Central & South Asia Observer
February 18th, 2022
After nearly two decades since being ousted by the United States, the Taliban returned to power in August of 2021. The Taliban-victory poses significant challenges for the future Afghanistan including relations with its neighbors, humanitarian crises, and conflict between the Taliban and rival Afghan groups.
Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors have varied in their responses towards the new Taliban-led government. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have been more conciliatory towards the Taliban while Tajikistan has refused to engage with the group. Central Asia may serve as a source of income for the nascent-Taliban government through trade deals. However, poor relations with Tajikistan could cause future instability for the Taliban government as it is rumored that Tajikistan is supporting the National Resistance Front (NRF), an anti-Taliban rebel group based in Panjshir province. In contrast, Pakistan has shown a willingness to recognize the Taliban given a “collective effort” by other countries to do the same.
The Taliban have also failed to ameliorate the dire humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. Afghans are struggling to make money and many face the risk of starvation. Furthermore, the Biden administration has recently decided to put half of the $7 billion of the Afghan Central Bank funds held in the Federal Reserve into a trust fund for humanitarian assistance, exacerbating the already dire situation. While the humanitarian issues present legitimacy problems for the Taliban, the move by the Biden administration may bolster some support for the new government as the US policy is widely unpopular in Afghanistan.
The Taliban government has also faced pushback from insurgent groups such as the NRF led by Ahmad Massoud and former Vice-President Amrullah Saleh and the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP). The Taliban have been successful in controlling most of Afghanistan. However, insurgent groups like the NRF and ISKP threaten the Taliban’s hold over Afghanistan as a whole.
The decades-long conflict between India and China over the Himalayan region exploded on January 20th, 2021 when border skirmishes resulted in several non-fatal casualties from both armies. On June 15, 2020, 20 Indian soldiers and 4 Chinese soldiers were killed after a clash in Galwan valley. In the wake of fatal clashes in June 2020, both parties engaged in military talks which failed. The border standoff has further strained the bilateral relations of the two states and the hostilities pose a serious risk for India’s economy as China is one of India's biggest trading partners. Both states are keen on developing infrastructure along their Himalayan border, otherwise known as the Line of Actual Control. They have stationed thousands of troops along the border in eastern Ladakh. President Biden is closely observing the India China dispute as he is concerned by the threat of direct Chinese military aggression against a close U.S. ally. The US is determined to support dialogue and resolve this dispute.
In November of 2021, protests erupted in the Pakistani port city of Gwadar of the Balochistan province, lasting several weeks. Thousands of men, women, and children from all over Gwadar district filled the streets of the city, chanting “Gwadar ko haq do”, (give Gwadar rights). These demonstrations against the provisional government are a reaction to grievances caused by Chinese interests. Gwadar is a very strategic city and part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with China spending billions on building the infrastructure. The protesters had a long list of demands, including, “better access to electricity and education, the removal of unnecessary check posts, and action against the ‘trawler mafia’ which has ruined the livelihood of the local fishermen in the coastal city”. The promises of economic advancements made by the Pakistani and Chinese governments have not only, but, Chinese involvement in the city’s development has only made life harder for the locals. For one, any economic activity seems to only benefit the Chinese companies rather than the locals, with the Pakistani government enforcing stricter checkpoints and security measures to protect the Chinese companies and their infrastructure. After weeks of protesting, the government ultimately decided to meet the protesters' demands, ending the protests. This reaction was very different from the government’s standard response. Rather than labeling these protests as “anti-Pakistan”, Prime Minister Imran Khan called their demands “legitimate”. However, these protests are part of a much larger issue regarding the China Pakistan Economic Corridor and Pakistan’s internal conflicts.
Since taking in nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees from neighboring Myanmar, Bangladesh has struggled to manage population size in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp. On October 9, 2021 the Bangladeshi government and the United Nations (UN) signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for Rohingya humanitarian response on Bhasan Char in an attempt to ameliorate overcrowding in the camps. The MoU would allow for the transfer of Rohingya refugees to the Bangladeshi island of Bhasan Char under a UN policy framework that ensures the protection of Rohingyas on the island. The UN has emphasized and supported Bangladesh’s efforts to provide access to education, skill-training, and health for these refugees so that they may be able to sustainably return to Burma. During the MoU, the UN praised Bangladesh’s continued commitment to providing humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees and called on the international community to monetarily support such efforts.
Deployment of Russian troops, at the request of Kazakhstani president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in response to protests over rising gas prices in January resulted in violence. These protests and Tokayev’s consolidation of power represents the strengthening and support of authoritarian power in Central Asia. Physical support from Russia as well as diplomatic support from China effectively normalizes authoritarian rule in the region, and paints Kazakhstan as a point of concern for the West. The country’s protests also pose a new source of tensions between the US and Russia — the protests in Kazakhstan were rumored to be started by the U.S. Neighboring countries in Central Asia have discussed the situation in Kazakhstan and reaffirm support for the government. They maintain that dialogue, which may set a precedent for inaction and only diplomatic support from global powers, should protests once again erupt in Central Asia.