What will the Taliban's seizure of power in Afghanistan lead to?

1:55, 17 августа 2021

МОСКВА, 16 августа 2021, Институт РУССТРАТ.

In the Russian political discourse, the increased interest in the problems of the geopolitical future of the Central Asian states is explained by the factor of the withdrawal of US troops and their allies from Afghanistan. When the head of the Russian Defence Ministry, Sergey Shoigu, said that the Taliban movement had taken control of the borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in Afghanistan, the most improbable possible scenarios for the further development of events in the region appeared.

According to many experts, they can threaten the national security of Russia, however, so far only at the level of regional instability. The danger is that the withdrawal of a foreign military contingent from Afghanistan may lead to a domino effect, and not necessarily associated with the invasion of the Taliban, but the export of chaos and instability throughout the region.

This was the situation in the 1990s in the countries neighbouring Afghanistan, when Soviet troops left this country. Recall that in 1992, the regime of Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah collapsed, then the civil war began in Tajikistan, the Tajik-Afghan border collapsed, and then chaos began to spread throughout the region. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that after the departure of the Soviet troops, Najibullah kept his heart in the country for three more years. Today, the Taliban has taken power in the country even before the Americans left.

The situation is aggravated by a number of other important circumstances. The fact is that the process of identifying Central Asia as a Eurasian geopolitical centre is far from being completed. It seems that the new republics have gone through a paroxysm of denial of their Soviet past, but they are still in the phase of their national and state identification.

Therefore, the strategic situation in the region is contradictory and complex. All the key countries of the region have entered the transit zone of power. The main characteristics of this natural process are the change of leadership and attempts at constitutional changes aimed at redistributing power within the existing balance of power in the elites.

An important condition for the stability of transit is a high degree of consolidation of the political elite, which is divided into informal clans that represent the interests of various segments of society at the state level. Moreover, the formation of regional self-identification is delayed in the countries of the region, which implies the desire of the states of the region to link their prospects with the prospects for the development of the entire region.

There is still the fragmentation of the region and a gradual refusal to build a certain community when countries defend their national interests. The situation is also characterised by the growing threats of international terrorism, separatism and extremism, political instability within individual states, multi-directional and unstable vectors of their foreign policies.

However, there is a tendency to move to the level of multilateral structures in matters of ensuring national security, such as the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO RATS), although individual states still tend to take an ambivalent position. Plus, Central Asia has become one of the most important objects of world politics – China, Russia, Turkey, the United States, the EU countries, India and Pakistan.

The neighbourhood of Afghanistan, a classic “failed state” of the late 20th/early 21st centuries, plays a huge role in strengthening new threats.

These trends indicate that in a certain time perspective, a geopolitical transformation of the states of the region is possible in the presence of a complex and contradictory ethnic and sub-ethnic structure, which is unlikely to be overcome even within decades. We can refer to the comparable experience of Africa, where similar problems of artificially drawn borders and the associated tension within states often tend to worsen, rather than resolve. So, on the basis of the old tribal divisions, a new state called “South Sudan”was recently formed here.

Therefore, the development of events in Central Asia for decades to come will be characterised by the interaction of two dynamic internal factors – the struggle for a new national identity, on the one hand, and internal inconsistency due to sub-ethnic and sub-regional structures, on the other. Everything creates real prerequisites for those forces that intend to continue the “Big Game” for regional influence in the new conditions. It is just beginning and the course of further events can only be assumed so far.

Assessment of the situation

The Central Asian region is a very complex space in many respects. The uncertainty factors of the future of Central Asia are primarily related to its geopolitical location. In this regard, under the influence of many developing processes, the situation in the countries of Central Asia in the third decade of the 21st century will be radically different from the position of the states of the region at the beginning of independence – the 1990s, the first decades of the new millennium.

