Turkmenistan has, over the years, conducted a real dialogue with the Taliban' [Getty]

In fact they have scarcely ever wished to do so. Yet border skirmishes are increasingly frequent, in particular with Turkmenistan since 2014, when it began to increase its military spending.

However, holding as it does the planet's fourth largest reserves of natural gas, Turkmenistan has, over the years, conducted 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 Tajikistan, to control its borders, but it is hard to tell whether this worry is genuine or feigned, allowing Moscow to better deploy its pawns in the former Soviet republics.

A new modus operandi

"The countries of the region are mostly afraid of ideological spillover from IS. 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 IS. This mode of operation was new to the region.

Despite their basic incompatibility, the governments of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia do their best to get along with the Taliban.

The governments of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia do their best to get along with the Taliban

This is especially true in Uzbekistan, where the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), founded in the 1990s, ultimately made allegiance to IS after breaking with the Taliban who had hosted them in Afghanistan.

"The IMU's joining forces with IS got the Uzbek government very worried. It more or less hid the news from its people because the subject is so touchy," says Yuri Tchernogaiev, a journalist in Tashkent.

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, but were appreciative of Tashkent's approach. "After the conference, Uzbekistan continued helping its Afghan neighbours," says political scientist, Anvar Nazirov.

Read more: Taliban: talks will focus on US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan

There has been no lack of initiatives: Connection to the electric grid, training young Afghans in a centre created especially in Termez, construction of railways which have reduced Uzbekistan's isolation and opened routes to Bandar Abbas and Chabahar, two ports on the south coast of Iran.

"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.

"As a result, 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 adversely affect the interests of Uzbekistan, and vice versa.

"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."

Regis Gente is a journalist based in Tbilisi since 2002, correspondent for Le Figaro, Radio France Internationale (RFI) and for Le Monde Diplomatique in the former Soviet Union.

Follow him on Twitter: @regisgente

This is an edited translation of an article published by our partners at Orient XXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.