Central Asia’s Careful Engagement with the Taliban
Author: Toghrul Aliyev
May 2, 2023
The Taliban’s return to power in 2021 has dramatically complicated the Central Asian governments’ relations with Afghanistan. While no countries in the region have officially recognized the Taliban regime, countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan have tried to carefully maintain trade relations with Afghanistan, while also trying to reintegrate the country back into the regional economy and to utilize its markets for optimizing exports. Maintaining economic relations, as well as stabilization of humanitarian and political conditions in Afghanistan, have been at the forefront for Central Asian states. Diplomatically, Kazakhstan and others have been very cautious engaging with the Taliban regime by maintaining discussion through diplomatic envoys but without giving the regime full state recognition.
On April 15, Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister and Minister of Trade and Integration Serik Zhumangarin made an official visit to Kabul. During the visit, Zhumangarin unveiled his government’s trade plans with Afghanistan: “Politics is politics, and economy is economy - we plan to ramp up this trade cooperation,” stated the prime minister. He noted that the current trade volume with Afghanistan amounts to approximately $1 billion, and given the market in the country is “very large and promising,” there are real prospects for delivering wheat, flour, and seed oil. Specifically, it was emphasized that Kazakhstan has a $174 million export potential to Afghanistan in food, petrochemical, chemical, metallurgical, light machine-building, construction, and other key industries. In this line, Kazakhstan is planning to open a trade liaison office in Kabul. Such improvements in bilateral trade can also contribute to increased regional connectivity, as well as improvement of supply chain and energy routes.
Humanitarian aid has also been at the center of Kazakhstan’s bilateral relations with Afghanistan. Previously, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has emphasized the humanitarian component of Kazakhstan’s cooperation with Afghanistan. During its visit, the Kazakh delegation led by Serik Zhumangarin announced that humanitarian aid amounting to a total volume of 5,403 tons would be sent to Afghanistan during the month of Ramadan, consisting of food and wheat products, as well as medicines. One of Kazakhstan’s main goals through restoring bilateral trade relations with Afghanistan has been to mitigate the effects of the economic collapse and humanitarian crisis within the country.
Following Zhumangarin’s visit, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Aibek Smadiyarov said on April 17 that Kazakhstan has agreed to provide diplomatic accreditation to the representatives of Afghanistan without recognizing the legitimacy of the Taliban government itself. “The arrival of representatives of the new administration in Afghanistan does not signify recognition - that remains the prerogative of the United Nations,” Smadiyarov emphasized. It should be noted that a similar approach has been taken by most countries in the region, including Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan remains as the only Central Asian state reluctant to engage with the Taliban, largely due to its concerns about the militant groups such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Tajikistan (TTT) in northern Afghanistan across the Tajik-Afghan border. There have been reports of a Taliban delegation visiting the Afghan consulate in the city of Khorog, the capital of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region; official Dushanbe has not confirmed these claims.
Taliban continues to face worldwide isolation, with countries and international organizations refusing to recognize the regime due to its illegitimate takeover of the country and its violation of human rights. Recently, the Taliban authorities appointed new diplomats for the Afghan Consulate-General in Tehran and in Istanbul. The Taliban has also taken over the Afghan diplomatic missions in Pakistan, Russia, and China. While the Central Asian states are carefully trying to work with the Taliban regime to improve their bilateral relations by largely focusing on trade, they also have to maintain a delicate balancing act in terms of not taking any steps vis-à-vis Taliban in which they would implicitly recognize the regime as a legitimate government. Especially in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, both immediate neighbors of Afghanistan, Islamist groups and movements have already fought for the Islamic state in the past, raising local governments’ domestic concerns about the rise of extremism.
In May 2022, the president of Uzbekistan’s special envoy for Afghanistan Ismatulla Irgashev, affirmed that Tashkent would be committed to moving forward with formal recognition “only in concert with the international community.” This seems to be the general official stance among the Central Asian states. Moving forward, it's likely that the Central Asian governments will further refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the Taliban regime unless the new government in Kabul qualifies for international recognition.