08/12/2022, 12.38
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A year after the Taliban’s return: neighbouring countries fear radical Islam

by Vladimir Rozanskij

In Afghanistan, religious extremism and tribalism rule. The region’s countries are watching the events with apprehension, trying to limit the influence of radical Islam. War and weapons dominate political life whilst the economic crisis fuels tensions. On the Uzbek side, border controls are tight but bridges are reopening.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – On 15 August 2021, the Taliban retook Kabul after the sudden and precipitous withdrawal of US troops, which unleashed chaos at the airport, with mothers throwing children over fences into the arms of US marines.

A year later, news reports from Afghanistan are increasingly sporadic and vague, except for the reimposition of religious extremism and tribal rules.

In neighbouring Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, but also Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the authorities are monitoring with apprehension any possible spillover of radical Islam.

The countries of Central Asia are trying everything to encourage a moderate practice of religion, compatible with far from stable political systems, entrusted to a former Soviet ruling class that thrived for decades on Russia’s relative stability on the one hand and Western armed forces on the other.

Now the dual pillar is no more. War and weapons are back at both ends dictating the flow of political and social life amid an economic crisis that is fuelling tensions within their territories pitting various social classes and ethnic groups against each other.

In addition to their asymmetrical neutrality vis-à-vis Russia’s war in Ukraine, the ways these countries have managed to handle the Afghan powder keg are particularly important.

Tajikistan is at the forefront not only for geographical reasons – its border with Afghanistan is the one most at risk of infiltration – but also for its ethnic make-up since Tajiks are Afghanistan’s largest ethnic minority, but unrecognised by the Pashtun-dominated government in Kabul.

For its part, Uzbekistan is pursuing a containment policy, not only because it is the most populous country in the area (35 million vs 31 million Afghans) but also because of its strategic location on the trade routes linking China, India, Russia, and Europe.

This is also why Tashkent has tried to contain tensions with the Taliban as much as possible. A good example of its more constructive attitude is Termez, a small town on the border, which has become a lifeline for millions of Afghans thanks to its UN warehouses, full of humanitarian aid, which have delivered a thousand tonnes to Afghanistan, with some now going to disaster areas in Ukraine.

A landlocked country, bordering states just as far from the sea, Uzbekistan has also become a pathway for the hopes of displaced and abandoned refugees.

Uzbekistan is also Afghanistan’s main energy supplier, with Kabul eager to pay so as not to have any debts with Tashkent. In the summer, however, Afghanistan breaks away from the Uzbek network to connect to that of Tajikistan.

Uzbekistan and Afghanistan have often been linked, like their ethnic groups, from ancient to modern times through successive dynasties. In 1750, Afghan Emir Akhmad Shah Durrani and Bukharan Khan Mohammad Murad Bek signed an historic Treaty of Friendship, fixing the border on the Amu Darya River.

In 1981, the Soviets built the Friendship Bridge. The 816-metre-long structure remained inaccessible for a long time due to the war of the last 20 years. At present, the Uzbek border remains one of the most guarded in the region, but bridges are slowly reopening.

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