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Kazakhstan’s Evolving Afghanistan Policy

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Kazakhstan’s Evolving Afghanistan Policy

Afghanistan’s market and its position as a trade route that can connect Central Asia to South Asian ports are critically important to Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan’s Evolving Afghanistan Policy

On December 29, New Ambassador of Kazakhstan to Afghanistan Alim Khan Yasin Gildayev met with Taliban Minister of Foreign Affairs Amir Khan Muttaqi.

Credit: X / @HafizZiaAhmad

As the global community experiences a turbulent and unpredictable period, Kazakhstan, alongside other countries, faces a range of challenges and risks. A timely reorientation and adjustment of both its external and internal policies may enable the country to effectively cope with these challenges and even extract benefits from them.

For example, the Ukraine war exposed vulnerabilities stemming from Kazakhstan’s intensive economic and trade relations with its northern neighbor, Russia. In light of this, the Kazakh government has increasingly focused on developing resiliency in managing the security, trade, and logistical challenges it is facing today. Among those challenges are various restrictions regarding northern trade routes, as well as concerns about the potential introduction of secondary sanctions. Dealing with these challenges, the Kazakh authorities realized the importance of finding new markets, trade routes, and economic opportunities for the country.

In this environment, Kazakhstan has emerged as a model for revising its foreign policy in favor of cooperation with South Asia in service to this quest for new prospects. This move can be looked at as an attempt to diversify away from its heavy dependence on Russia, paired also with a carefully crafted balanced position toward both the United States and Russia. 

There is an alternative way to view these shifts, however, according to which Russia is possibly an actor gently pushing Kazakhstan toward the south, as Moscow can also benefit from trade routes to through Central Asia. As was stated by Russian President Vladimir Putin last July, “the international transport corridor ‘North-South’ will provide Russian goods with a shorter route to the African continent and back to Russia.”

Regardless of the motivation, there has been a noticeable increase in Kazakhstan’s interest in South Asian countries, particularly Afghanistan. Indeed, in December Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry decided to exclude the Taliban from its list of terrorist organizations.

Afghanistan’s market (as an importer of industrial and agricultural products) and its position (as a trade route that can connect Central Asia to countries such as Pakistan, with significant ports) are both critically important to Kazakhstan and shape its emerging new Afghanistan policy.

Kazakhstan’s Trade Relations with Afghanistan.

Kazakhstan’s support for Afghanistan is rooted not just in considerations of regional stability but also Astana’s own economic interests in growing trade links through Afghanistan into South Asia.

Although Kazakhstan has never officially recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan, it has been pragmatic about contacts with the Taliban and maintained economic and trade relations with the country. The first high-level interaction between Kazakhstan and the Taliban government occurred on September 2021, less than a month after the Taliban assumed control. Kazakhstan’s then-Ambassador to Afghanistan Alimkhan Yessengeldiyev met with Acting Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in Kabul, where they committed to strengthening economic cooperation. 

Collaboration for the revival and extension of trade and economic links contributed to a substantial increase in trade turnover between the two nations. In 2022 the volume of trade between Kazakhstan and Afghanistan reached a record $987.9 million, twice as much as the previous year ($474.3 million). By November 2023, the trade between the two countries had decreased to $583 million, with it unlikely to have jumped dramatically in the final month of the year. 

Made with Flourish

In an interview with journalists in May 2023, Kazakhstan’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Trade and Integration Serik Zhumangarin said, “Politics is politics, economics is economics,” when discussing trade with Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. His intent was to convey that even without recognizing the Taliban government and while disagreeing with their domestic policies, it is possible to have a fruitful bilateral trade relationship as it brings benefits to both sides. Kazakhstan’s approach is pragmatic and practical, given that Afghanistan has become a major market for the sale of Kazakh products. 

In January 2023, Afghanistan became one of the top 10 trading partners of Kazakhstan thanks to the export of  $133.8 million worth of diesel-electric railway locomotives to Afghanistan. In comparison, the export of a single locomotive was equal to the volume of total monthly trade of Kazakhstan with Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan. 

The Kazakh-Afghan business forum held in April 2023 in Kabul was a significant investment in strengthening existing ties. During the forum, they announced the opening of a trading house in the Afghan capital. This contrasts with the closure of the Trade Representation of Kazakhstan in Russia last year. 

Kazakhstan’s Interests in Transport and Logistics 

As previously mentioned, Kazakhstan seems to have far greater interests in cooperation with Afghanistan using the geographical location of the country as a trade corridor for reaching South Asian ports. Kazakhstan is particularly interested in participating in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan’s infrastructure, especially in the fields of transport, energy, and agriculture. This was evidenced by a March 2023 meeting between Muttaqi and Yessengeldiyev. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the development of the railway system in Afghanistan.

