Europe seeks allies in central Asia to tackle fallout from Afghanistan

Uzbekistan closes border to Afghans as region fears refugee and security crises

European Council president Charles Michel. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty

European Council president Charles Michel. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty

 

European capitals and top EU officials are trying to deepen co-operation with central Asian states to evacuate people from Afghanistan and ensure that the Taliban’s return to power does not spark regional security and refugee crises.

European Council president Charles Michel spoke to Kyrgyzstan’s president Sadyr Japarov on Monday, and said that “combating terrorism, tackling drug trafficking and providing humanitarian aid are joint priorities” in dealing with fallout from the turmoil in Afghanistan.

Mr Michel also discussed Afghanistan over the weekend with the leaders of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – two other former Soviet states that border Afghanistan – and German foreign minister Heiko Maas is now touring a region where Russian influence remains strong and China’s role is rapidly growing.

Mr Maas thanked Uzbekistan on Monday for acting as a staging post for flights taking refugees out of Kabul, and said the country was “prepared to help” Germany evacuate thousands more Afghans by plane or overland.

After moving on to Tajikistan, Mr Maas said Germany would provide €500 million to the Afghan people and neighbouring countries to cope with the current upheaval.

Just hours later, however, Uzbekistan said it had closed its border with Afghanistan for security reasons and had no plans to reopen it in the near future.

“Any attempts to cross the border, for any reason, will be prevented,” Uzbekistan’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

“Over the last 12 days, Uzbekistan has helped a range of countries conduct a humanitarian operation to evacuate their citizens from Afghanistan, and they arrived in and left Uzbekistan solely by air,” the ministry added.

“Uzbekistan is not accepting Afghan refugees on its territory. It helps with transit, according to which they spend a strictly limited time in the country.”

Unguarded borders

Central Asian states fear that refugees travelling to the West could be stuck on their territory for many months, and that many thousands of Afghans fleeing Taliban rule could cross their remote and largely unguarded land borders.

Moscow shares those concerns, and Russian president Vladimir Putin has warned that Islamist militants could infiltrate central Asia and travel north to Russia under the guise of Afghan refugees.

Some 500 Russian soldiers are now conducting exercises in Tajikistan, and Moscow’s forces plan to take part in a series of other war games close to the Afghan border in September and October with the Kremlin’s central Asian allies.

Russia has kept its Kabul embassy open and has refrained from severe criticism of the Taliban.

Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev has said his country has maintained dialogue with the Taliban for two years and found that they “kept their promises” not to destabilise his country.

“My people need peace and calm,” he said. “For that, I am ready to enter dialogue with anyone.”

Tajik president Emomali Rakhmon has been more critical of the Taliban and, according to his office, warned that his country would not recognise any Afghan government formed “through oppression and persecution, without taking into account the position of the whole Afghan people, and especially all of its national minorities.”

Ethnic Tajiks are believed to make up about a quarter of Afghanistan’s estimated population of 36 million.