Forecasts of American experts say that the current world of the Pax Americana format will finally come to a decline by the end of the 2020s. This new international situation will directly affect the situation in Central Asia, where from the very beginning of sovereign development since the 1990s, the United States has played a certain role in the development of the countries of the region, the implementation of various regional projects (Greater Central Asia, the New Silk Road, the Northern Distribution Network) and the formation of dialogue mechanisms (for example, C5+1).

It was a certain experience for the development of regional identity and dialogue, but today Central Asia is moving in a new direction. The situation is intriguing because the internal regional changes are layered with critical processes on the global external circuit.

Now the world system is in a state of transit, when the task is to understand what the Central Asian region can be in the next decade, and how it will develop in the conditions of a new global reality (the compression of the American empire).


In the proposed material for the analysis of the situation, we use a scenario modelling method based on the study of real trends with storylines, which allows us to identify various possible options for the future of Central Asia and identify opportunities, threats and challenges, to determine benchmarks when evaluating the current strategy or developing a new policy of action.

The first scenario. The “Caliphate”. This is associated with the growth of Islamic extremism with huge socio-economic and demographic problems in the region, which, combined with inter-clan conflicts in politics, can lead to its implementation, most likely not in the whole of Central Asia, but in some parts of it, especially in the Fergana Valley. In the most extreme case, events in this region, especially in its southern part, may begin to develop according to the long-term scenario that Afghanistan has already passed through.

It is possible that some republics of the region will more actively revise the conceptual foundations of their future development, which are increasingly associated with the construction of an Islamic state. In particular, the possibility of turning one of the weak representatives of the region, Tajikistan, into an Islamic state, in which the head of state is both a political and a religious leader, is not excluded. The political consequences are inevitable.

Experts predict: “Given the potential economic and other weight of Muslim countries, a number of experts in Tajikistan clearly believe that the rapprochement with their brothers in faith will not go unnoticed for their country. The first thing that can be expected is a spiritual and political rapprochement with Islamic countries and a distance from Russia.

On the one hand, Islam without a radical component contains a positive potential. A religious resource promotes consolidation in the definition of identity, and, consequently, leads to the stable development of society. On the other hand, the idea of creating large Islamic caliphates in various regions of Eastern Eurasia is being exploited by various terrorist organisations.

In addition, the idea of a Muslim empire lives and revives in the political culture and consciousness of the religious leaders of Iran, which opposes the neo-imperial ambitions of Turkey. Following them, geopolitical aspirations are awakened in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Israel, which, together with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey, were part of the unified Persian Achaemenid state.

Turkish neo-nationalists see a new destiny of the Turkic peoples, led by Turkey, in order to dominate the Caspian Sea basin and the entire Central Asia, which was not able to subdue the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. With such a formulation of the problems of regionalisation, Muslim leaders turn into a mechanism of the global strategy of foreign powers seeking to control promising areas of extraction of raw materials in the region.

The second scenario. “Sinocentric world”. Under certain conditions and circumstances, control over Central Asia passes into the hands of China. This process will develop in stages: first with the help of economic tools and unobtrusive political influence, then “soft power” will be added to them in the form of spreading language and culture among the elite strata of society.

It is assumed that China will be able to find a common language both with the secular elites of the region, and with the help of its ally Pakistan and the Islamists to direct their strength and energy against Western influence. As a result, an “expanded China” is formed.

In this regard, it is worth recalling that the borders of the Tang Empire of China were much to the west of the modern ones, and the famous Chinese poet Li Bai was born on the territory of present-day Kyrgyzstan, which was then a Chinese province. In addition, the existing borders of the Central Asian states with China are already different from the Soviet ones, since the process of delineating the borders within the framework of the “Shanghai process” was accompanied by shifting them in favour of China.

The third scenario. “The reconstruction of the USSR”. Even ten or twenty years ago, such an outcome of the “new Big Game” seemed unlikely to many. But the possibility of recreating the USSR is not zero, if, of course, Russia manages to quickly form an effective and attractive model of socio-economic development for its neighbours, then the reintegration of the post-Soviet space becomes possible. Some experts say that this is the only way to prevent the explosion of Central Asia.