However, Kazakhstan does not border Afghanistan and does not have any existing routes installed. This reality is expected to push Kazakh authorities to deepen collaboration with other Central Asian nations, particularly Uzbekistan, in the construction of trans-Afghan transit and logistical projects.

Kazakhstan has already taken steps to help restore Afghanistan’s rail potential. The Afghanistan Railway Authority and the Kazakhstani company Integra Construction signed a contract to resume construction work on a railway branch from Rozanak Station to Rabattaryan Station (43 kilometers) in October 2023. 

Furthermore, another benefit that Kazakhstan could enjoy is participation in the mining industry as Afghanistan is reportedly rich in resources such as copper, gold, precious stones, and others. Based on a survey of only 30 percent of Afghan territory, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated the country’s resource wealth to be around $1 trillion. This has attracted many interested parties, such as China, and may also interest Kazakhstan. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently declared that Kazakh companies, among others, are expected to invest in the mining sector, energy production, and hydroelectric projects in 2024.

Domestic Motivations 

The first factor in Kazakhstan’s domestic politics that influences its present approach toward Afghanistan is the recent cadre reshuffle. In September 2023, then-Minister of Trade and Integration Serik Zhumangarin, known for his pragmatic views on Kazakhstan’s approaches to Afghanistan, was promoted to the position of deputy prime minister. This indicates top-line support for his views regarding the establishment of pragmatic economic ties with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and suggests that they will be further solidified in Kazakhstan’s foreign policy agenda.

Moreover, also in September 2023, the establishment of a Ministry of Transport was announced, signaling the country’s readiness to dedicate specific attention to infrastructure and transportation projects, both domestically and internationally. 

Late last year, Kazakhstan dispatched a new ambassador to Kabul, Alim Khan Yasin Gildayev. He met with Muttaqi on December 29.

Another internal factor that influences Kazakhstan’s policy is public opinion regarding active cooperation with Afghanistan. Kazakh expert Eldaniz Gusseinov, of the Heartland Expert-Analytical Center, told The Diplomat that the Kazakhstan-Afghanistan Business Forum held in April 2023 triggered some criticism and concerns among a part of Kazakhstan’s population. People expressed fear of their country’s convergence with a state ruled by a “terrorist group.” 

But on the other hand, as described above, the Kazakh authorities clearly realize the importance of Afghanistan’s involvement in regional processes and the benefits that Central Asian countries could get from usable trans-Afghan routes. 

Potential Challenges to Kazakhstan’s Afghanistan Policy

While shaping its emerging policy toward Afghanistan, the Kazakh government must take into consideration the reality that the Taliban’s government is still not recognized by the international community. This lends a degree of unpredictability to the situation

Another important problem is that according to Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) data, there are more than 20 terrorist organizations operating in the territory of Afghanistan, a total number of approximately 10,000 individuals. The potential aims of these various groups are not necessarily known in full, but their presence poses a potential threat to the wider region. This is a cause for concern because a secure environment is needed to effectively exploit the potential of trans-Afghan rail routes. 

In order to fully realize trade routes that will connect Kazakhstan to South Asia’s major trading ports, it will be important for Kazakhstan to continue developing ties with Uzbekistan. Despite the current positive trajectory of relations between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, there are potential conflicts between the two that could damage Kazakhstan’s plans.

Finally, Kazakhstan’s Afghanistan policy could be hindered in part by Astana’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union. The requirement of consensus within the union regarding certain trade policies may complicate Kazakhstan’s ambitions in Afghanistan, or at the very least chip away at Kazakhstan’s ability to independently develop such economic and trade relations.


The economic and political consequences of the war in Ukraine arguably prompted Kazakhstan to look more seriously southward to Afghanistan and South Asia. However, it is worth noting that although Kazakhstan is looking away from its northern neighbor, this initiative also aligns with Russia’s interests. Russia is a possible beneficiary of the very same trade routes in which Kazakhstan is currently most interested. 

The Kazakh authorities are seeking access to South Asia’s seaports by assisting in the development of routes across Afghanistan. The realization of such trade routes require Kazakhstan to take steps in strengthening cooperation with the other countries of Central Asia, namely Uzbekistan, which currently manages the construction of the trans-Afghan railway route from Termez through Mazar-i-Sharif, Kabul, and on to Peshawar, Pakistan. 

Kazakhstan’s recent exclusion of the Taliban from its list of terrorist organizations speaks loudly regarding their attitude toward the Taliban government, confirming a commitment to further close cooperation. If the relative peace in Afghanistan continues, Kazakhstan’s Afghanistan policy will pragmatically forge ahead as cooperation deepens.