● Political Developments
● Economic Developments
● India-Central Asia Relations
The Taliban have released multiple statements assuring neighbours in Central Asia of safety, security and peace, promising a change in leadership despite their history of violent rule in 1990. However, the international community, especially in Central Asia, remains extremely skeptical. The Taliban pose a direct threat to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, which may bring political instability and increased danger to the rest of Central Asia. The main concern for neighbouring countries is maintaining security during an anticipated massive influx of refugees from Afghanistan. The deeper problem for Russia and its neighbours is ensuring that all refugees entering pose no threat to security, are not terrorists under the guise of refugees, and are truly seeking asylum.
Tajikistan had so far kept quiet about the fast-changing situation in Afghanistan. It was the only neighbor of Afghanistan that did not talk with the Taliban before the group took control of most of the country. This position contrasts sharply with Russia’s whose President commented that the Taliban takeover is a reality from which external actors must proceed in Afghanistan.
Tension between the Taliban and Tajikistan has continued to rise. Taliban have started making explicit threats against Dushanbe. Situation is becoming increasingly tense on the border as Tajikistan organized a military parade near the frontier, and Taliban transferred new military contingents to the border area “to contain possible threats”.
Tensions started rising after the Address by Tajik President to UNGA when he said that “the Taliban’s failure to live up to its promises to form an inclusive government with broad participation of all ethnic and political forces in Afghanistan raises deep concern.” Tajikistan cited the repression of resistance in the Panjshir as an example of “tragic violation of human rights protected by international law.” The Tajik President called the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan a “serious threat to regional security and stability. Members of the Northern Alliance are prevented from accessing food and basic necessities, and even humanitarian aid. Not even UN and Red Cross emissaries can access the Panjshir areas garrisoned by the Taliban.’’
Dismissing Tajikistan’s impact in Afghanistan because of its small size in geographical and economic terms would be misguided. Tajikistan has a long border with Afghanistan (over 1,300 kilometers), its kinship with the Afghan Tajiks (about 25% of the Afghan population), and the fact it hosts Russia’s largest military base abroad are all important levers for Dushanbe in Afghanistan. On the international stage, Tajikistan has gained some clout from its openly anti-Taliban position. For instance, France’s President invited his Tajik counterpart to visit Paris in October. Tajikistan could become a critical facilitator should the international community choose to oppose the Taliban. More immediately, Tajikistan would be a critical player in handling continued refugee flows from Afghanistan.
Tajik President sent signals of solidarity with National Resistance Front of Afghanistan by awarding former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani and former Defence Minister Ahmad Shah Massoud with the country’s highest distinction. Both Rabbani and Massoud were Afghan Tajiks and implacably opposed to the Taliban’s version of Islam. They were also assassinated, Rabbani by a Taliban suicide bomber and Massoud in an Al-Qaida hit on behalf of the Taliban. Massoud’s son Ahmad Massoud is leading Resistance-2.
Tajikistan rejected the accusation by Taliban of interference in its internal affairs. Conflict between the Taliban and Tajiks can explode due to rash moves by either side, and by out-of-control organizations such as the Jamaat Ansarullah, an extremist group that controls Afghanistan’s northern border and is allegedly preparing an attack on the autonomous province of Gorno-Badakhshan in Tajikistan. Tajik President himself went to this inaccessible mountainous area, where he organized the military parade. Some critics of Tajik President have charged that he could use the Taliban threat to bolster his domestic support and as “a pretext for a further crackdown on the opposition” and the introduction of more counter-terrorism measures.
Russia urged Tajikistan and Afghanistan to resolve any dispute in a mutually acceptable manner. Tajik President has refused to recognise the Taliban-appointed cabinet in Kabul. The Taliban, in turn, has warned Dushanbe against meddling in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs. Tens of thousands of Afghan special forces fighters have been deployed in the Takhar province of northeastern Afghanistan, adjacent to Tajikistan.
The grand mufti of Tajikistan issued an edict calling the Taliban a “terrorist group” and declared that the Taliban’s behavior was “far from Islam.” In particular, the grand mufti focused on the Taliban’s treatment of women, including their “not being allowed to leave the house.” Only if the Taliban practiced the “basics of Islam’’, could the world recognize it.
It is reported that politicians including ministers and parliamentary deputies of the deposed Afghan government, as well as senior military figures, are in neighboring Tajikistan, seeking financial and military support to launch a formal opposition to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Ahmad Massoud, and former Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who both led a short-lived resistance in the Panjshir Valley, fled across the border in recent weeks after their efforts to hold out against the Taliban were put down.
Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan, particularly Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, are walking a political and security tightrope. On the frontlines of Afghanistan, both Dushanbe and Tashkent are working hard to ensure some modicum of stability. This has resulted in hedging policies in which the two countries are willing to serve as a transit point for those leaving Afghanistan, but not willing to accommodate refugees for very long. Central Asia isn’t planning to accommodate large numbers of Afghans as this would could complicate relations with the Taliban, as well as put a strain on governments struggling already with huge pre-existing economic and pandemic problems.
Many helicopters and small fixed-wing aircrafts suddenly appeared in Termez, Uzbekistan on August 16, soon after takeover of Kabul by the Taliban. Uzbekistan urged Washington to act quickly to take the pilots to a third country to avoid inflaming relations with the Taliban. The Uzbek government has engaged the Taliban in recent years, joining the international demand for a negotiated solution to the war in Afghanistan. The Uzbek-Afghan border is now completely closed and no land crossings are allowed through the Termez checkpoint. Uzbekistan has stated that it does not accept Afghan refugees on its territory and that it is “firmly committed to maintaining traditionally friendly and good-neighborly relations with Afghanistan on the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of the neighboring country”.
Uzbekistan is keen on working with the Taliban to salvage a 10-year deal for electricity supplies, which is expected to boost the $150 million it already receives annually from exporting power to Kabul. Uzbekistan would incur financial losses by suspending electricity exports to Afghanistan; other countries also would lose out from not being able to trade with Afghanistan through Uzbekistan.
Meanwhile, Tajikistan agreed to accommodate Afghan refugees on a temporary basis. Tajikistan does not seem likely to admit large numbers of Afghan refugees, and those it does allow entry will be expected to be moved along quickly by Western partners. For all the usefulness of Tajikistan’s help, the numbers of refugees being assisted falls far short of the 100,000 that officials had claimed they might accommodate in July.
The real threat of terror sleeper cells getting active after the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan is worrying several Central Asian countries, especially Tajikistan.
Kazakh Ambassador to Afghanistan met with acting foreign minister in the Taliban (banned in Kazakhstan) government of Afghanistan in end September, 2021. They stressed the importance of developing trade between the two countries. Kazakh Ambassador expressed satisfaction with the security situation in Kabul and urged the international community to provide humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Afghan foreign minister expressed his government’s determination to prevent the emergence of any security threat from the territory of Afghanistan. Kazakhstan is the main, if not the only supplier of grain to Afghanistan. Kazakhstan is heavily dependent on Afghanistan as it accounts for half of all its grain exports. Approximately 3-3.5 million tons of Kazakh grain have usually been exported annually to that country.
Deputy head of the Kyrgyz national security council visited Kabul to “exchange views on security issues in [Afghanistan] and in the region as a whole.” Kyrgyzstan also dispatched a planeload of humanitarian aid, which was ceremonially handed to Afghan acting first deputy prime minister Abdul Ghani Baradar. Some analysts suggested that the trip was undertaken at the behest of Russia, which is Kyrgyzstan’s main security guarantor. While talks dwelled to some extent on security questions, Baradar also appealed during the conversation with his Kyrgyz visitor for outside assistance.
UN Secretary-General expressed his special gratitude to the President of Kazakhstan for allowing the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) and other UN agencies accredited in Afghanistan to relocate to Kazakhstan. The relocation was an unexpected event as few people expected the Afghan government of president Ashraf Ghani to collapse so fast. Kazakhstan was required to provide emergency help, receive the UNAMA personnel and create conditions for continuation of their work.
The recent Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) summit held in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, was important for a number of reasons. First, Iran was granted full membership. It was the first time that Iran became a full member of a regional bloc since the Iranian revolution in 1979. It was the ninth country (Afghanistan is an observer country), to become a member of SCO. SCO represents over 40% of the world’s population, 20% of global GDP and over 20% of the globe’s land area. In his Address, the new Iranian President referred to regional connectivity and the North-South Corridor, which seeks to connect Chabahar Port with Russia through Central Asia. PM Modi also spoke about the need for greater connectivity with Central Asia, saying, ‘If the region wants to benefit from fossil fuels or intra-SCO trade, we will need to lay more emphasis on connectivity.’
As the situation in Afghanistan worsened, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), held military drills involving deployment of thousands of troops in Kyrgyzstan. The collapse of the Afghan government, and Taliban’s assumption of power, have increased pressure on the safety of neighbouring countries. The threat of security, the anticipated increase in migration, and the Taliban’s sphere of control in Central Asia have left neighbouring countries such as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia, planning for crisis prevention. Russian President has stated that it is important to avoid any “spread of radical Islam” into central Asia from Afghanistan.