The fourth scenario. “Central Asian integration” (unlikely). It was actively discussed in the 1990s and was based on the idea and attempts to conduct Central Asian integration on the model of European integration. To date, almost all attempts by the Central Asian States to establish effective intraregional cooperation (for example, through such regional structures as the Central Asian Economic Community and the Organisation of Central Asian Cooperation) have not led to positive results.

Some of the problems in relations between these states remain intractable in the coming decades. The tension in relations, for example, between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, caused by objective reasons, will continue.

As you know, the borders of existing states and their identity were largely artificially formed by the Bolsheviks during the national-territorial demarcation of the 1920s and 1930s. At the same time, they ignored the Zhuz-tribal (Kazakhs, Turkmens), regional (Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks) and tribal (“Sarts”, “Turks”, “Muslims”) definitions, the old political and administrative (Bukhara, Khiva and Kokand khanates) and linguistic (Tajik-speaking Uzbeks of Samarkand and Uzbek-speaking residents of Tajikistan) borders, as well as the natural boundaries of oases (the Fergana Valley, which was part of the Kokand Khanate, the valley of the lower Amu Darya, which was part of the Khanate of Khiva, etc.).

All this caused serious clan-tribal and clan-regional differences in the newly independent states. There is no reason to believe that they will be finally overcome even within decades. By the way, the American idea of creating a “Greater Central Asia” with the inclusion of Afghanistan and even Pakistan with Iran is also attached to this project. But all this still remains only on paper.

The fifth scenario. “Chaos”. The idea of consolidating different peoples on the historical basis of nationalist tendencies is one of the destructive factors that can not just lead to a change in the borders between individual countries of Central Asia and even neighbouring China.

Geopolitical shifts may begin with Chinese Xinjiang, since China has not solved the problem of Uighur separatism as a problem of “divided peoples” with roots in Central Asia. At the same time, the Islamic factor is also important, which, with Uighur separatism, can play the role of a catalyst for the Buddhist problems of Chinese Tibet. The plume of instability will affect other countries.

Experts state: “China has the so-called Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (East Turkestan). It borders with the Afghan Badakhshan, the Wakhan Corridor, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the Murghob district. The main population is Uighurs, a people of Turkic origin, close to the Uzbeks. Radical extremist groups operate on the territory of this autonomous region, which closely cooperate with a number of extremist organisations in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the “Islamic Party of Turkestan”.

The sixth scenario. “Big Uzbekistan” (a sub-variant is “Big Tajikistan”). Attempts to implement the “Greater Tajikistan” or “Greater Uzbekistan” projects covering part of the territory of modern Afghanistan may become an unexpected reality. The “Uzbek project” was implemented in the 1920s as a truncated version of the “Turkestan project”. Modern Uzbek nationalism still bears the imprint of the ideas of pan-Turkism. This was expressed in the 1990s in the desire of the Uzbek authorities to copy the Turkish model of political structure and development, which implies a purely secular nature of the state, an orientation towards enlightened authoritarianism and modernisation rhetoric.

Moreover, Uzbekistan (“Little Turkestan”) tried to become not just a part of the “Turkic world” (which it became a symbol of from Cyrillic to Latin), but also one of the centres of this world. However, over time, relations with Turkey cooled down, and the “common house of Turkestan”, implying regional Uzbek hegemony, did not cause delight among the neighbours. Nevertheless, the elements and strategies that once formed the project of “Greater Turkestan” continue to dominate the national ideology of modern Uzbekistan.

As for Tajik nationalism, it is a mirror image of Uzbek nationalism. Not finding the desired “Big Tajikistan” in modernity, Tajik nationalism looks for its past and reflects on the question of why the current Tajikistan does not correspond to the national ideal.

