Uzbekistan’s necessarily close relations with the Taliban are making Tashkent an indispensable partner to Washington amid the growing threat posed by the Islamic State. With U.S. policymakers showing increased concern for the rise of the Afghanistan-based Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) and largely unwilling to become reinvolved militarily following the 2021 withdrawal, utilizing their longstanding partnership with Tashkent could offer a means to address regional concerns.
The Taliban Takeover: Implications for Uzbekistan
Since coming to power in August 2021, the Taliban have increasingly struggled to control militant groups across Afghanistan. The largest of these, the ISKP, has been mounting a growing effort to topple the Taliban while threatening the country’s northern neighbors, including Uzbekistan.
With initial Taliban efforts primarily focused on securing control over eastern Afghanistan, the ISKP has been able to gain a foothold in the country’s north. This resulted in ISKP rocket attacks from Afghanistan to neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in April and May 2022, including on an Uzbek military installation.
The ISKP also aims to radicalize local populations through its al-Azam Media Foundation, which produces content in Uzbek as well as Arabic, English, Farsi, Pashto, Tajik, and Urdu. Uzbekistan has struggled with Islamic extremism since the fall of the Soviet Union and Tashkent’s crackdowns on suspected radicals have inspired many Uzbeks living abroad to join extremist organizations: The ISKP is one such organization seeking to recruit ethnic Uzbeks as well as Tajiks and Kyrgyz into its ranks.
In addition to struggling to contain hostile militants, the Taliban threatens Uzbekistan in the most fundamental of ways: access to fresh water. Uzbekistan has long struggled with water security and it is estimated that the country will need 35 percent more water than it can currently access by 2035. For this reason, the Taliban’s planned Qosh Tepa Canal, an estimated $670 million project that spans northern Afghanistan and draws water from the Amu Darya River, is of growing concern to Tashkent.
The project, which would likely cause Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to lose 15 percent of the irrigation water they currently draw from the river and watershed, is scheduled for completion by 2028. The completion of the Qosh Tepa would also likely worsen Uzbekistan’s crisis in the Aral Sea, the level of which recently rose for the first time in 12 years.
The Taliban argue that they have every right to utilize the Amu Darya for their needs. This existential threat, combined with the ongoing threat posed by Islamic insurgency, will likely keep Tashkent at the negotiating table with the Taliban for years to come.
Uzbekistan’s Carrot and Stick Approach Keeps the Taliban at the Table
Although Taliban-ruled Afghanistan poses a major threat to Uzbekistan in the form of Islamic insurgents and water rights, Tashkent exerts substantial control over Afghanistan’s critical infrastructure and trade. Imports comprise an estimated 78 percent of Afghanistan’s electricity needs, with Uzbekistan supplying some 57 percent of this. Moreover, whereas Afghanistan’s other import partners tend to sell electricity produced at hydroelectric plants that are less reliable in terms of output, Uzbekistan produces the vast majority of its electricity at gas power plants that draw on the country and region’s abundant reserves.
Although Uzbekistan’s electricity production tends to be more reliable, a cold snap in January of this year resulted in a gas shortage across Central Asia that prompted an unannounced 60 percent drop in electricity exports to Afghanistan. This left large swathes of Afghanistan without power for nine days starting January 16, underling the country’s heavy reliance on its neighbor to the north.
Uzbekistan also controls one of Afghanistan’s three international rail lines via its Temrez Cargo Center. The line is primarily used for imports of critical items such as foodstuffs and steel bars as well as exports of Afghan rugs and agricultural products. Railway trade between the two countries rose by 82 percent in mid-2022. Tashkent has also made an agreement with the Taliban regime and Islamabad to extend the line to the Pakistani coast. This would broaden export opportunities for Uzbekistan and other energy-rich Central Asian states.
The line has also been used as a conduit for delivering international aid to Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan itself donated 1,400 tons of flour and other foodstuffs in September 2022. Afghanistan remains one of the world’s most food insecure countries, with the United Nations World Food Program estimating that 15.3 million of its people currently face food insecurity.
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are currently holding nearly 50 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft that were previously part of the Afghan Air Force, but were flown to Central Asia amid the collapse of Ashraf Ghani government in 2021. Despite repeated requests for their return to Afghanistan by the Taliban, Tashkent has refused, claiming these are property of the United States. While there have been rumors that Washington will gift these aircraft to the governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for use in counterterrorism operations, Tashkent’s possession of these assets gives them further leverage over the Taliban government.
Uzbekistan May Be Washington’s Key to Engaging with the Taliban
The combination of benefits and threats Tashkent and the Taliban pose to each other has kept engagement between the two relatively high in the two years since the latter came to power in 2021. Moreover, Uzbekistan has a substantial history of engagement with the Taliban and even offered to broker peace talks between the Afghan National Government and the militant group in 2018.
Tashkent does not formally recognize the Taliban government and the number of engagements between the two sides has fallen in the past year amid an energy shortage and ISKP attacks. Still, the benefits each side offers combined with the seriousness of the threat each poses will likely keep the two engaged diplomatically in the long term. This will likely make Tashkent an indispensable partner to the United States seeks to address issues related to the rise of the ISKP in the region.
On March 16, U.S. Central Command’s General Michael Kurilla warned Congress that the Afghanistan-based ISKP could “do external operations against U.S. or Western interests abroad in under six months.” Other top U.S. officials have made similar statements, with Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lieutenant General Scott Berrier telling lawmakers in a March hearing that “it’s a matter of time before [the ISKP] may have the ability and intent to attack the West.”
The Biden administration has also expressed concerns over the ISKP since the 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the United States is currently offering a $10 million reward for information leading to the identification or location of ISKP leader Sanaullah Ghafari. The seriousness of these concerns was highlighted on August 29 when the White House announced that it prevented a network with ties to the Islamic State from smuggling people from Uzbekistan into the United States. In this way, Washington’s growing concern with the threat posed by the ISKP aligns its interests with those of Tashkent and the Taliban.
Although Washington has no formal relations with the Taliban government and has little informal engagement with it, the U.S. State Department describes its relationship with Uzbekistan as “broad-based” in scope and the two countries hold a joint strategic partnership dialogue annually. Given the U.S. need to maintain relations with the Taliban, Tashkent offers Washington a window through which to engage with the Taliban indirectly in their ongoing fight against the rising influence of the ISKP in the region.