European eyes pivot to Central Asia after Afghanistan crisis

In the wake of the stunningly swift fall of Kabul, EU politicians are scrambling to address the short-term consequences of the collapse of the Afghan government: the need to evacuate European nationals remaining in Afghanistan and prepare for a probable influx in refugees which has already stirred up recollections of the 2015 wave of asylum seekers which reshaped European politics.

The Taliban’s return to power will also undoubtedly spark long-term changes in the global geopolitical landscape that will require Europe to recalibrate its foreign policy; top EU diplomat Josep Borrell alluded to one of the principal shifts in remarks to the European Parliament on Thursday, August 19. The European Union, Borrell argued, will have to pay increased attention to the Central Asian region following the recent developments in Afghanistan. “All Central Asian nations will have to be taken into consideration in our diplomatic reach-out”, Borrell urged, pledging that the European bloc would offer greater support to the region’s countries as they grapple with the ramifications of the regime change in Afghanistan. “Central Asia will become a more strategic and important region for us”, the European foreign policy chief underlined, emphasizing the wide-ranging security implications of the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul.

Even before the sharp disintegration in the situation in Afghanistan, the EU was demonstrating increasing interest in Central Asian countries— both as destinations for European investment and as important security and diplomatic partners. Borrell just visited the region in mid-July to attend the Central-South Asia Connectivity Conference. At the summit, held in Tashkent, Borrell underscored the EU’s desire to forge closer ties with its Central Asian allies on any number of topics, ranging from climate issues to border management. Of particular importance, he highlighted, was collaboration on crafting stability and a lasting peace for Afghanistan. Given how radically Afghanistan’s circumstances have changed in the month since the Tashkent conference, the need for closer cooperation between Brussels and its partners in the region is greater than ever.

Several of the Central Asian republics have been quick to respond to the implosion of Afghanistan’s security situation. Kazakhstan rapidly evacuated all of its citizens from the country and has also facilitated the evacuation of other countries’ citizens, including EU nationals and citizens from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. The Kazakh city of Almaty will serve as the temporary home for relocated United Nations diplomats from the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA), with the first flight carrying UNAMA personnel landing in Almaty on 18 August.

While the emphasis currently remains on the immediate task of evacuating foreign nationals and diplomats from Afghanistan, Nur-Sultan seems prepared to play a diplomatic role in the longer-term process of stabilising Afghanistan, in keeping with its goal of becoming a hub of international diplomacy and working pragmatically with partners from Brussels to Beijing. On 19 August, Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev discussed the Afghan situation at a meeting with the EU Special Representative for Central Asia, while the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement calling for a peaceful transition of power in Afghanistan and suggesting that the establishment of an inclusive government respecting the rights of women and national minorities should be a precondition to dialogue with the Taliban.

Other Central Asian republics have yet to engage as publicly on the dramatic events in Afghanistan, though both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have already seen Afghan fugitives arriving at their land borders with Afghanistan as well as by air. Uzbek border authorities have denied entry to a number of those fleeing, but Tashkent has proven willing to help the refugees reach third countries: following high-level discussions, including a phone call between Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Uzbekistan Airways has begun transporting evacuees from Kabul to Frankfurt am Main at the request of the German Embassy in Tashkent.

The need for a rapid normalisation of the situation in Afghanistan has provided the Central Asian republics with a strong common purpose which could spark an uptick in regional collaboration. One recent analysis suggested that the Afghan crisis could serve as Central Asia’s “ASEAN moment”, marking the dawn of a new mechanism for pragmatic cooperation between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan centred around the imperative of diffusing conflict.

Such an alliance could prove a powerful ally for the EU in the region as it navigates a geopolitical landscape shaken up by the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the resurgence of the Taliban and Chinese and Russian power players eager to extend their influence in the region. As the dust settles following the swift changes in Kabul, Josep Borrell’s prediction will undoubtedly pan out that the EU will need to engage more closely with its Central Asian partners.


Image from Flickr (David Mulder), CC 2.0.

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