The idea of “Greater Tajikistan” was formulated in the form of the concept of “Historical Tajikistan”, which was one of the first to be justified by the Tajik historian N. Negmatov. According to his definition, “historical Tajikistan occupied the western foothills of the highest ridges of ‘High Asia’ – the mountain node of the Himalayas and Tibet, the entire Tian Shan, Pamir-Alay, Hindu Kush, the Iranian Highlands, the Amu Darya and Harirud-Murghab basins…”, that is, the entire territory of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, a significant part of the territories of Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, part of the territory of Kazakhstan, China, Afghanistan and Iran.

A complex dedicated to the memory of Ismail Samani, the founder of the Samanid state in the 9th century, when the territory of “Historical Tajikistan” acquired state borders, was built on the central square of the Tajik capital Dushanbe, on the site where a monument to Lenin once stood. Moreover, the strategy in relation to the “diasporas” is to “remind the Tajiks”, who are recorded as Uzbeks, that they are actually Tajiks.

It should also be noted that Tajik nationalism, within which in the 1920s there was a desire to break out of the “Eastern Bukhara” and create a “Big Tajikistan”, still remains a linguistic and cultural nationalism, for which the small state that is called Tajikistan today is not the main value. Perhaps this is what eventually led to the 1992-1997 civil war, which experts called the “crisis of Tajik identity”.

The fact remains that the internally complex and hierarchical Uzbek nationalism proved to be more resistant to shocks than the more culturally homogeneous, but less civil Tajik nationalism. There is no doubt that nationalism and the nationalist way of thinking is a powerful force in Central Asian society today, a force that can both keep new states from disintegration and plunge them into the abyss of conflicts.

In Uzbekistan, the figure of Amir Timur became a national hero and a symbol of national statehood, and in Tajikistan – Ismail Samani, that is, these two statesmen began to embody the aspirations of young states.


In general, these scenarios, given the importance of the Central Asian region for Russia, should be perceived as a certain cause for concern. The ongoing transformations demonstrate that the world of the future will be radically different. These scenario forecasts reflect the changing situation in the region. At the same time, the role of Russia, of course, due to a number of factors, will remain important and high.

But if Central Asia developed in the wake of post-Soviet inertia for the first quarter of a century of sovereign history, then, in all probability, the global mega-trends that are currently emerging and a new generation that is consistently gaining strength will determine the beginning of a completely new historical stage for our region.

The fact is that until the 2020s, Russia did not have a clear strategy for Central Asia. Its actions were sometimes chaotic and uncoordinated. In general, it tried to maintain its influence in Central Asia by providing loans to it or strengthening its military presence there.

Russia continued to be the guarantor of the security of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and created military bases and other facilities in the region. But the course of events and the emerging new geopolitics in the region force the Kremlin to realise the need for a more thoughtful and balanced policy towards Central Asia and try to determine its “strategic depth”.

The fact is that Russia can no longer hope to take a dominant position in the region, at least not for the price it is willing to pay. It needs to increase its importance in the region with minimal efforts, not only through the deployment of its armed forces in Central Asia, preferring to create a basis there for such a distribution of loads and cooperation, in which each of the countries will feel an important and full-fledged participant.

At the same time, it is important for Russia to think through and realise the possibility or impossibility of more active involvement in the Afghan events or to focus on creating an “internal” southern belt in order to maximise its zone of influence to the south, creating the widest possible “border zone”. There are also various options for future actions and policies in the direction of creating a new security belt for Russia, since the Central Asian republics are no longer just a buffer zone for it.

This is how the forecast of the famous American researcher Francis Fukuyama in 2016 comes true: “soon Central Asia will cease to be the periphery of the global economy, turning into its centre”. In Central Asia, with its already complex geographical and political environment, the interests of global players converge in a variety of configurations.

On the one hand, this opens up multi-variance and a wide range of opportunities for cooperation and political balance, and on the other hand, the specific set of players in Central Asia makes this balance extremely complex and difficult to predict. The next 10 years will be critical for the region.

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