Joint Russian-Kazak counterterrorism exercises were conducted in Serbia. The exercises, which focused on company-level tactical drills, saw over 500 Russian and Kazak troops participate. Forces rehearsed mountain warfare with the intent to neutralize a fictional terrorist gang using UAVs, helicopters and over 150 pieces of military hardware. Kazakhstan has close military ties to Russia through several different multilateral military organizations, including the Russian-led CSTO and the Chinese-led SCO. In the wake of the recent regime change in Afghanistan, regional security arrangements have accelerated their efforts to conduct counterterrorism exercises. CSTO also conducted multilateral counterterrorist operations. Exercises planned for later will focus on issues such as refugee migration and security threats coming out of Afghanistan.
German Foreign Minister traveled to Tajikistan for high-level talks on Afghanistan. Germany is concerned about the possibility of a new influx of Afghan refugees. Tajikistan is seen as one of the possible routes for refugees to enter Europe.
To discuss cooperation and support on the situation in Afghanistan, Austrian Foreign and Interior Ministers held a joint video conference with Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as three European countries, Germany, Denmark, and Greece. The focus of the conversation with Afghanistan’s neighboring countries was on security, migration, and humanitarian aid.
UK Foreign Secretary spoke to the Tajik Foreign Minister and discussed how their countries could help maintain stability in the region, and tackle the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan.
U.S. Secretary of State and Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan met in a hybrid virtual and in-person C5+1 format on sidelines of the 76th Session of the UNGA in New York. Participants celebrated the thirty-year anniversaries of the Central Asian countries’ independence and establishment of bilateral relations with the United States. They noted the utility of C5+1 format in facilitating critical conversations throughout 2021 regarding coordination on Afghanistan, COVID-19, economic connectivity, and climate crisis. Participants discussed the C5+1 response to evolving security, economic, and humanitarian challenges in Central Asia and surrounding regions. Regarding Afghanistan, participants affirmed the importance of mitigating a potential humanitarian crisis and calling on the Taliban to counter terrorism, allow safe passage for foreign citizens and Afghans who want to leave, and form an inclusive government that respects basic rights. Participants also affirmed the importance of continued C5+1 support for the people of Afghanistan. Participants reaffirmed their commitment to addressing these issues collectively, and in a manner that supports the continued independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of the C5.
Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev’s trial in a case related to a deadly two-day standoff between security forces and his supporters in August 2019 was postponed again due to the former’s health problems. Atambaev and 13 others are charged with murder, attempted murder, threatening or assaulting representatives of the authorities, hostage-taking, and the forcible seizure of power over the standoff, which led to the death of a top security officer and injured more than 170 people. The trial has been postponed several times since April. In June 2020, Atambaev, 65, was sentenced to 11 years and two months in prison in a separate case for his role in the release of a notorious crime boss. Five months later, the Supreme Court sent the case back to a Bishkek district court for retrial. It gave no reason for the decision. Atambaev has denied any wrongdoing.
It is reported that Russian President Putin “floated the idea of hosting U.S. military personnel on Russian bases” in his June meeting with US President Biden in Geneva. U.S. National Security Committee officials were not certain if the offer was genuine and asked U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark “Milley to clarify whether Mr. Putin was simply making a debating point or was hinting at a serious offer.” The issue was apparently taken up by General Milley with his Russian counterpart Valery Gerasimov in their recent meeting in Helsinki but no definite answer was forthcoming.
In Kyrgyzstan, insecurity looms as five prime ministers are imprisoned. All five are political personalities from the 1990s. The prime ministers have been jailed mostly in relation to the country’s largest gold mine that accounts for roughly a tenth of the GDP which the government seeks to nationalize. Supporters of Kyrgyz President claim that he is following through on a campaign vow to clean up politics. Opponents claim he is attempting to drive Kyrgyzstan closer to the authoritarian control seen in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
In his Address to the UNGA, Kazakh President said that Kazakhstan plans to reach carbon neutrality by the year 2060 – despite the fact that 70 percent of the country’s electric energy production is based on coal right now. He called on other countries to share “green” technologies. This would make Kazakhstan’s energy transition easier.
According to the World Investment Report compiled by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Kazakhstan showed an increase in net foreign direct investment compared to 17 countries with transition economies and 34 landlocked countries. Data of the UNCTAD report demonstrates that favorable conditions for foreign investors remain in Kazakhstan against the backdrop of the negative impact of the pandemic on the global economy.
