Taliban fighters in northern Afghanistan have reached the borders of Central Asia and there is a familiar sense of urgency in the three countries in the region with an Afghan frontier: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

An article by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier notes that in the late 1990s, the Tajik and Uzbek governments were openly hostile toward the Taliban, while Turkmenistan, guided by economic interests in exporting its natural gas and brandishing its policy of neutrality, engaged with the Taliban, even allowing the group to open a representative office in Ashgabat.

The article entitle Concerns of a Taliban-Led, Afghan Spillover into Central Asia: Then and Now says Turkmenistan still touts its policy of neutrality, but something has clearly changed.

Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, was able to deal with the Taliban and the Afghan group was undoubtedly pleased to have one Central Asian neighbor staying out of Afghan internal politics.

Meanwhile, Niyazov’s successor as president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who was practicing dentistry when the Taliban were neighbors in the late 1990s, reportedly seems less successful in relations with the Taliban.

The article says three Turkmen border guards and three Turkmen soldiers were killed in separate incidents along the Afghan border in February and May 2014, and it appeared the Taliban were behind those attacks, though the Turkmen government never admitted they occurred.

There has been information since then about other Turkmen soldiers and border guards being killed along the Afghan border.

Turkmen authorities have not commented about those reports.

But after the 2014 incidents, the Turkmen government started paying more attention to the country’s armed forces and purchasing weapons from several countries.  In January 2019, Turkmen authorities called up reservists to fortify positions along the Afghan border, and at the start of July 2021, Berdymukhammedov reportedly ordered more forces sent to the border area. 

Uzbekistan probably currently has the best ties with the Taliban, according to the article.  Uzbekistan reportedly hosted a Taliban delegation that visited for several days in August 2019.

Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov has met with Taliban representatives in several countries over the course of the last few years and it was Kamilov who was meeting with Taliban representatives in Pakistan in 2000 and 2001, the article notes.

After Dostum fled in 1998, Uzbek authorities reportedly gradually and grudgingly came to accept the fact that the Taliban was its neighbor.

In October 2000, President Islam Karimov said “Tashkent is ready to recognize any government in Afghanistan, even if it is the Taliban government. It doesn't matter whether we like that government or not.”

The Uzbek government’s primary concern was the presence of militants from a homegrown group called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who had found refuge in northern Afghanistan and from which they crossed through the mountains into southern Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 1999 and again in the summer of 2000 when they also went to eastern Uzbekistan.

It is groups such as the IMU that the Central Asian governments fear, far more than an unlikely attack from the Taliban.  There are now several militant groups in northern Afghanistan with citizens of Central Asia in their ranks.

As far as Tajikistan is concerned, Tajik authorities have reportedly been quiet as the Taliban captured territory that took it up to their border. Tajik officials do not speak much about the Taliban.

But Tajik authorities have not invited Taliban representatives to visit, nor sent any officials to third countries to meet with Taliban representatives.

At the same time, the Taliban are no longer spoken about in Tajik state-run media with complete disdain.  Although the Taliban is legally recognized as an extremist organization, the State Committee for National Security (SCNS) has quietly dispensed with this descriptor in recent times, opting for the more neutral term “armed group.”

The compliments are mutual.  The Taliban last week reassured Dushanbe that it would respect Tajik sovereignty and that it intended no harm.