Caravanserai
Security

Taliban takeover spurs old fears among ex-Soviet neighbours

By Caravanserai and AFP

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Taliban fighters gather along a street during a rally in Kabul on August 31. [Hoshang Hashimi/AFP]

TERMEZ, Uzbekistan -- The Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan has brought back bad memories to the country's ex-Soviet neighbours, who fear both an extremist threat and a refugee crisis.

While the militant group has never vied for territory beyond Afghanistan, its rule some two decades ago still wrought uncertainty in neighbouring Central Asia.

Now the region's governments are steeling themselves for instability spilling over into their territory once again, even as residents prepare for the arrival of new neighbours.

"If refugees come, we will give them our home and our salt and bread," said Abdualziz Mukhamadjanov, a 26-year-old businessman in Termez, Uzbekistan, a town near the Afghan border. "What else can you do?"

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A photo taken August 15 shows a barbed wire fence near a police checkpoint, 2km from the Friendship Bridge over the Amu Darya River, which separates Uzbekistan and Afghanistan near Termez. Uzbekistan is one of three Central Asian countries that border Afghanistan. [Temur Ismailov/AFP]

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Afghan refugees fleeing Kabul exit a US Air Force plane in Pristina, Kosovo, August 29. [Armend Nimani/AFP]

That sentiment is not shared by Russia, a longstanding force in the region, which has urged Central Asia to refuse Western requests to shelter Afghans.

Westward exodus from Afghanistan

Refugees have nonetheless arrived in Uzbekistan, though the government has said that it is allowing them only to pass through.

On August 20 it said it had assisted the westward evacuation of almost 2,000 people -- mostly European citizens working in the country and some Afghans -- via the Tashkent airport.

It also said it had returned 150 Afghans following talks with the Taliban to guarantee their security.

Still, reports have circulated of large numbers of refugees crossing into Uzbekistan over the Amu Darya River using makeshift rafts, and an Afghan embassy staffer said a coronavirus centre in Termez was housing up to 1,500.

Tashkent has been tight-lipped about the situation.

Mukhamadjanov and other residents of Termez near the Afghan border expressed surprise at the reports of asylum seekers having crossed over, while Uzbekistan barred AFP from visiting the coronavirus centre and a camp near the border.

When the Taliban first ruled, between 1996 and 2001, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) entrenched itself in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The IMU stunned the region in 1999 with a daring incursion into Kyrgyzstan, briefly occupying a village. Uzbekistan blamed the group for bombings in Tashkent earlier that year.

The IMU is believed to be a much diminished force, but its remnants and other militant groups in Afghanistan with Central Asians among their ranks can still pose a threat, said Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili of the University of Pittsburgh.

"The Taliban have never made any move on Central Asia but have Central Asian fighters that they can use as leverage with Central Asian states," she said.

Meanwhile, stepped-up Russian military activity in Central Asia, purportedly aimed at countering any Taliban threat from Afghanistan, has left observers sceptical about the true motives of the Kremlin.

Moscow, which has ramped up military drills in Central Asia, has said countries bordering Afghanistan have put in fresh orders for arms.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in August warned that militants could enter the region "under the guise of refugees".

However, the Russian regime plays both sides of the street. It has armed and financed the Taliban since at least 2015.

'Security will be foremost'

Of the three ex-Soviet countries bordering Afghanistan -- Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- only Tajikistan, where Moscow has a base, has refused to hold official talks with the Taliban.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently complained of the build-up of "terrorist groups" on the Afghan side of the more than 1,300km-long border.

Tajikistan has denied reports that it sent military supplies to an Afghan group dominated by ethnic Tajiks that is mounting resistance to the Taliban in the remote Panjshir Valley.

The impoverished republic has its own reasons to fear Islamism after coming through a five-year civil war in the 1990s that saw a coalition of Islamist and regional forces defeated by the government.

In addition, a pro-Taliban extremist group based in Afghanistan, Jamaat Ansarullah (JA), repeatedly has vowed to overthrow the Tajik government. JA is predominantly comprised of natives of Tajikistan.

"For Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, economic considerations could take precedence, necessitating a stronger relationship with the Taliban," said Parviz Mullojanov, a visiting researcher at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris.

"For Tajikistan, security will be foremost."

About 1,000 Afghan nationals have been offered temporary refuge in Tajikistan under a US-organised relocation programme, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Tajik service (Radio Ozodi) reported Saturday (August 28).

The Afghans are staying in a tent camp near the Kulyab airport.

Turkmenistan also has indicated it is ready to take in refugees.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, have released statements saying they have not agreed to accept refugees in bids to curtail social media rumours.

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