India-Central Asia Relations
PM Narendra Modi participated virtually in the 21st SCO heads of state summit which took place in a hybrid format in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Russian and Chinese Presidents also participated virtually. Recently elected Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi also participated as Iran’s formal induction process as a full member of the SCO began. The meeting assumed significance since it happened in the backdrop of the Afghanistan crisis, which saw the American forces leaving the country after 20 years and the return of the Taliban. The last two months witnessed a number of meetings of SCO foreign and defence ministers and National security advisors in Dushanbe. Afghanistan is an observer member country of the grouping since 2012 but did not participate in the Dushanbe deliberations principally because, Tajikistan which does not have cordial relations with the Taliban, did not invite the Taliban to attend the meeting.
In his address at the SCO summit, PM Modi appealed to the global community to not rush into recognising the Taliban due to its ‘non-inclusive’ nature and the way in which it was formed, without following the negotiated path. He emphasised that while India supported every effort to send humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, it was important to only extend a hand of friendship if the Taliban could show commitment to peace and basic human rights. While India has made several statements on Afghanistan, these were the first public remarks by PM Modi on Afghanistan since the fall of Kabul on August 15. Stating that the developments in Afghanistan will have the “greatest impact” on neighbours, PM Modi called for regional cooperation on Afghanistan. He also noted that representation of all sections of society, including women and minorities in the government, is also important. “And therefore, it is essential that the global community decides on the recognition of the new system in a thoughtful and collective manner”. Pakistan and also China are beginning to realise that ‘victory’ in Afghanistan is not quite the master-stroke in strategic planning as they had hoped.
External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar and Iran’s new foreign minister Amir Abdollahian held talks, with top focus on Afghanistan situation and Chabahar port project. This was the first ever conversation between the two since the new Iranian foreign minister took charge. On Afghanistan, they agreed to continue the consultations with Iran saying that FM Amir reiterated Tehran’s “principled policy to support the formation of an inclusive government in Afghanistan” which is “made up of all Afghan ethnic groups”. He also emphasized on a regional approach to “defuse the crisis in Afghanistan.” EAM thanked Iranian FM for their facilitation of India’s repatriation flights from Afghanistan. On Chabahar, the Iranian FM called for “speeding up the Chabahar Project and expanding trade with India.” Chabahar port is key to India’s connectivity to its west, providing links to Afghanistan and central Asia, and key to International north south transport corridor connecting Mumbai to Moscow.
During her visit to Uzbekistan, Minister of State for External Affairs Meenakshi Lekhi and Uzbek foreign minister Kamilov held a discussion on the importance and relevance of maintaining close and periodic conversation over the developing situation in Afghanistan, as well as the need to guarantee that the Afghan territory is not exploited for any terrorist operations. Ministers discussed the crucial areas of bilateral, regional and multilateral engagement. Lekhi highlighted the importance of implementing the development projects in Uzbekistan as quickly as possible, under the USD 1 billion Credit line. They agreed to wrap up their current negotiations for the planned Bilateral Investment Agreement soon. She conveyed India’s full support to the current Uzbek Presidency of the SCO. During her visit, the bilateral Cultural Exchange Program for the years 2021-25 was signed. MOS Lekhi spoke on “India’s democratic traditions” at the Tashkent State University of Law and on “India-Uzbekistan Relations-Strengthening Strategic Partnership” at the Bukhara State University. She interacted with prominent Indologists from the Tashkent State Institute of Oriental Studies and other institutions to explore how Indian studies and philosophies could be promoted in Uzbekistan.
Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat witnessed a multi-nation counter-terror exercise organised under the aegis of the SCO in Russia’s Orenburg region. India sent a team of 200 personnel for the nearly-two-week-long “Exercise Peaceful Mission.” Gen. Rawat was on a two-day visit to Russia where he attended the conference of the Chiefs of General Staff of the SCO member states in Orenburg. CDS General Rawat interacted with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Chief of General Staff, Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, and discussed issues of bilateral defence cooperation. He also interacted with the contingent commanders of participating Nations & members of the Indian Army contingent. He lauded them for their high standards of training & professionalism. The exercise provided an opportunity to the armed forces of the SCO nations to train in counter-terrorism operations in an urban scenario in a multinational and joint environment. China and Pakistan also took part in the exercise. Scope of the exercise included professional interaction, mutual understanding of drills and procedures, the establishment of joint command-and-control structures and elimination of terrorist threats.
The joint exercise “Pabbi-Antiterror-2021” was announced in March this year during the 36th meeting of the Council of the SCO-Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) held in Tashkent. India sent a three-member team to participate in the Pabbi anti-terror exercise in Pakistan’s Nowshera district from October 3 as part of the SCO RATS framework. India believes that its participation is a sign of the importance that it attaches to the bloc in maintaining security in the Central Asian region without in anyway diluting India’s stand on Pakistan as promoter of cross-border terrorism. The purpose of the exercise was to identify and suppress channels of terror financing and did not involve participation of troops.
Indian Army conducted joint military exercise KAZIND -21 in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism drills in the Taraz Military area of Kazakhstan. A contingent of 90 soldiers from the Bihar Regiment of the Indian Army participated in the Exercise. This was the fifth joint maneuver between India and Kazakhstan. The fourth edition of the exercise was held at Pithoragarh in September 2019. Purpose of KAZIND-21 exercise was to promote military diplomacy, mutual reconciliation and military cooperation between the two countries. The scope of the exercise included professional exchange, planning and execution of operations in a counter-terrorism environment and sharing of expertise. The exercise provided impetus to the ever-growing military and diplomatic ties between the two nations. The armies of both the countries have also participated in SCO Multination Exercise. Over the last few years, India has significantly increased its defense cooperation with Central Asian countries. In March this year, the armies of India and Uzbekistan also participated in the ‘Dustlik’ exercise at Chaubatia (Ranikhet) in Uttarakhand.
Indian Army participated in a multi-nation war-game ZAPAD at Nizhniy in Russia to enhance military and strategic ties amongst participating countries. China and Pakistan took part as observers. The annual exercise saw 200 personnel from the Indian Army’s Naga Battalion participating in the Exercise with military of 17 nations. ZAPAD 2021 is a theatre-level exercise being conducted by the Russian armed forces that primarily focuses on anti-terror operations. The Indian troops were put through a strenuous training schedule that comprised of mechanised, airborne and heliborne, counter-terrorism, combat conditioning and firing operations. Participating countries included Armenia, Belarus, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Vietnam, Serbia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China and Pakistan,. The exercise serves as a cornerstone to the Russian Armed Forces annual training cycle and tests Russia’s four main strategic commands — Zapad (West), Vostok (East), Tsentr (Center) and Kavkaz (Caucasus) on rotation. A 140-member Indian Army contingent had participated in Exercise Tsentr in 2019. India had stayed away from the 2020 Kavkaz exercise, citing the Covid-19 pandemic. China and Pakistan had participated in that joint exercise. Another reason why India skipped the Kavkaz exercise was because of its complicated relationship with China in the backdrop of the hostilities in eastern Ladakh.
Kazakh Defense Minister met Indian Ambassador and Indian Military Attaché in Nur-Sultan. India-Kazakh cooperation in the field of peacekeeping, combat training and military education was discussed. Kazakh Defense Minister expressed appreciation for development of Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping efforts, especially Kazakh peacekeeping squad’s participation in the UN Interim Forces in Lebanon as part of the Indian contingent. During the visit to the Peacekeeping Training Center of the Kazakh Defense Ministry in June, 2021 the Indian side expressed its readiness to strengthen the Center’s development.
Uzbekistan invited representatives of the Election Commission of India (ECI) to observe the proceedings of the Presidential poll on 24th October. OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights opened an election observation Mission for the presidential election in Uzbekistan. A number of international observers from different countries including India are expected to attend the elections. Five candidates nominated by the country’s five political parties are in the fray for the polls. The incumbent President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is expected to win by a huge margin.
India participated in the 13th Tashkent international Film Festival 2021. Theme of the Festival was “For Peace, Enlightenment and Progress.” 15 countries including Italy, Russia, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Israel, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Poland, Tajikistan and Turkey, among others, participated. “Days of Indian Cinema” were organized as a part of the Festival. The festival was a unique opportunity for the Indian film industry to make its imprint on an international platform. This was an endeavour to deepen the historic connections between India and Uzbekistan and take the close cultural similarities of architecture, dance, music, art, trade, and cinema to new heights.
Birad Rajaram Yajnik, the Hyderabad-based curator of global digital museums is laying the groundwork for the next Gandhi museum in Almaty, the largest city of Kazakhstan. The digital museum will feature a bilingual photobiography of Mahatma Gandhi. It may take about 12 months for the museum to get operational. There will be digital elements such as a film on Gandhi, an interactive quiz and other such digital elements that will bring him alive on the 65-inch digital screen. For those who love reading maps, there would be maps of the journeys he undertook in his life.